Ambassador Faith Whittlesey, a former Chairman of the Board of Trustees at IWP, returned to the Institute on Friday October 5th for the launching of the first biography of her distinguished life and career. Written by Dr. Thomas J. Carty, Chairman of the Social Sciences Department at Springfield College (Massachusetts), Backwards in High Heels: Faith Whittlesey, Ronald Reagan’s “Madam Ambassador” in Switzerland and the West Wing recounts her heretofore overlooked impact on Republican Party politics and U.S. foreign policy.
Speaking to more than 120 American and Swiss attendees, Dr. Carty explained Ambassador Whittlesey’s pioneering experience as a woman in U.S. politics and foreign policy. During the 1970s, she emerged as the highest ranking female politician in Pennsylvania, and she served President Ronald Reagan’s administration as the only female member of the president’s White House senior staff from 1983 to 1985.
Dr. Carty’s title, he explained, derived from a quotation Whittlesey popularized during a speech she made on behalf of President Reagan. At a national convention of the Teamsters truck drivers’ union, she alluded to the legendary 1930s dancing duo by reminding the audience of women’s contributions to society, saying “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards in high heels.” Dr. Carty suggested that this quotation symbolized the multiple challenges that Whittlesey, as a widowed mother of three, overcame during her time as a public servant and private sector professional.
Ambassador Whittlesey entered University of Pennsylvania law school in 1960 (on full scholarship) at a time when less than 3 percent of women held graduate degrees, and she won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1972 during a period when less than 5 percent of women held seats in state legislatures nationwide. After nearly four decades in public service and private business, Whittlesey continues to serve on several corporate boards even as men outnumber women on U.S. boards of directors by more than 4 to 1.
In their introductory remarks, IWP founder and President Dr. John Lenczowski and Owen Smith, current Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Institute, both related their eyewitness accounts of Whittlesey’s significance to Reagan’s revolutionary bearing on contemporary U.S. politics. Dr. Lenczowski expressed his gratitude for Whittlesey’s support when he served on Reagan’s National Security Council staff. Ambassador Whittlesey also generously offered her “time and talent” to IWP, he noted-most notably through her service as the Institute’s Chairman of the Board for six years. Mr. Smith focused his comments on Ambassador Whittlesey contributions to President Reagan’s peace through strength policy, which led to the downfall of the Soviet Union without direct military engagement.
Dr. Carty dedicated the bulk of his comments to explaining Ambassador Whittlesey’s creative and effective approach to diplomacy. According to Carty, Whittlesey demonstrated a remarkable ability to create positive and lasting relationships with important opinion-makers in both the public and private sectors. During her time as ambassador to Switzerland, as well as in her post-ambassadorial career, she listened carefuly as well as spoke. In particular, Whittlesey’s intervention helped avoid a bilateral crisis related to Swiss banks by cultivating trust between U.S. and Swiss negotiators. As a direct result, Switzerland’s continued strong economic and political friendship with the United States proved important as the Soviet Union sought to undermine U.S. authority and credibility around the world.
According to Dr. Carty, Whittlesey transferred her skills at relationship-building to the private sector following her career as a public servant. Recruited to serve as Chairman of the American Swiss Foundation in 1989, she initiated the foundation’s signature program, the annual Young Leaders Conference, which brings 25 Americans from business, government, academics, and the media to Switzerland to engage in high-level discussions with 25 Swiss counterparts for a week. Such person-to-person networking has strengthened bilateral relations in a number of sectors.
Dr. Carty concluded by stating that Whittlesey’s model as a pioneer for women and for diplomats deserves greater recognition. Due to her ability to listen and to respect other opinions, she earned the trust of many adversaries, who returned the favor by hearing and responding to her point of view.
The event concluded with closing comments from Ambassador Whittlesey, who stressed the importance of organizations such as The Institute of World Politics. Given the critical role of an educated citizenry to maintain “morally ordered liberty” in a democracy, she praised IWP’s preparation of students for engagement in statecraft and leadership. In Whittlesey’s view, Swiss and Americans share a genuine and shared commitment of to defend freedom and family. The audience rose and delivered a standing ovation.