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  • A Diplomat's Wife in Mexico:Creating Professional, Political, and National Identities in the Early Twentieth Century
  • Molly M. Wood (bio)

Early in 1916, Edith O'Shaughnessy, the wife of a former American diplomat, added the final touches to her first book, an account of her experiences in Mexico from 1911 to 1914. By publishing this book, which was marketed as a woman's travel narrative, O'Shaughnessy engaged in one of the primary narrative modes by which women in the early twentieth century entered into public discourse.1 O'Shaughnessy believed her book, A Diplomat's Wife in Mexico, would educate Americans about Mexico and about the troubled relationship between the United States and Mexico. The book, highly critical of President Woodrow Wilson's Mexican policies, was a rousing success. O'Shaughnessy capitalized on her new celebrity status by campaigning actively against Wilson in the upcoming presidential election. Her partisan activism, four years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment gave her the right to vote, reflects the already well documented political visibility of many middle-class and upper-middle-class white women in the early twentieth century.2 Yet O'Shaughnessy was not a typical female Progressive-era political activist. As the wife of an American diplomat, she had lived outside the United States for most of her adult life, far away, both geographically and intellectually, from the domestic reform work that had mobilized so many other women in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This paper explores the ways in which O'Shaughnessy's experiences in Mexico helped her to create several overlapping identities as a traveler, a diplomat's wife, an author, a political activist, and a foreign policy expert. Proceeding under the feminist assumption that gender, in concert with race, class, and specific geographic place, shapes what travelers see and how they interpret what they encounter, we find Edith O'Shaughnessy's experiences can help us think more broadly about the process by which American women travelers form new identities as a result of their experiences in other countries.3

O'Shaughnessy's unique story also prompts us to consider the ways in which [End Page 104] gender helps us explain and understand relationships between nations. Cynthia Enloe, Emily Rosenberg, and others have shown gender to be a powerful, though largely overlooked, construct of international relations because, as Kristin Hoganson states in her study of the Spanish-American War, "the conduct of foreign policy does not occur in a vacuum," and gender is an important contributor to the "cultural frameworks" that affect policy.4 Others have explored the political role of gender as it has been manifest through the experiences of religious missionaries, military wives, and other travelers, including diplomatic wives.5 Margaret Strobel, Mary Procida, and others have written specifically and convincingly about the wives of colonial officials and administrators and the role of gender in the creation and maintenance of empire.6 Careful analysis of gender in these contexts has encouraged scholars to rethink the supposed boundaries between "foreign" and "domestic" policy as well as the long held notion that women and men operated in separate "private" and "public" spheres.7 Edith O'Shaughnessy's story, exemplified by the ways in which she crosses geographic, professional, and political boundaries, contributes to this growing body of literature and encourages us to frame questions about the interaction of the elemental components of identity—gender, race, and class—with geographic place, professional identity, and partisan politics.

O'Shaughnessy shares much in common with other women travelers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is her quasi-official status and professional role as the wife of a diplomat that initially provides us with a new way of thinking about the interactions of gender, class, and the conduct of American foreign relations. From 1904 to 1911, O'Shaughnessy's husband, Nelson, held a series of low-level diplomatic appointments in Copenhagen, Berlin and Vienna. Nelson O'Shaughnessy's education and legal training led him to the U.S. Foreign Service, as did his desire to settle in a profession that would enhance his social status. However, Nelson and Edith underestimated...


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