Past to Present: The Expanding Role of Women in Global Security

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I think back to the legacy of Lucille Atcherson Curtis, the first woman to join the ranks of Foreign Service for the U.S. Department of State. In 1920, after working for women’s voting rights and volunteering overseas to help France rebuild after the First World War, she passed the Foreign Service Exam with a top-tier score and went on to serve in Switzerland and Panama. Today, I am proud to be among a growing number of women diplomats following in her footsteps to bring together diplomacy, defense, and development as one of the State Department’s Foreign Policy Advisors, or POLAD, working to support senior U.S. military leaders around the world.

My decision to join the Foreign Service dates back to my experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Czechoslovakia, right about the time the Berlin Wall started to come down. My interest in foreign languages and diverse cultures made the Foreign Service a perfect match for me.  

Since joining, I have found there is never a slow or dull day in this job! As a diplomat currently assigned to U.S. Army South, part of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), I’m reminded that just like when I’m working overseas, success is all about building relationships. That means bringing together experts and ideas from across the U.S. government, as well as building bridges to our foreign partners so that we can meet shared security challenges. As POLAD, I particularly cherish the people-to-people aspect of my job where I work to build bridges by engaging directly with local communities through outreach and mentoring activities.

In the last month alone, I traveled with U.S. Army South’s Commanding General to USOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami and to four countries: Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In each of those countries I met with our U.S. ambassadors, country team members, and partner nations’ military leadership to discuss strategic priorities, and to build relationships. Back at base in Miami, we also held a Central American Regional Leaders Conference for more than 100 interagency participants, including a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras. As the sole senior-ranking woman at the head table, I was proud to deliver my brief to the group in Spanish on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Today, approximately one-third of current POLADs are women -- a figure that is expected to rise to approximately 40 percent this year. 

Women have long proven a powerful force for change, from the days of Lucille Atcherson Curtis to the newest generation of women diplomats serving in all corners of the world. Together we look forward to continuing the proud legacy of working to build peace and citizen security in the years to come.

About the author: Bridget F. Gersten is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving as a Foreign Policy Advisor or POLAD at U.S. Army South (ARSOUTH) in San Antonio, Texas.

The author (center)in a group photo at the “Sisters in Arms” U.S. Army Mentoring event. [Photo courtesy of U.S. Army South]
March 23, 2016


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