U.S. Ambassador to U.K. Helps Kick Off March’s Women Who Empower Events

Northeastern’s London campus hosted U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Jane D. Hartley as part of Women Who Empower: Our World, a global event series celebrating Women’s History Month. The Women Who Empower initiative kicked off its tenth year with an event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last week, to be followed by events on each campus in Northeastern’s global university system.

Hartley is only the second woman to be U.S. ambassador to the U.K. in an almost 230-year diplomatic history between the two countries. The one woman who preceded her was Anne Armstrong, who held the post under President Gerald Ford nearly 50 years ago.

At the U.S. embassy there is a hall where portraits of the former ambassadors to the United Kingdom hang. 

“Ironically, Armstrong’s portrait is there, but hers is a little tiny thing. You look at it and go, ‘Come on, we can do better than this,’” she said.

The London event took place at Devon House, with about 200 people in attendance. Hartley was welcomed by President Joseph E. Aoun and Senior Vice President for University Advancement Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray.

In her introduction, MacGillivray called Hartley an “elegant and experienced diplomat” and a “tireless advocate for women’s empowerment.” The conversation was led by author, global brand marketing entrepreneur and Northeastern parent Julietta Dexter.

In a fireside chat, the ambassador spoke with Dexter about her own diplomatic career, the future of global diplomacy, lessons in women’s leadership, as well as the role of technology.

“What will be the impact of artificial intelligence on diplomacy?” asked President Aoun, who authored “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” and is a frequent speaker on the impact of AI across industries.

“I don’t think we know that quite yet,” Hartley said. “There are some obvious things, like the State Department may need to spend less on translators in the future, for example. A lot of people have talked about national security threats, and I think what is important is going to be regulation, because the private sector is going to be leading on this, rather than the public sector.”

When asked by Dexter about her professional journey, the ambassador talked about the brilliant women who lifted her up.

“I worked at the White House long ago. Talk about being the only woman,” Hartley said. “I mean, there were very few women when I worked there, but I was very lucky because I happened to have one of the senior women there as my boss. I learned so much from her and it made me realize the importance of mentors.”

Hartley, 72, has served under three U.S. presidents: Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

She was ambassador to France from 2014 to 2017, again becoming only the second American woman to hold the post in two centuries.

“In France, I thought my focus would be on economics, on trade and culture, and that sort of thing. I got there and two months later there was a terrorist attack. It was during the days of ISIS terrorism, which were pretty terrifying,” she said.

Hartley was in Paris during a series of coordinated terrorist attacks by suicide bombers and shooters in 2015 that killed 130 and injured nearly 400. The devastation also included a mass shooting of 90 people at a concert at the Bataclan theater.

“When the Bataclan happened I was rushed to a safe room which was like something out of ‘Homeland,’” she said. “I had to take some calls inside this secure room and I received a call from President Obama. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Are you okay? Are your people okay?’ That was his first question before getting to work.

Hartley was asked about the much-feted “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K. “I didn’t know how strong it was until I actually got here,” she said. “I think it is unlike any other relationship between two countries. Remember, I was in France, which is also an ally. But in Britain there’s such history, there’s an institutional trust.”

“I think we share things with you guys and vice versa that we don’t share with anybody else. During the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was the U.S. and U.K. intelligence services working together.”

When asked about inspirational women, Hartley brought up Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state. “I’m in awe of her, or maybe it’s not awe exactly. I just really respect the way that she stays involved. She’s really inspirational. She doesn’t just put her name on it, she comes and does it,” Hartley said.

Hartley returned to the subject of her first boss at the White House, whom she described as “a real powerhouse.” “She taught me to always be prepared, to always do my homework, to show up on time. Then she told me to speak my mind and not be afraid. She said my opinions were as important as anybody’s else’s, even if they were older and louder,” said Hartley, encouraging students to do the same.

Hartley shared with students some of the wisdom she acquired from working with President Obama, especially when it comes to compromising and pivoting to find a solution that might not be completely ideal. “With age I have learned that you can’t be too rigid,” she said. “You have to stand up for what you believe in.”

Asked what advice she would give to others to maintain their authentic selves among the pressure of doing a big job, Hartley replied simply: “Get a dog.”

Hartley’s Australian shepherd dog, Bear, is something of an Instagram star, she explained, and walking him is one of the few occasions she has to get some balance.

Since the 1950s, U.S. ambassadors to the U.K. have lived in Winfield House, a 35-bedroom townhouse in Regent’s Park, which has the largest private garden in central London save for Buckingham Palace. “I like walking Bear every day and because there isn’t a very good phone signal in the park, it’s one of the few places people can’t get me,” she laughed.

Someday Hartley’s portrait will be added to the hall at the London embassy, and it will no doubt be as large and impressive as all her ambassadorial predecessors. In the meantime, she’s optimistic.

MacGillivray referenced an article in which Hartley said she was serving during a really extraordinary period of history with lots of challenges. She asked, “Looking out at all these young faces, can you tell us what it is that makes you feel hopeful?”

Hartley’s message was of hope. “We have to make sure that we never forget how important democracy and freedom are, and that freedom is worth fighting for. … When I look at the world, sure I see challenges, but I also see dynamism and the opportunity to do so many things,” she said.

We have to make sure that we never forget how important democracy and freedom are, and that freedom is worth fighting for. When I look at the world, sure I see challenges, but I also see dynamism and the opportunity to do so many things.

—Ambassador Jane D. Hartley

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