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United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice

Susan Rice

Throughout March, the Democrats will present an ongoing blog series celebrating American women of distinction, both past and present. Staff members at the Democratic National Committee and several female leaders in the Democratic Party have been asked to write about influential women in our country’s history and leaders who continue making contributions today. 

“She understands the complex threats we face in the twenty-first century, and when those challenges demand action from the international community, Susan gets it done through a combination of skilled diplomacy and sheer determination.-President Barack Obama

Susan Elizabeth Rice, the first African American woman to be nominated and serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has spent her entire life ahead of the curve. Rice possesses the winning combination of brains and athleticism that allow her to compete at the highest level and traverse the intricacies of foreign policy.

Born in 1964 Washington, D.C. to education policy scholar, Lois Dickson Fitt and Cornell University economics professor and governor of the Federal Reserve System, Emmett J. Rice—both economics and foreign policy were often a topic of discussion at the Rice family dinner table. Rice who was a three-sport athlete excelled in all in her early endeavors—serving as student body president and graduating valedictorian from the prestigious National Cathedral School in DC.  From there, she went on to attend Stanford University, where she received a Truman Scholarship (a federal scholarship for college juniors for demonstrated leadership potential and commitment to public service) and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa following graduation with a B.A. in history.  Rice first demonstrated her no-nonsense negotiating skills when she garnered the ire of Stanford administrators by creating a fund that withheld alumni donations until the university divested from South Africa—or the country ended apartheid.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history in 1986, Rice attended New College Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar—gaining recognition for her paper on Rhodesia’s (modern day Zimbabwe) transition from white rule. Her early interest and study of African policy was noted and the paper garnered recognition from the Royal Commonwealth Society’s Walter Frewen Lord Prize as well as the Chatham House-British International Studies Association Prize.

Following her studies, Rice took on the role of director of international organizations and peacekeeping for the NSC where she was a witness to the human tragedy of Rwanda. Watching that atrocity happen during her tenure there shaped her outlook on foreign policy:  

"I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of decomposing corpses outside and inside a church," she says. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. It makes you mad. It makes you determined. It makes you know that even if you're the last lone voice and you believe you're right, it is worth every bit of energy you can throw into it."

Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright suggested that Rice be appointed Special assistant to the President and Senior Director of African affairs in 1995; at 28, she was the youngest ever to hold the title. 

Rice went on to serve as a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute and then went on to advise then candidate, Barack Obama on foreign policy. Subsequent to President Obama’s election she was nominated to be the U.N. Ambassador for the United States.  The Senate confirmed her on January 22, 2009.

This Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight Susan Rice because she operates successfully in a world that is often difficult for women.  Her expertise on African policy and penchant for expressing her views gives me and other women a role model for many years to come.