A Woman’s Place is in the Embassy

Dr Helen McCarthy

It was not until 1946 that women were admitted to the diplomatic service in Britain according to Dr Helen McCarthy who gave the Sybil Campbell Lecture at the University Women’s Club, London on 18th November.

In the 19th century,  when diplomats were recruited from the aristocracy, their wives were ornamental  and acted as hostesses for their husbands.   Women like Lady Dufferin and Lady Russell were energetic supporters of their husbands and, while not wanting to appear to interfere, they exerted a form of ‘petticoat diplomacy’.

Early in the 20th century Gertrude Bell, the writer, traveller, archaeologist and political officer was well known in the Middle East and, with T E Lawrence, helped establish the kingdoms of Iraq  and Jordan – possibly unique for a woman at that time.  During World War 1, although women were employed in factories, as ambulance drivers and in the lower grades of the home Civil Service, they were not posted overseas.   Any idea that educated women should join the Diplomatic Service was fiercely opposed by the men.

In 1934 a debate on women’s admission to the Diplomatic Service and an examination of the status of women in many countries across the world took place. The reasons given for not employing them included:
a) They were considered inferior and not suitable for serious diplomacy.
b) It was unfair to male officers if women were awarded the ‘cushier’ posts.
c) Consular service was too difficult for women because they might be too isolated and there was always a possibility of revolution.
d) Husbands would not like to trail after their wives and, being ‘free’, would cause problems.  The wives of male diplomats also argued against women in the service – probably for the same reason.

In the Second World War many women were posted abroad as soldiers, nurses, support staff and also in the Foreign Office.  After the war there was a need  to recruit from a wider social sphere and in 1946 recruitment from both sexes took place despite the residual opposition.  Several members of BFWG joined at this time.

From the 1970’s more challenging postings and language tuition were introduced.  However, until 1973, women had to resign from the service on marriage.

In the last ten years there has been great change.  90% of part time employees in the service are women and 25% of senior diplomats but, unlike America, we have not yet had a female Foreign Secretary.

This was an interesting and entertaining lecture and much enjoyed by those present.

Susan Ouvry
28 November 2014

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