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.’

Susanna Erlandsson giving a presentation to the
Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague
on her research. Photo: Rimko van der Maar

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

Publication: Off the record: Margaret van Kleffens and the gendered history of Dutch World War II diplomacy