BethMellor’s Weblog

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“Defence is a boys’ game”: An interview with Rosemary Hollis

with 5 comments

rosemary_hollis_140x1401Rosemary Hollis, former Head of Research at Chatham House, freely admits that it was “pure accident” that led her to become a world-authority on the Middle East.

As a student during the Vietnam War, she became fascinated with war and conflict. Later, inspired by her work as a researcher for a Lebanese academic, she decided to focus her studies on relations between Britain and the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

But Ms Hollis, wearing a garishly bright pink top under her immaculately tailored suit, cuts an unusual figure in the foreign policy establishment.

 “Defence is a boys’ game”, she said, describing meetings at the Ministry of Defence where she has been the only woman present. “You have to speak the technical jargon of the military, and you have to be incredibly resilient. Sometimes it only hits me later that someone has made a sexist remark.”

But being a woman did give her certain advantages when she was working in Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem. “Arab men feel less challenged by me than by Western men,” she said.

And, she says, many women who succeed in politics use their sex to their advantage. “People used to joke that Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet respected her because she was a ‘strong nanny’ figure.”

But whilst Ms Hollis would like to see more women involved in foreign policy, she is not convinced that this would necessarily make for a more peaceful world.

“Hillary Clinton will be as hard as nails as Secretary of State, but I’m not sure that I completely trust her instincts,” she said.

The real solution, she believes, is not to get women involved in politics purely for the sake of having more women in politics, but to “let women succeed as women, not as surrogate men”.

“We need to concentrate on making it easier for women to succeed in the professions, and this will have a positive impact on politics too.”

Note: Rosemary Hollis was Director of Research at Chatham House for three years, until March 2008, and was the first woman to hold this post. Before this, she worked for ten years as Head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House. She now works at City University, London, running the Olive Tree Programme, an initiative that enables young Israelis and Palestinians to come and study in the UK. She has a book coming out in January, Britain and the Middle East, about Tony Blair’s legacy in the region.

5 Responses

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  1. Very well-written post Beth, and you did a brilliant job interviewing Dr. Hollis yesterday! The things she said about women in politics and policy were really interesting, and I think you’ve captured them perfectly here.

    Lara King

    December 3, 2008 at 11:17 pm

  2. Thanks Lara! I just wish I had had more time to speak to Rosemary; she had so many interesting things to say!


    December 4, 2008 at 8:26 am

  3. “The real solution, she believes, is not to get women involved in politics purely for the sake of having more women in politics, but to “let women succeed as women, not as surrogate men”.”

    While I completely agree with this statement I think to a certain extent this post is a bit of a contradiction. The argument is that we need to get over the novelty value of having women in high positions of politics and policy, but instead of actually doing so you analyse her entirely through the prism of her gender.

    I’m not by any means saying that by placing attention on women’s issues we perpetuate them, but that it is more the job of women’s advocacy groups like Emily’s List than it is of, say, an expert on the Middle-East who just happens to be a woman.


    December 4, 2008 at 10:26 am

  4. Thanks for your comment Nick. I think it is important that, in the end, people get over the ‘novelty value’ of having women in these types of role. Then we really would have acheived equality of gender.

    But in the meantime, I think that exceptions to the rule, such as Ms Hollis, should be highlighted as role models to other women who are thinking of pursuing careers in what are still generally seen as masculine fields.


    December 12, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    • Just heard Prof.Hollis analysis of Egypt’s role in present Gaza ceasefire.Has 3years made any change to how her views are taken.I see these as measured & informed and not related to her gender in any particular way.

      James McDermott

      November 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm

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