Part Five–RPCV Ambassadors: Women in the State Department

JFK’s call to the Peace Corps men and women “from every race and walk of life.” One woman who responded was Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where her mother was a secretary and her father an attorney, and where she had developed an international interest early.

In her public high school, Hebrew was offered because of the large local Jewish population, so she decided to study the language. This interest led to participation in an international exchange program in Israel (1978-1979), while she was still in college.

“I was too young to hear the President Kennedy’s speech, but as a young child I saw the commercials of young American men and women working in far off places training the trainer. The people in the commercials came in a variety of ethnicities and it was easy to imagine some of the Africans might even be African Americans helping others. The work shown in those commercials looked thrilling and adventurous to a young girl in Ohio and a real opportunity to do good in the world. My parents instilled in all of us as children the sense of responsibility to help make the world a better place. The starting point was education.

“A few months before I was to graduate with my BA from George Washington University, I walked over to the Peace Corps office to get and start an application. They seemed to believe my study abroad in Israel, my summer job supporting a social worker and my Hebrew language provided a solid foundation to do health work in Arabic in the Sultanate of Oman.

“I graduated on a Friday and started Peace Corps training the next Monday. My father did not approve of “volunteer” work — I had school loans to pay off, but my mother understood and expressed her pride that I’d been accepted.

“I was the only African American in my group and felt the burden to do well, while occasionally feeling isolated. I did get the highest score on our language test and during my work for the next two years, I came to understand that being brown could be an advantage in representing and making friends for America! Everything about me as an American, my color, my gender, my Ohio-bred friendliness, served me well as a PCV and a diplomat.”

Gina joined the Foreign Service in 1985 and was first posted in Baghdad, Iraq, then spent time in Indonesia and Egypt. Returning state-side she became Special Assistant for Middle Eastern and African Affairs to Deputy Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger (1991-1993). After a year of intensive Arabic language training in Tunisia, she became a Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, (1994-97), focusing on Palestinian-Israeli relations.

From Tel Aviv, she returned to the U.S. to serve in the President Bill Clinton Administration as part of the National Security Council staff.  At the NSC she was Director for Near East-South Asian Affairs and then Director of Legislative Affairs.

She next became Senior Advisor for Middle Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, followed by a position as Policy Advisor for the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the U.S. Department of Defense and spent time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

These experiences led to her becoming the first woman Counsel General in the U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia, and while there she received a citation for “acts of courage” during a deadly 2004 al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the Consulate.

After another stint back in Washington, Gina was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Malta in 2011, making her the first non-politically appointed Ambassador to that country since 1989.

Responding to an interview question from Leslie Bassett, coordinator of Women Ambassadors.

Serving American at the State Department, Gina, summed up her career, saying, “I do not give up. I’ve been fired twice, though once I refused to go and was able to turn the situation around. I have found low expectations of me as a minority to be a bigger obstacle than low expectations of me as a woman, though they both remain in good supply in the State Department. I struggle against frustration at the lack of seriousness about increasing diversity in the department’s senior levels. We have to be held accountable for the results.”

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