Women Diplomats

This brief history draws heavily upon Helen McCarthy’s Women of the World – The Rise of the Female Diplomat: highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this subject.

The first known female ambassador in Europe was Catherine of Aragon  (widow of Henry V11 and future wife of Henry VIII, and Queen of England) who was ambassador of the Aragonese crown to England in 1507.

It is then necessary to fast forward several centuries before ...

In December 1914 the Royal Commission on the Civil Service made recommendations aimed at professionalising and ending the 'aristocratic monopoly' at the Foreign Office.  But this was at the beginning of the First World War and, although there was much pressure at the end of the war for Home Civil Service jobs to be opened to women, there was no pressure for this to be extended to the Foreign Service.  Indeed, a delegation of thirteen women’s societies which visited leader of House of Commons in 1919 confessed that 'it might be inadvisable for certain [overseas] posts to be held by women at present, for example in India'.  It seems clear that they were seeking to appear reasonable in order to increase the likelihood that they would achieve their aims within the Home Civil Service. 

Little changed, therefore, until the early 1930s when the Tomlin Royal Commission on the Civil Service drew attention to the continuation of sex discrimination throughout the Civil Service, and it appeared that the Commission might recommend the appointment of women to overseas posts.  The Foreign Office accordingly mounted strong opposition to change.  Giving evidence to the Commission, the Foreign Office’s Chief Clerk had argued that he was vastly experienced in choosing men of the ‘right type’ to represent Britain abroad – which boiled down to spotting those with ‘personality’.  A few exceptional women might possess this elusive but much-prized quality but they could never, in practice, put it to effective use.  Consular posts were often in insalubrious ports, and ‘spinsters’ would struggle with the semi-official business carried out between men … in clubs.  Married women would fare even worse, forced to ‘trail their husbands round from post to post’ so that ‘the unfortunate Ambassadress would have a husband around the house all day’.

But reformers were encouraged by the evidence of Head of the Civil Service Sir Warren Fisher who thought that the Chief Clerk’s prejudice was based on fear. “It is quite premature yet for anybody to try to prophesy or put any limit on what women may do in the future … If I had to hazard a guess, I should say that, when they have got the experience in a generation or so, they would give the men a jolly good run for their money.”  Sir Warren went on to criticise the Chief Clerk for conjuring up lurid images ‘which made your hair curl’, adding that ‘I see no reason why a diplomat should not be a woman in the countries where it is customary to regard women with civility and courtesy’. 

In the event, however, the Commission – reporting in 1931 - were not persuaded by either witness and merely recommended that the Foreign Office ‘should again examine the position at an early date’.  The department procrastinated but further pressure arose in 1933 when Ruth Bryan Owen (pictured left) was appointed US Minister (i.e. Ambassador) to Denmark, albeit as a political appointee with much relevant experience, though not a career diplomat. 

But Mrs Owen’s appointment was not welcomed her male British opposite number in Copenhagen.  ‘She is not a figure commanding undoubted respect … [Her sentimentality] raised doubts that she was capable of  ‘setting forth impartially and objectively her country’s point of view’ or ‘carrying on … negotiations in involving sustained concentration and effort’.  Moreover, he added, ‘I should myself undoubtedly feel a certain hesitation in asking Mrs Owen … to dine alone with me, particularly in a public place, at any rate more than once a year; whereas I might readily do so in the case of a male colleague’.

The Foreign Office then at long last got round to setting up the somewhat secretive officials-only ‘Schuster Committee’ to implement the Tomlin Commission’s recommendation.  The committee had only two women members, and a circular letter went out from the Foreign Office seeking UK Ambassadors’ ‘completely unbiased opinion on whether a woman could perform the duties of [a diplomat, and be] treated with the same respect …  bearing in mind that they … would have to take their turn in the more outlying places’.  The circular was ostensibly neutrally worded, but the author, Howard Smith, had in fact pledged to gather ‘all the ammunition that I can get’ against the case for sex equality.

Schuster’s Inter-Departmental Committee on the Admission of Women to the Diplomatic and Consular Services began work in 1934 and heard evidence, inter alia, from the Council of Women Civil Servants who made the point that ‘In upbringing. Education and independence American women are similar to English women and, if they can be entrusted with work in these Services, we feel that British women are worthy of equal confidence’.  They also heard from Alix Kilroy and Beryl Power as well as from, or about, many other British women who held distinguished positions in various parts of the British Empire.  Gertrude Bell's name was inevitably referenced by many witnesses, but others included various settlers in southern Africa, buyers for the John Lewis Partnership, numerous women doctors and Dame Adelaide Livingstone who had spent much of the Great War and its aftermath in delicate negotiations with the enemy concerning the treatment of prisoners-of-war and the fate of those killed in battle.

There was some tension, however, between the belief that women’s gender was no disability, and should be disregarded, and the belief that it was a positive asset, a source of qualities and perspectives lacking in an exclusively male service.  Some argued for the appointment of women to specialist posts, for instance to deal with women travelers needing consular assistance, or to spot overseas markets for UK goods aimed that female consumer.   But others feared that this would lead women into a career cul-de-sac.

And the Foreign Office fought back, including with carefully chosen arguments based on responses to Howard Smith’s letter, essentially arguing that the women’s arguments were fine in theory, but could not overcome the practical objections.  Permanent Secretary Sir Robert Vansittart went further, arguing (a) that Johnny foreigner was not ready for the experiment, (b) that it would be inequitable to require men to take more than their fair share of the less coveted posts barred to women, (c) that the position of the husband of a woman diplomat would be embarrassing, and (d) that admitting women would ‘incontestably affect the prestige of His Majesty’s Government abroad’. 

More junior diplomats said that they would be aghast at having to share an office with a member of the opposite sex.  Experienced diplomatic wife Lady Granville said that only the most exceptional woman would succeed: “If she were a woman who is admirable in every way and just the right looking woman – not too beautiful and not too ugly – she might be able to hold her own, but I do not see it.’  And another noted that a single woman could do ‘no more than fifty percent of the work done by my wife and myself’.  It wasn’t clear whether this line of argument was helped or hindered by the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall who noted that ‘very often the women with the greatest amount of initiative are those who do not marry, though they have plenty of chances’.  But no-one dwelt at any length on the problem of child care, presumably because they envisioned that the most likely candidates would come from the social classes who already employed resident nannies and sent their children to boarding school. 

The Committee eventually failed to agree and, when it reported in July 1934, four (including Howard Smith) argued for no change, two (the women) argued for immediate admission to the Foreign Service and experimental admission to the Consular Service, and two argued for an experimental measure.  The Government sat on the report, Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare having decided that he had ‘really neither time not inclination’ to take up the matter.  Then, when it was finally published in April 1936, the Government endorsed the ‘no change’ option.  Howard Smith had won.  And thoughts began to turn to war.

We can fast forward, then, to 1942 by which time women were fully enfranchised and much better equipped to impress on the Government the need to make full use of their talents, including in the lower and middle reaches of the Foreign Office.   Indeed, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden conceded that year that the Schuster Committee’s deliberations were not ‘the last word’ on the subject.  And a number of women made their mark during the war, including Freya Stark and Persian Specialist Nancy Lambton who had been made temporary attachés in Baghdad and Tehran respectively.  And Canadian born Mary MacGeachy had been given formal diplomatic status as First Secretary in the Washington embassy.

Pressure from women’s groups intensified during the remainder of the war until the Foreign Office, in 1945, reconvened its committee to reconsider the question of women diplomats, chaired by Sir Ernest Gowers of Plain Words fame.  It was also very relevant that a Labour government was elected before the committee was chosen and began work.

But the defenders of the status quo redoubled their efforts.  MP and ex-diplomat Harold Nicolson argued that the ideal diplomat was ‘impartial, imperturbable and a trifle inhuman … not female qualities; they are male qualities’.  And all the arguments that had been put before the Schuster Committee were repeated, together with assertions that Nancy Lambton and Freya Stark had not held posts of real significance.  As a Minister rather than an advisor, opined one witness, Gertrude Bell would have ‘aroused horror’.

Set against this, however, was much persuasive evidence from currently serving diplomats as well as from e.g. the Admiralty and the Chamber of Shipping.  It was no great surprise, therefore, that the committee recommended ‘that women should be equally eligible with men for admission to the Foreign Service’.  But women would be ‘equally eligible’ only up to a point.  The marriage bar should continue to be enforced, and the proportion of women recruited in any one year should be limited to 10%, so as to ensure that women did not enter ‘in embarrassing numbers’, as Gowers put it.

It was not in fact found necessary to enforce the cap on numbers, but the marriage bar was indeed maintained, despite the fact that it had been suspended for the Home Civil Service during the war and no-one expected it to return. (It was abolished fr the Home Civil Service in 1946.)

Only 17 women were directly recruited into the administrative grade between 1946 and 1951, but it was a start – and the Foreign Office were anxious to attract only the highest calibre females.  The first was Monica Milne (who was ex the Ministry of Economic Warfare) followed in 1947 by Cicely Ludlam, Caroline Petrie and Grace Rolleston.  One notable 1954 recruit was ‘Queen of Spies’ Daphne Park who was in fact recruited by MI6 but operated under the cover of a diplomatic title.  She later became Principal of Somerville College, Oxford and was ennobled as Baroness Park.  All the recruits were both lucky and unusual (for those times) in having parents willing to support their daughter through university.  The majority, right through to the 1960s, were privately educated.  Four of the twelve serving in 1955 had been to Roedean, an expensive private girls school.

Another early recruit was Margaret Anstee, pictured right, the daughter of a relatively poor Essex couple. She joined the Latin American desk only to learn that official policy was never to send a woman to Latin America in case she fell into the hands of 'some passionate latino'. At her first official banquet in London an Argentine naval officer did indeed play footsie with her beneath the table. She had to leave the service in 1952 when she married a colleague posted to the Philippines. She took a Manila-based administrative job in the United Nations where, 'outspoken and with a first class mind', she rose to become its first female Under-Secretary General.

She returned to Whitehall for a while, in the 1960s, to work in Prime Minister Harold Wilson's 'Think Tank' headed by Tommy Balogh.

She was born in 1926 and died in 2016. Her very readable autobiography is called Never Learn to Type !

All the successful candidates were recruited alongside men who generally regarded them as equals, but older veterans’ attitudes too often lay somewhere between pained paternalism and outright hostility.  But they couldn’t join their male colleagues at lunch or dinner in e.g. the Travellers Club, and they had to retire with the women at the end of official dinners whilst the men stayed behind to indulge in brandy and cigars.  And they had all faced one interview question which had not been put to their male counterparts: “What will you do (when faced with the marriage bar) if you want to get married?”.  And the Foreign Office remained very reluctant to send the young women to certain posts (such as in the Middle East – despite Freya Stark et al) or to train them in ‘hard’ languages such as Chinese and Japanese as the marriage bar (the Foreign Office’s own policy, of course) meant that there was a good chance that their investment would be wasted.

On the other hand their scarcity value made them memorable, and their femininity was often a distinct advantage – “which [we] milked to the maximum”.  And  it slowly became clear that the women did bring a different – and equally valuable – perspective to bear.

The marriage bar continued to be justified on the grounds that married women were less mobile than married men, but was somewhat watered down in 1964 following the Plowden Report on the UK’s foreign representation.  It was eventually abandoned in 1973, two years after the Kemp-Jones Report on women in the Home Civil Service and two years before the Sex Discrimination Act outlawed sexist practices in all workplaces.   But many husbands continued to refuse to follow their wives around the world, so that in 1988 there were still only 284 married women in all grades of the Diplomatic Service.  Joint postings were one answer, if the husband was also a diplomat, but many ambassadors disliked working wives as they were then unavailable to do the entertaining.

A film by Alun Parry for the PCS union provides a revealing view of the frustration felt by Anne John and Sheila Skinner - and many other able women - before the marriage bar was lifted.

(Unmarried) Barbara Salt was the first woman to be offered an ambassadorship (to Israel) in 1962 but unfortunately sudden ill health prevented her from taking up the post. 

Anne Warburton was next – but not until 1976 when she became ambassador to Denmark, sort of following in Ruth Bryan Owen’s footsteps.  One journalist commented on how admirably she appeared to be ‘doing the job of both husband and wife’!  

Ms Warburton was born in 1927 and died in 2015.  Her mother was American and so she lived in the USA during the Second World War and was educated in both the USA and the UK (Somerville College, Oxford).  After graduating she worked in the Marshall Administration, NATO and Lazards Bank.  This range and depth of experience stood her in good stead when she entered the Foreign Office at the age of 30.  She was appointed Head of the FCO's information department in 1975 ("a bed of nails") and so impressed Foreign secretary Jim Callaghan that he made the ground-breaking appointment in Copenhagen where she stayed from 1976 to 1983.  But her career then plateaud so she left in 1985 to become President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

Her post-retirement career was equally impressive.  As well as Lucy Cavendish, she was a member of the Equal opportunities Commission, and headed an investigation into the atrocities against women in Bosnia.  Her report demonstrated that rape had been "part of a pattern of abuse ... with the conscious intention of demoralising and terrorising communities". She subsequently became a founder member of the newly formed Standing Committee on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, aka the Nolan Committee.

Her family's biography of Dame Anne is called  The Story of Britain's First Female Ambassador   Anne herself, .10 years after leaving the embassy, published a guide to living in the country called Signposts to Denmark.

Veronica Sutherland was the first married woman to be appointed to an ambassadorship, in 1987, followed quickly by Juliet Campbell.  But both had married quite late in life and were childless.  More generally, women remained under-represented and several countries continued to be seen as ‘no go’ areas.  But discriminatory practices were gradually eroded away, this process being encouraged by changes in wider UK society as well as overseas. 

US diplomat Alison Palmer won a sex discrimination case in 1972 and then led a class action which resulted, in 1985, in large payouts and compensatory promotions, following much pre-emptive activity by the State Department.  The UK did not face its first Alison Palmer case until 1986 when Susan Rogerson was turned down for a posting explicitly on the grounds of sex.  The Foreign Office admitted its error and offered her a post of similar seniority elsewhere, which she accepted.  This was symptomatic of a long-running willingness of British female diplomats to meet sexism with pragmatic forbearance rather than outspoken indignation and litigation.  This may have allowed the Foreign Office to delay experimentation and reform, including joint and part-time postings, but it happened eventually, during the 1990s. 

Interestingly, the Diplomatic Services Wives Association was renamed the British Diplomatic Spouses’ Association in 1990.

Some further progress was made after Robin Cook became Foreign Secretary in 1997 and the number of women in the top four grades (the Senior Management Structure) had reached 22% by 2009.  But, as of 2015, none of the four most prestigious ambassadorships (Paris, Washington, and the Permanent Representatives to the EU and UN) has ever been held by a woman.
Coming up to date, I enjoyed French diplomat Nathalie Loiseau’s 2014 report of the time that she had been the first woman to join a panel that decided where senior diplomats were to be posted.   The men on the panel would turn the selection process for female departments into a beauty contest and would dwell on the candidates’ physical attributes.  Rather than objecting, Mme Loiseau joined in by commenting on the less attractive attributes of the male candidates (dandruff, bad breath, body odour, bad teeth) and found the conversation changing in tone very quickly. 

But female diplomats continue to fascinate journalists right through to the present day.  Consider this, from London’s Evening Standard in October 2014:      

‘Meet Madame Glambassador.  Sightings of female ambassadors are rare … so that is reason enough to be excited by Sylvie Bermann, recently installed at the fabulous French residence in Kensington.  She also has the chic air of entitlement common in French public life … her body language shrugs: why wouldn’t a woman in her sixties be glamorous and powerful?  … but her achievement is a solid diplomatic career spanning Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and now London.  She responds coolly that her status as a single woman is unrelated to career ambition and has no general application.’

But it was good to see The Times report in April 2021 that 'Women bag all the Big Diplomatic Jobs' - in the United Nations, Washington, Berlin, Tokyo, Canberra, Beijing, Moscow, Paris and Rome.


Martin Stanley

Spotted something wrong?
Please do drop me an email if you spot anything that is out-of-date, or any other errors, typos or faulty links.