HERstory: A celebration of leading women in the United Nations

23 December 2016

A celebration of women’s achievements has been taking place at United Nations Headquarters in New York this month, through photography. On 13 December 2016,  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary-General-designate António Guterres attended the launch by the Group of Friends for Gender Parity of an historic exhibit to illuminate some of the crucial contributions that women have made throughout the world body’s history – or, as they refer to it, ‘herstory.’

“Through today’s exhibition, the Group has managed to capture both the impact of women at the highest levels of the UN and an historic push for gender equality in employment and decision-making that goes far beyond these halls,” said Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly, during the exhibition’s launch ceremony.

The exhibition: HERstory: A Celebration of Leading Women in the United Nations highlights a host of women’s “firsts” at the UN – such as the first woman to be appointed Deputy Secretary-General, Louise Frechette and the first woman to be appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for a peacekeeping operation, Margaret Anstee.

Here, we take a photo journey back in time to witness just a few of the critical roles women have taken on since the UN was but a fledgling institution.

The Charter

“Where the rules are silent women are not usually considered” – Jessie Street, Australia’s only female delegate to the United Nations Founding conference, 1945.


Bertha Lutz (Brazil), Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic) and Virginia Gildersleeve (US) were among the four women to sign the UN Charter in San Francisco on 26 June 1945.


Jessie Street (Australia) canvassed for language in the Charter that would make all UN positions equally open to women and men (article 8). Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux (France) – pictured above on the left – was behind the proposals for both the Declaration on the Participation of Women and the Open Letter to the Women of the World.

Women in leadership

“The United Nations shall place no restriction on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.” – Charter of the United Nations, Article 8.


Since the 1950s, women have held prominent roles in the Organization.

In 1951, Anna Figueroa Gajardo (Chile) was the first chairwoman of a major UN Committee. Two years later, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (India) was the first woman to be elected President of the General Assembly and in 1958, Agda Rössel (Sweden) was the first female permanent representative to Sweden.


In 1972, Helvi Sipilä (Finland) became the first female Assistant Secretary-General at the UN and that same year, Jeanne Martin Cissé (Guinea) became the first female president of the Security Council. In 1996, Louise Fréchette became the first-ever Deputy Secretary-General.

Women in human rights

“I’ll ask you, of all the rights you have, which do you think are too many for women? What is too much?” – Bodil Begtrup, first chairwoman of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, 1946.


Eleanor Roosevelt (United States) was the First Chair of the Human Rights Commission, 1949. At Minerva Bernardino’s insistence, Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights uses language explicitly in defence of the rights of women.


In 1997, Mary Robinson (Ireland) was the first woman to serve as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Laura Dupuy Lasserre became the first woman to serve as President of the Human Rights Council in 2011.

Women in development

“Women had been a ‘missing link’ in development, now they were being found; they could actually be a valuable resource, indeed were half, or more, of a nation’s human resources, no longer to be wasted.” – Lucille Mathurin Mair, Secretary-General of the World Conference on the United Nations Decade for women, 1980.


In 1966, Angie E. Brooks-Randolf (Liberia) became the first woman to preside over the Trusteeship Council. More than 30 years later, in 1998, Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway) became the first female Director-General of the World health Organization.

Women in peacekeeping

“Being a female… I have 100 per cent of the population, not only 50 per cent… it is important to have a holistic approach to any type of conflict and it is very important that the UN took the step to appoint a female force commander.” – Kristin Lund, on being appointed the first female Force Commander, 2014.


In 1992, Margaret Joan Anstee (United Kingdom) became the first female Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Angola. Fifteen years later, the UN deployed its first all-female Formed Police Unit (from India) to Liberia, 2007.


Ann-Marie Orler (Sweden) became the first female UN Police Adviser in 2010. The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus saw its first female Force Commander in 2014, when Kristin Lund (Norway) took the helm.


The Group of Friends for Gender Parity are a partnership between the UN missions of Colombia, Germany, Qatar and United Arab Emirates.


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