Irish diplomat Anne Anderson reflects on career in new book

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Anne Anderson blazed a trail for Irish women in the diplomatic corps, serving as Ireland’s first female ambassador in many postings including Washington, D.C. She speaks with Debbie McGoldrick about her new book of speeches and recollections, Thinking With My Pen: Speeches from a Life in Diplomacy, which sheds an illuminating light on how she rose to the top as a woman working in a mostly male world.

*Editor’s Note: This feature first appeared in the December 2 edition of the Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.

When she was a young girl growing up in Ireland of the 1960s, Anne Anderson was an outlier of sorts. From an early age, the former Irish diplomat decided that a college education was her goal, so she put in the extra work to make it happen. 

She undertook one on one Latin tutoring for three years with a kind teacher because no one else in her class wanted to learn the language that was a pre-requisite for college entry.  The same went for algebra, which she needed for a secondary education scholarship.  

What Anderson definitely didn’t want was instruction in typing which so many of her contemporaries were learning. Fearful that such a skill might confine her to secretarial jobs, she never fully mastered the keyboard and somewhat regrets it to this day, because touch typing would have made life easier when composing the hundreds of speeches she delivered in her 45-year career as a trailblazing Irish diplomat who was the first female ambassador to represent her country in five postings, including her final two in the United Nations and Washington, D.C. 

The title of her new book, Thinking With My Pen: Speeches from A Life in Diplomacy, is entirely appropriate as a pen and paper have never been far from Anderson’s hand. The book isn’t a memoir as such but rather a compilation of some of the speeches she considers most meaningful in her career, combined with honest, fascinating insights at the start of each section that provide context. 

Writing a book, Anderson recently told the Irish Voice, had been on her mind for a while. Pandemic lockdown in New York provided her with the time necessary to revisit speeches – the ones in the book were delivered mostly during her five postings as ambassador – and gather her thoughts. 

“I had the gift of time which I do not normally have.  I am a graduate of history, and I had been thinking about how I would bear witness to the past that I had lived,” she said. 

Anderson felt ambivalent about writing a straight up memoir, and with the urging of her daughter Claire, a writer and literary agent based in New York, she decided that a book of speeches with recollections of the times in which they were delivered would be a good compromise.  

The first speech she highlights was given at the American Ireland Fund gala in Washington, D.C. in March of 2017, two months after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. She recalls how it could sometimes be tricky balancing her duties as a diplomat and her personal feelings to deliver an authentic speech. 

Vice President Mike Pence was the guest of honor at the event, and Anderson wanted to send a subtle yet unmistakable message about Ireland’s evolution as a modern, inclusive nation. 

“I needed to find some ways to signal, even in coded language, my lack of sympathy with the values of the new administration and with the vice president’s well-flagged views on homosexuality,” Anderson writes. 

“And so I bit my pen over this short speech…I had deliberately chosen as one of my moments ‘the delight of so many groups in America when Ireland adopted the Marriage Equality Referendum 2015…’ At that point, most of the people in the room rose to their feet with a round of spontaneous applause. There was no doubt: a message was being passed to the vice president.”

Anderson never dreamed, when she began her career in the foreign service in 1972, that she’d be speaking for her country in front of leaders from around the world. She was just 20 years old, with a degree in history and politics from University College Dublin, and thought she’d give the foreign service a try for a couple of years.  At first, she didn’t think she would even get the entry-level job, but once she was in, she was hooked. 

“It was an exhilarating time,” Anderson remembers.  Ireland was on the cusp of membership in the European Economic Community – now the European Union – and change was coming fast. 

“I couldn’t have imagined the kind of work and scope of responsibility I was given,” she recalls. “I was attending meetings in Brussels and engaging with counterparts from other European member states. We were thrown in headfirst and it was exhilarating.” 

But it wasn’t always easy.  Anderson was one of just two women who joined the Irish diplomatic corps in 1972.  (In fact, prior to Ireland’s membership in the EEC a woman working in the diplomatic service had to retire after marriage.) She doesn’t recall any overt discrimination, but the new world she entered was “entirely male conditioned,” she says. 

“All of the senior people in the department were men so you were conscious of your difference. You were always accommodating yourself to an environment that in all sorts of subtle but real ways was conditioned by the male majority.” 

Gender equality is vitally important to Anderson. It’s been a central theme in so much of her advocacy and the advancement of her professional life.   

After only four years on the job she successfully challenged Irish diplomatic officials who at first refused to extend to her a married officer’s allowance during her first posting abroad to Geneva in 1976 – she had wed Martin Wheeler two years prior, and such an allowance was always given to married men.  (She was also questioned by her male bosses over why she wanted to continue using her maiden name.) 

“A certain amount of steel entered my backbone at that point in my career.  It’s not easy to fight these battles when you are still trying to find your footing, but I felt I had to,” she says. 

Decades later, after she applied for a promotion to lead the diplomatic service as secretary-general – by this time she had been Ireland’s first female ambassador to the UN Geneva, the EU, and France — Anderson questioned the lack of a competitive process that led to another colleague getting the job. 

“I knew I was well qualified but I certainly didn’t feel entitlement to the job,” she says. “However, I did feel entitled to a process.” 

Present Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who was then foreign minister, phoned her with the news. “I asked him for some feedback as to how the decision was made, given that I was more experienced than the person who got the job. The minister was extremely courteous but he had nothing substantive to say that would provide insight,” she adds. 

The lack of answers continued to bother Anderson, so she requested an in person meeting with Martin in Dublin.   

“I didn’t want to be a sore loser, but I said to him that I had broad shoulders and if there was anything I should know about my performance or temperament, I could take it,” she says. “But there was nothing forthcoming. Was sexism in play? What is one to conclude in the absence of explanations to the contrary?” 

As it turns out, the consolation prize was better and set Anderson on a course that brought her to the life she enjoys to this day with her partner Dr. Frank Lowe, a New York urologist who she met after she was named Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2009. (She and her husband, Claire’s father, had divorced several years before.) After her time at the UN concluded in 2013, Anderson’s final posting brought her to Washington, D.C. to serve as first female ambassador. 

“Certainly if I hadn’t gone to New York and Washington I would have lost out on so much personally and professionally,” she says. “But if my book is to be helpful to young people, especially young women, it is important that they understand that in addition to all the satisfaction and privilege that came with a job like mine, there are also challenges and you have to be ready to confront them and to fight for what you believe in.” 

Anderson’s book goes into great detail about her interactions with Irish America and its various groups.  Her honesty is enlightening.  

In the introduction to the section titled “Engaging With Irish America”, she writes, “I found some of the interactions personally quite difficult – trying always to demonstrate the courtesy that is owed to Irish America; warmly and deservedly applauding the immensely worthwhile work that is done at community level and sometimes in national or state campaigns, while trying to stay true to myself and to the values that I felt should be upheld by an ambassador representing modern, inclusive Ireland… 

“There were times when I felt weighed down by the traditions prevailing in some segments of Irish America. I recall, for example, a trip to Savannah, Georgia, in the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day 2014…at the Saturday night dinner I was seated beside the grand marshal designate and casually inquired as to how the grand marshal is chosen. He began matter-of-factly reciting the criteria: ‘must be male, must be a practicing Catholic…’ My partner, Frank, also at the table, told me later my jaw visibly dropped as I took this in!” 

Anderson also writes about her “rocky” relationship with the all-male Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Washington, D.C., and the exuberance she felt when the Friendly Sons of Philadelphia admitted her as its first female member in 2016.  

“The speech that I made that night was a joy to write: some speeches are cranked out laboriously; this one just flowed,” she writes. 

Conflicts aside, Anderson notes that she genuinely appreciated her interactions with Irish America. 

“All over the U.S., and often outside the structures of established organizations, there were many, many relaxed and warm occasions of interaction with our diaspora – people of worth and decency, whose commitment to Ireland always made me feel grateful and humble. More so than the set–piece occasions, these are the encounters that will stay in my heart,” she writes. 

Anderson was pleased to discover an inarguable fact during her career – other countries love Ireland. 

“The most telling feedback on that came when I was ambassador to the UN. I was encountering 192 other member states. Again and again, ambassadors from all corners of the world welcomed me with a smile and had a positive story to tell about their engagement with the Irish people, maybe a priest or nun who impacted their education,” she says. 

“Ireland is also immensely respected because of our culture, and that’s why there’s a significant part of the book devoted to that. It’s a point of connection that is known and valued and so important to us.” 

Though she’s been based in New York since March because of the pandemic, Anderson also maintains a home in Dublin. And though she officially retired in 2017 she’s hardly idle. Her position as chair of the Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Peacebuilding for the UN is a natural, given that nearly one-third of her career was focused on UN work. She’s also a non-executive director of the Smurfit Kappa Group in Dublin, and a board member of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House, and the Druid Theatre based in Galway. 

What would Anderson advise a young woman thinking about a diplomatic career for Ireland or indeed anywhere in today’s day and age? 

“I would say that it’s a wonderful career, and to be proud of the Ireland you are representing. I would say be confident in your role, but don’t take anything for granted.  There are still challenges to be confronted and battles to be won,” she says. 

“Progress has undoubtedly been made, but progress can be eroded.  Do not take it for granted.” 

It’s been an enriching and history making life for sure. “I can’t think of any other career that would have given me the responsibility and satisfaction that I had, and I feel very privileged,” Anderson says.   

“I was fortunate enough to be in the most interesting posts at the most interesting times.” 

(Thinking With My Pen: Speeches from A Life in Diplomacy is available from Amazon, and BarnesandNoble.com.) 

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