Catherine M. Russell

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Cathy Russell
Catherine M Russell 2015.jpg
United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues
In office
August 26, 2013 – January 20, 2017
PresidentBarack Obama
Preceded byMelanne Verveer
Succeeded byKelley Eckels Currie
Chief of Staff to the Second Lady of the United States
In office
January 20, 2009 – August 26, 2013
PresidentBarack Obama
Preceded byUnknown
Succeeded bySheila Nix
Personal details
Born1961 (age 58–59)
Spouse(s)Tom Donilon
RelativesMike Donilon (brother-in law)
EducationBoston College (BA)
George Washington University (JD)

Catherine M. Russell (born March 4, 1961) is an American policymaker who was the United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues from May 8, 2013, until January 20, 2017.[1] Before that, she was chief of staff to the Second Lady of the United States, Jill Biden.

Background and education[edit]

Russell was born in Jersey City, New Jersey to Paul Russell and Ann (née McCaffery) Russell. She grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania with four siblings. Russell graduated from Boston College, magna cum laude, with a degree in Philosophy, and received her J.D. from The George Washington University.

Early career[edit]

After law school, Russell began working in Democratic politics. In 1984, Russell worked on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign, on which she met her husband, Tom Donilon. In 1988 Russell worked on Joseph Biden’s presidential campaign.

On Capitol Hill, Russell was Counsel and then Senior Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee's Technology Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). She served as Staff Director to the Senate Judiciary Committee under Chairman Joseph Biden (D-De). In that role, Russell worked on the successful passage of the Violence Against Women Act, and the Supreme Court nominations of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer. A trained lawyer, Russell later served as Associate Deputy Attorney General to Janet Reno.

In 2007, Russell returned to work part-time for then-Senator Biden who was the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. She drafted the International Violence Against Women Act of 2007, modeled on the American legislation Biden introduced in 1994.

Obama Administration[edit]

Office of the Vice President[edit]

Russell is a longtime adviser to both Vice President Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Russell was tapped to serve as chief of staff to then-second lady-elect Jill Biden—a position she held from 2009 to 2013.

In that role, Russell managed the second lady's staff and worked on her initiatives to increase access to community college education and to support military families, through the Joining Forces program. Russell also oversaw a process to develop the government's first global gender-based violence strategy.

Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues[edit]

Vice President Swears in Ambassador Russell (12001888595).jpg

President Obama created the position in 2009, and made it a permanent ambassador-level position in 2013.

Nomination and confirmation[edit]

Senator Patrick Leahy, for whom Russell had worked as a staffer, spoke at her confirmation hearing and recalled her “brilliant mind” and “uncanny ability…to take the most complex issues, get them down to where even a Senator like myself and others could understand it.”[2]

Russell was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on August 1, 2013. Vice President Biden swore her into office on January 17, 2014.


Ambassador for Global Women's Issues Russell Addresses the Media in Tokyo - Flickr - East Asia and Pacific Media Hub (1).jpg

In her nomination hearing, Russell said that, if confirmed, she would focus her work on six areas: first, ensuring that the State Department adopted gender issues into “all aspects of diplomacy”; second, promoting women's economic participation; third, implementing the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security; fourth, combatting gender-based violence; fifth, expanding political participation; and sixth, investing in women and girls’ health and education.[2]

As part of that effort, Russell designed the U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Girls, released in March 2014. It enlisted the State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, and Millennium Challenge Corporation to pursue the same goal: “to ensure adolescent girls are educated, healthy, socially and economically empowered, and free from violence and discrimination.”[3] This marked the first time a country had produced an adolescent girls’ strategy. Under Russell's leadership, the Office of Global Women's Issues worked with Secretary Kerry to secure $7 million for adolescent girls’ empowerment programming in Afghanistan in March 2016. Her office also worked with USAID and UNICEF to produce a three-year, $5 million program to reduce gender-based violence in schools.[3]

One of Russell's priorities was ending child marriage globally, which she outlined to the Senate in a 2016 testimony.[3]

Catherine Russell, center, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, speaks to International Security Assistance Force military and civilian gender advisers during a Veteran's Day 131111-A-UO630-302.jpg

As Ambassador, Russell traveled to dozens of countries during her time as Ambassador, including to: Afghanistan in November 13, the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 with Dr. Jill Biden. Russell's first trip was to Bali for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.[4]

Personal life[edit]

Since 1991, Russell has been married to Thomas E. Donilon, who is the former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama. They have two children, Sarah (born 1996) and Teddy (born 1999). Her brother-in-law is Mike Donilon, a lawyer and political consultant who served as Counselor to Vice President Joe Biden.


  1. ^ Catherine M. Russell - U.S. Department of State biography
  2. ^ a b "- NOMINATIONS OF THE 113TH CONGRESS". Retrieved 2019-02-17.
  4. ^ Wheaton, Sarah (2013-08-22). "A Question of How Women's Issues Will Fare, in Washington and Overseas". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-02-17.

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Melanne Verveer
United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues
Succeeded by
Kelley Eckels Currie