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Women in diplomacy and Brazil’s still male-centered portrait to the world


In the 1980s, Belchior — a Brazilian singer — already protested against how old white men controlled our politics in his song ‘’No Maior Jazz’’ (“In The Biggest Jazz”). Male overrepresentation, and the consequent low representation of other social groups in Brazilian politics, remains a challenge until this day — including in national foreign policy. It is within this context that this text aims to analyze the story behind the documentary “Exteriores - Mulheres Brasileiras na Diplomacia” (“Exteriors, Brazilian women in diplomacy”), directed by Ivana Diniz. Published in 2018, it celebrates the centenary of women's participation in the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Itamaraty).

Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Itamaraty) - Picture taken from the documentary “Exteriores - Mulheres Brasileiras na Diplomacia.”


It is possible to understand from the documentary that the history of women in diplomacy is one of resistance and combating prejudice. As mentioned by Ambassador Gisela Padovan, women’s space in political careers is not obvious, nor is it seen as a right — it must be constantly conquered. Maria José de Castro Rebello Mendes debuted this achievement when she became Brazil’s first woman diplomat and public servant, 16 years before the female right to vote was nationally instituted. Despite Itamaraty’s pioneer work in terms of women’s political participation, Nilo Peçanha, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1918, declared: “I do not know if women would successfully exercise diplomacy, given that discretion and competency are required [...] It would certainly be better for their prestige to continue running the household […].”

Such discriminatory action was not an exception. In fact, the documentary shows us that during the 20th century, sexism imposed institutional barriers on women in diplomacy. The film cites two examples that specifically caught my attention. The Oswaldo Aranha Reformation is one of them, as it prohibited women from pursuing a diplomatic career from 1938 to 1954. In addition, in 1969, the Institute of Aggregation prohibited diplomat couples from working together overseas. As a result, many female diplomats would give up their jobs to accompany their spouses when they served abroad. This practice was known as “aggregation,” and it prevented the professional advancement of many female diplomats, as it forced them to choose between their marriage and career aspirations. Although the documentary points out that these forms of oppression were legally overcome at the end of the past century, they have had lasting consequences for women in diplomacy.

Today, women represent only 23% of Itamaraty’s working community. No Brazilian woman has ever occupied the Chancellery or the General Secretariat of the Ministry, the two highest positions within the institution. Our country’s embassies in Washington, Paris, Lisbon and Buenos Aires have also never been headed by women. And when it comes to black women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, the challenges are even more expressive. While “Exteriores - Mulheres Brasileiras na Diplomacia'' celebrates many women’s victories, it also introduces us to the challenges that have yet to be overcome. These, as diplomat Viviane Rios Balbino points out, reflect a larger social structure, which will require deliberate efforts to be transformed.

Maria José de Castro Rebello Mendes, the first Brazilian woman to become a diplomat. Picture taken from the documentary “Exteriores - Mulheres Brasileiras na Diplomacia.”


Fortunately, many women strive to continue writing the history of achievements started by Maria Mendes. They also seek to inspire more girls to pursue this career. The #MaisMulheresDiplomatas (#MoreWomenInDiplomacy) hashtag is a great example of this. The project consists of sharing various short stories told by the Ministry’s female employees on YouTube. If you become more interested in this topic after the documentary, watching these videos is a great way to learn more about women who challenge the male-centered portrait with which Brazil presents itself to the world through diplomacy. Additionally, if you are interested in International Relations, and would like to improve your negotiation and public speaking skills in order to join the female workers at Itamaraty, the Model UN Simulations (MUNs) are a great opportunity for you to do so. Inside the world of MUNs, the MicroMUN organization is one that aims to democratize these activities, and it is made up entirely of women. In fact, I would like to take this moment to thank MicroMUN, as I got to know the documentary “Exteriores - Mulheres Brasileiras na Diplomacia” through the group’s Week of Lectures in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Indeed, the film “Exteriores” is truly inspiring, and it introduced me to the women who came before me and allowed many other girls like me to dream of a diplomatic career. My current professional aspiration is the legacy of their courage. They have further inspired me to contribute to the increase in representation within Brazil’s diplomacy and foreign policy sectors. Altogether, through the documentary, it is possible to recognize that women’s underrepresentation in politics is an old issue. However, as Belchior would say: “the past is like clothes that don’t fit us anymore.”

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