August 23, 2013 — After her recent confirmation as ambassador at large for global women's issues, Catherine Russell is working to establish women's interests as a permanent priority at the State Department and on the global agenda, the New York Times reports.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton created the position in 2009 "to elevate one of [her] longtime causes," the Times notes. With current Secretary of State John Kerry primarily focused on the Middle East peace process, some observers are questioning whether "women's issues over all will get the attention they once did," according to the Times.
Although Russell has not previously held a position dedicated to women's issues, she has worked on related matters during her career. As an aide to Vice President Biden when he was a senator, she helped develop the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and, later, an international version of the measure. In 2012, Russell spearheaded a multi-departmental effort to develop a global plan to reduce violence against women.
In her current role, Russell aims to carry out a mission Clinton articulated in an April speech, when she said she created the position to "weave the perspective of women's issues 'into the fabric of American Foreign policy.'" Specifically, Russell said she wants to build on the efforts of the Office of Global Women's Issues, with its staff of 24 and a 2012 budget of $3.4 million, to "put in place the structure and the mechanisms to keep moving this effort forward long after all of us are gone."
Russell faces several obstacles that could hinder the success of her initiatives, including doubts about whether her role and women's issues in general will receive as much attention now that Kerry has replaced Clinton. According to the Times, the White House has noted its support, with Biden stating in an interview that Russell has the support of himself, Kerry and the president.
However, others "see women's issues as a marginal focus when there are so many violent conflicts around the world," according to the Times. For example, Kenneth Pollack -- a former staff member at the National Security Council who now works as a scholar at the Brookings Institute -- noted that until "'you have an answer to the military problem in Syria, you can't solve any other problem'" there.
Meanwhile, Russell is trying to emphasize women's issues in diplomatic talks. In addition, new foreign service officers are now required to take a course on women's issues (Wheaton, New York Times, 8/22).