Diplomatic wives’ political clout often overlooked
7 March 2019
Many 20th-century accounts of international relations and diplomacy often leave out the role of women. Diplomats’ wives were not officially employed, but diplomacy was frequently based on couples working together.
‘If you’re interested in the workings of international relations and diplomacy in the 20th century, you can’t ignore the gender aspect and the role women had in diplomacy,’ says Susanna Erlandsson, a postdoctoral history researcher at the Department of History.
One of her subjects of study has been Margaret van Kleffens, the wife of Eelco van Kleffens, the Dutch Foreign Minister during the Second World War. The study is part of Erlandsson’s research project ‘Behind the scenes: how non-officials and personal politics helped shape the post-war world, 1940–1958’ , funded by the Swedish Research Council.
Example from the Netherlands
‘Margaret van Kleffens’ diary entries show how, on a daily basis, she helped her husband maintain and expand his diplomatic network to build diplomatic trust. She herself sometimes also represented the Netherlands.’
To influence Winston Churchill’s attitude towards the Netherlands, Margaret van Kleffens also worked through his wife, Clementine Churchill. But van Kleffens’ contribution to Dutch foreign policy is not included in the usual historical accounts.
‘The authors seem to assume that her role was private, not political. But if you want to understand how diplomacy worked, you can’t distinguish between the personal and the political socialising.’
The diplomatic system was based on a diplomat and his wife working together, with the latter assumed to be apolitical, with no political agenda of her own.
‘This enabled diplomatic wives to exert subtle influence and perform delicate tasks. At the same time, it was possible to deny the political importance of what they did and said.’
Diplomatic wives stand out in other sources
To find out the political significance of diplomatic wives, one needs to consult sources other than the official documents at the foreign ministry concerned.
‘The women’s role often looks more prominent in, for example, personality reports and diaries, but also in some diplomatic reports. Sources like that aren’t always used by people who write about the history of international relations.’
Wives assessed informally
Diplomatic wives were not employees, nor were they paid. They performed work free of charge for the foreign ministry.
‘But they saw themselves as having careers as diplomatic wives.’
A diplomat without the ‘right’ wife often found it difficult to have a diplomatic career.
‘It was extremely important for a diplomat to have a wife who could be charming and congenial. At dinners and other receptions, the wife was always, for example, seated next to the politically most important diplomat and served as the man’s eyes and ears.’
The central role played by diplomatic wives emerges clearly, in particular, from the interest taken by the foreign ministry in their diplomats’ wives.
‘Right up to the 1960s it was a common practice, for instance, to hold cocktail parties to which budding diplomats were invited to bring their wives, who were appraised informally.’
Find out more
Blog entry on the research: Who was Margaret van Kleffens and why should we care? On gender blindness in diplomatic history
New light cast on female pelvises in University collections
04 mars 2022
Many of the University’s museums currently hold preserved specimens of embryos, fetuses, newborns, and women’s pelvises. During the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, these formed part of embryological and obstetric collections at...
350 years old remains in a Stone Age site in Portugal
25 februari 2022
An African man who lived just 350 years ago was buried in a prehistoric shell midden in Amoreira in Portugal. This was very surprising because Amoreira and other midden sites in the Muge region are well known by archaeologists for the cemeteries o...
ERC Starting Grant for historian of ideas
31 januari 2022
The Starting Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in its 2021 call have been announced. The awardees include an Uppsala researcher: Ylva Söderfeldt, Senior Lecturer at the University’s Department of History of Science and Ideas.
Saying and doing are two different things
18 januari 2022
COLUMN. While more and more people say Yes and Amen when you ask them about the importance of living in a more environmentally conscious and sustainable way, few actually change their behaviour, writes Katarina Graffman, PhD in cultural anthropology.
Telling the story of Sweden’s Jews
11 november 2021
"There are many ways of being Swedish, and being Jewish is one of them." These words set the seal on Carl Henrik Carlsson’s history of the Jews in Sweden (Judarnas historia i Sverige). Carlsson is a researcher at Uppsala University, and his book h...
Campus Gotland students unearth Iron Age warrior
10 september 2021
Uppsala University archaeology students’ summer excavations on the island of Gotland turned up an exciting surprise: they found a warrior, with sword and spurs, in an Iron Age grave in Buttle Änge. Now the skeleton and grave goods will be analysed...
How Linnaean learning spread far and wide
07 juni 2021
An inspiring middle-school teacher sparked Linda Andersson Burnett’s interest in history. Now a researcher in the history of science and ideas at Uppsala University, she is currently studying Carl Linnaeus and his influence, which extends far beyo...
Elly Griffiths is giving this year’s Adam Helms Lecture
03 juni 2021
Each year, Uppsala University and the Swedish Publishers’ Association arrange a lecture in memory of the publisher Adam Helms. This year’s lecture will be given by the internationally renown British crime novelist Elly Griffiths on 16 September 20...
New thesis: Finery for fashionable ladies
11 maj 2021
When the first descriptions of knitting and crochet were published in Swedish, in the mid-19th century, such handiwork was described as the finest of all feminine handicrafts, for the benefit and pleasure alike of the trend-conscious, diligent mid...
Linnaeus’ complicated relationship with racism
07 maj 2021
Since June 2020, Carl Linnaeus has been a subject of debate in Sweden and around the world. What sparked it off were the actions of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Statues of slave owners have been lambasted or destroyed. In Sweden, the dis...
Conspiracy theories characterise views in and about Europe
03 maj 2021
Conspiratorial narratives of internal disintegration and external threats affect views in the European Union and Europe to an increasing extent. Our trust in society is put to the test in crises such as COVID-19 when various groups are singled out...
Nordic conspiracy theories through the ages
01 mars 2021
Conspiracy theories are becoming more common in the world, and the Nordic countries are no exception. Are some conspiracy theories unique to the Nordic countries? What typical narratives are disseminated? And when did this really start? A new book...
The plague year of 1710 was also a difficult year
24 februari 2021
As historians, it is our job to take a step back and give perspective to our current situation. For anyone looking back, it isn’t hard to find other difficult years. In Sweden’s past, 1710 was undoubtedly one such year, writes Jonas Lindström, res...
Sustainable development the focus of new graduate school at Campus Gotland
21 januari 2021
On 18 January, Uppsala University’s new multidisciplinary graduate school opened at Campus Gotland. Its focus is on sustainable development. This involves research on key societal challenges within changing energy systems, sustainable consumption,...
Archives crucial for Freemasons’ identity
22 december 2020
The Order of Freemasons’ meticulous archives are fundamental to their identity. The unique structure of the masonic archives reinforces the secrecy and mystique of the self-image that has been fashioned by the Order — and characterises it in the e...
Grants for research on the impact of AI on people and society
15 december 2020
In a major 10-year national research programme, two Wallenberg Foundations are supporting research on the impact of the ongoing technology shift, involving digitalisation and artificial intelligence, on our society and our behaviour. Two of the gr...
Linnaeus and Rudbeck medallists chosen
10 december 2020
This year the Rudbeck Medal is awarded to Professors Olle Eriksson, Inger Sundström Poromaa and Maria Ågren, while the Linnaeus Medal is awarded to Professor Kerstin Lindblad Toh and Chairman Dai-Won Yoon at Hallym University in South Korea.
Turkic cultural heritage in Uppsala
07 december 2020
Uppsala University has a rich collection of manuscripts, printed material, art objects and maps related to the Ottoman Empire and other Turkic cultures. How did they come to Uppsala? This story is told in a new book “Turcologica Upsaliensia. An Il...
Fallen in battle, these Swedish Vikings are part of a larger genetic puzzle
17 september 2020
In a recently published article in the journal Nature, 90 researchers from various countries have collaborated to develop new knowledge about the Viking-era population. Marie Allen, professor of forensic genetics at Uppsala University, has contrib...
The VR game that takes you to medieval Visby
14 augusti 2020
Using a VR helmet, you can try your hand at archery in 14th century Visby. This new VR game has been developed by the game company Disir, which was founded by a game developer and three archaeologists, of which two research at Uppsala University.