Remembering Janne Nolan on International Women’s Day

By Christine Parthemore

Not a day goes by that I and many of us at the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) don’t think about Dr. Janne Nolan, our founding Board member and friend who passed away far too soon in 2019. In the run up to this International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about how her specific style of providing deep support for women in national security continues to shape the field for the better.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that CSR would not exist without Janne, her mentorship and her collaboration with our organization’s two founders across a range of security issues. I was lucky to have been embraced by this trio when I left the Department of Defense in 2015. With Janne, I found a comrade who shared my frustration regarding nuclear weapons issues. That frustration stemmed in part from a return to increasingly dangerous policies being adopted, many of which echoed the Cold War and early post-Cold War history that Janne so deeply studied and so adeptly analyzed. The frustration extended to a desire to refocus civil society work related to nuclear weapons and try new approaches to creating momentum for positive change—but a general lack of support for women who wanted to explore new angles for addressing nuclear threats, including by better understanding their intersectionality with other security risks.

We and many others who would go on to help form CSR together didn’t see any other great home for the work we believed needed to be done in order to really address this century’s worst challenges. From the start, CSR was designed with the hope of building an entire leg of the organization centered on Janne’s work on strategic security issues as well as her dedication to bipartisanship and trust-building—and her support for women and young people in national security. 

In terms of its intellectual work, I had hoped that CSR’s Center for Strategic Weapons (now the  Nolan Center) would build upon Janne’s long career in the field. One critical aspect of that would be continuing to apply lessons brought to light in her book Guardians of the Arsenal, which is one of the true classics in national security—not just nuclear weapons. Everyone who works in defense, diplomacy, and especially anyone who cares about effective governance and civil-military relations, needs to read it.

Perhaps even more important would be work designed to expand the incredible mentorship for which Janne was notorious. All the struggles of the pandemic (topped by other simultaneous disasters) that everyone is enduring today point to the need not just for more mentorship for more diverse people, but continued movement toward more empathy and work-life balance in the national security field.

One night, I believe the year before she passed away, Janne hosted me and a few colleagues at her house and cooked a big dinner for an informal strategy session. I got there about a half hour early, hoping to pin her down to work through details of a project we were co-leading. Much to my chagrin that night, for most of the time she insisted on talking about my health (she knew I was in physical therapy). I was a bit miffed that she wouldn’t focus.

But of course, she was focused. Taking care of one another and ourselves is central to our ability to contribute to the work that we think is so important. I wish I’d heeded this lesson more in the past.  

When Janne realized something was really wrong with her own health, and progressed into diagnosis and attempts at treatment, she kept telling me that it would be no cakewalk but that she was confident she’d make it through. For months, I was in deep denial that she might not. Battling with a hard pregnancy at that time, one week I finally gathered the energy to visit her, thank her for everything, and give her a huge hug. On the morning I’d planned to see her, I got an email that she had died.

Janne’s legacy was always going to be a positive and lasting one given the great work she did in filling deep gaps in public knowledge regarding nuclear decision-making. But she was so much more than that to so many people. Her infusion of friendship and humanity into her approach to substantive work was, for many of us, a stark contrast to what we commonly encountered in our careers in national security. It is still far too uncommon. Bringing more women and other under-represented groups into national security—and keeping us here—will require us to take on Janne’s approach and perpetuate it. 


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