Bridgewater was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the daughter of a bank teller and a jazz trumpeter, and attended Walker-Grant High School. She has two degrees in Political Science, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from Virginia State University in 1968, and with a master of arts degree from the University of Cincinnati. Her career was initially in teaching, working at Maryland universities Morgan State and Bowie State, and Voorhees College in South Carolina, before entering the U.S. Foreign Service in 1980.
Between 1980 and 1990 she was posted as Vice-Consul to Brussels, and Labor Attaché/Political Officer in Kingston, Jamaica. At the Department of State, Bridgewater was the longest-serving diplomat in South Africa, posted as Political Officer at Pretoria from 1990 to 1993, and as the first African-American woman appointed Consul General at Durban, from 1993 to 1996. Here she worked with Nelson Mandela during the transition of South Africa away from apartheid.
From 1996 to 1999 she was Deputy Chief of Mission in Nassau, Bahamas. Bridgewater was a member and president of the 42nd Senior Seminar, the U.S. Department of State’s most prestigious professional development program, from 1999 to 2000, before serving as U.S. Ambassador to Benin from October 2000 to January 2003. Subsequently, she was appointed U.S. deputy assistant secretary for African Affairs in December 2002, where she managed the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs’ relationships with 16 countries in West Africa.
She served as Diplomat-in-Residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from September 2004 to May 2005. From June 2005 to July 2008 Bridgewater was the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana.