The Fight for Representation

At Home & Overseas

A woman by the name of Mrs. March was the first female employee of the US Department of State. In 1804, she received six cents a copy for “folding, stitching, and covering with blue paper” each of the 3,467 copies of laws passed by the first session of the eighth congress.

During the 19th century, a number of women unsuccessfully sought appointments to US diplomatic and consular missions abroad. At the time, it was widely accepted that women serving abroad would be “compromised” by male officials in their countries of assignments. This attitude was perhaps best articulated by Assistant Secretary Fredrick Van Dyne:

The greatest obstacle to the employment of women as diplomatic officers is their well-known inability to keep a secret.

Fredrick Van Dyne, 1905

Finally, in 1922, Lucile Atcherson became the first woman admitted to the Foreign Service, ranking third in her class. Between then and the onset of WWII, only six women were appointed as officers via the examination process. As more women slowly were being admitted as Foreign Service Officers, it was understood that they would remain single. This unwritten policy, in which a marriage certificate equated a letter of resignation, remained in full effect until 1971.

“When I took the Foreign Service exam in 1966, it was mutually understood, that if I, a woman, were to get married that would be it for my Foreign Service career.” 

Ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer

Although the number of women in senior positions in the Department increased by 33 percent in the 1960s, women still held just 2.5 percent of senior slots. It was not until 1971, when Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer won her gender discrimination case, that the Department began to recognize these deep-rooted issues.

The Alison Palmer Case:

 In 1968 Alison Palmer filed an equality employment opportunity (EEO) case against the State Department on the basis of the sex discrimination in the workplace. The case would eventually become a class action lawsuit that transformed the treatment of women in the State Department. The case was closed in 2010, 42 years after Palmer’s first complaint. 

In 1966, Palmer, an Africa expert, had her assignment to Tanzania cancelled because the Ambassador rejected the idea that a woman could fulfill the role. The State Department then offered her a position in Uganda as an alternative. Although she accepted the offer, it too, was eventually cancelled. Reflecting on the incidence, Palmer remembered saying:

“OK, you’ve had your last chance. If you don’t get me an assignment that holds up, you’ll never hear the end of it. I’ll take it to the Supreme Court and I’ll fight it as long as I live.”

Alison Palmer, 1988 interview, Pembroke Oral History Project

Palmer then promptly raised “merry hell,” calling on all of her political connections, including then Senator Margaret Chase Smith, to demand answers from the State Department. Later, the US Ambassador to Ethiopia acknowledged that Palmer had “superb qualifications” for a posting in Ethiopia. The position he assigned her, however, was as a social secretary for his wife.

Following her ‘assignment’ in Ethiopia, Palmer returned to Washington for a promotion, only to find that she had been pushed aside to allow a lower-ranking man take her place. Increasingly frustrated, Palmer filed an individual lawsuit against the State Department in 1968, which she won. Palmer would go on to use the money from that lawsuit to start a class action case, which began in 1971. Eventually, Palmer won most of the legal battles that she waged against the State Department. As a result of the Palmer Case, the State Department reformed its personnel policies in accordance with court orders. Many of the women we interviewed benefitted from the class action suit. For Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, the case was proof of the inequalities that existed within the State Department, and encouraged her to fight for a promotion. Ambassador Marcie B. Ries received a settlement for being discriminated against in promotion.

“That generation were the ones who were fighting it, and the same is true of Alison Palmer, you know that was the generation just before mine and we very much have to appreciate that they helped to pave the way.”
Ambassador Raphel

The resurgence of the nationwide women’s movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s propelled women in the State Department to organize and demand equitable treatment. In 1970, theWomen’s Action Organization (WAO) of State, A.I.D, and USIA finally pushed for reforms to end the marriage ban, address the disproportionality of allowances doled out to males and females, and reduce discrimination in hiring and assignment practices.

In calling women pushy or abrasive when they are properly ambitious, men are using a double standard that does women in the Service a great disservice and ultimately men in the Service dishonor.

Barbara J. Good, American Foreign Service Association Board Member

The Carter administration marked a turning point for the representation of women in the Foreign Service. President Carter, who was a strong supporter of the integration of human rights into the US foreign policy agenda, was also an advocate for women’s rights at home. Positions that had previously been closed to women, like Staff Assistant for the European Bureau, were now open. Our own mentor, Ambassador Shelton-Colby, was promoted to the rank of ambassador under President Carter.

This tidal wave of high-level diplomacy appointments for women continued through the Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1980, Reagan made Jeane Kirkpatrick the first woman to serve as US Ambassador to the United Nations. In 1989, Julia Chang Bloch became the first woman of Asian descent to become an ambassador. And, in 1990, Aurelia Brazeal was nominated for a position as Ambassador to Micronesia, making her the first African American Foreign Service officer to reach the rank of ambassador.

Ms. Paula Doyle, former CIA Associate Deputy Director: “It was true before the 1980s that the Foreign Service [and] the Intelligence Community recruited very heavily from the Ivy Leagues. But they were beginning to open up more [in the 1980s], not only to women but to people with public educations.”

Role-models are important. For many women, seeing themselves represented in the senior positions better enables them to imagine themselves in positions of power. Remembering her first tour as a young officer in Guatemala, Ambassador Pamela Spratlen recalls her boss Geri Chester, “one of the smartest women [she’s] met in the Foreign Service.” Almost thirty years later, Ambassador Spratlen admires her boss’ exceptional ability to communicate complicated economic issues “fluidly and flexibly” on the job, whilst also managing a family and kids at home.

When asked about her female role-models, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield recalls several throughout her career, particularly Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal. When you see extraordinary women in action, you know that you can achieve that, too.

“Ambassador Brazeal, who was the Ambassador to Kenya when I was there, was an extraordinary role model.” – Amb. Thomas-Greenfield

Ambassador Dawn M. Liberi adds that it is also important to look at the fantastic examples we have of female leadership today. “Ambassador [Marie] Yavonovitch stands out,” Amb. Liberi says, “she is someone who is willing to stand up for her convictions, has the courage to do that and the poise.” Ambassador Barbara Bodine further points out that, indeed, “roles models should be those inner characteristics of somebody you want to emulate.”

While female role-models are important, women do not need to see other women in positions of power to dare imagine themselves in the upper echelons of their aspired professions. Ambassador Bodine, a first generation college graduate, explains that when she was growing up there was no one around her, neither in her family nor in her community, that provided a blueprint for her career aspirations.

If you wait for someone who looks like you before you do something, there would be no progress, no change.

Ambassador Barbara Bodine

Indeed, there is still progress to be made and there are still many trails left to blaze. While women are representing the US on larger swaths of the planet than ever before, it is important to pay attention to which countries females most frequently get assigned to …and to which they do not. Washington has posted woman to all fourteen Oceanic countries. Of the 126 US ambassadors sent to China and Russia though, zero have been female. No woman has ever served as ambassador in Germany or Spain or Israel, while Micronesia remains the most popular destination for female US ambassadors. Generally, female US ambassadors still receive country assignments that are deemed less central to US foreign policy. 

“We definitely got the peripheral states…the closer you got to the core, the numbers crashed. My job was to get on the periphery and get the door open for other women.” Ambassador Bodine

In essence, serving as an ambassador means representing your country. The fight for equal representation within the State Department is inextricably linked to the representation of women around the globe. The tally of women ambassadors representing Washington rarely budges past 40 and the number currently stands at 38 out of over 150 possible country posts. There are also still no women who openly identify as lesbian or trans and hold the rank of Ambassador. Find out how you can improve these statistics here.

Since the 1950s, the percentage of women representing the US as ambassadors has grown…

There is still much progress to be made:

Original data bank composed by Madelyn Bovasso, Alexia Gardner, and Tina Maglakelidze. Graphic prepared by Willard West.