‘Women and Diplomacy:’ A British diplomat looks back

The following is an extract from a speech given yesterday by British Ambassador in Athens Simon Gass on «Women and Diplomacy,» at a charity event hosted at his residence to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Hellas. The last seven days have been significant in that the UK has joined Greece as a country with a woman foreign minister, the first time for either country. So in view of today’s audience, I want to spend a few minutes describing the history of women and diplomacy, and particularly Britain’s approach in the last century. Today both Greece and Britain have many women diplomats and several female ambassadors. But only recently has diplomacy been seen as an acceptable profession for a woman. Historically there have been exceptions. In 1507, the King of Aragon sent his daughter Catherine as an accredited ambassador to England to negotiate with King Henry VII over her proposed marriage to his son – who later became the much married Henry VIII. And in 1529 the Treaty of Cambray was known as «the Ladies Peace» because it was negotiated by Louise of Savoy, the mother of the French king and Margaret of Austria, the aunt of Emperor Charles V. But these exceptions are just that – exceptions. Indeed, many years were to pass before women would be considered as having the potential to serve their country in a diplomatic role. In 1889, the Foreign Office employed a Miss Sophia Fulcher as the ministry’s first typist using the relatively newfangled typewriter. The pay and conditions were ungenerous and it was a basic rule that women typists would resign if they wished to marry. But the coming of the First World War, in which women in many countries were called upon to perform different types of work that had previously been the province of men, meant that even conservative institutions like foreign ministries were force to regard them as a potential source of labor. The British Foreign Office began to employ women as clerical assistants, although only a handful ever rose above the lowest official positions. Certainly they were not regarded as diplomats. The world was changing, however. A number of other countries did employ female diplomats, although these were few in number. For example, Mrs Ruth Bryan Owen served with considerable success as American ambassador to Denmark from 1933-1936. The Soviet representative at Stockholm, Madame Alexandra Kollontai, was patronizingly described by the British ambassador as «very feminine and remarkably intelligent.» He continued, however, that her gender did pose one or two difficulties and, he said, «she confesses that even now she prefers to ask the man with whom she has to talk to luncheon rather than dinner.» This evidence caused the British Foreign Office in 1933 to launch an enquiry into the suitability of women for appointment as members of the diplomatic service. As part of its gathering of evidence, the Foreign Office asked British ambassadors overseas to state their views on the subject and the results were, I am afraid, rather predictable. A few ambassadors declared themselves to be entirely opposed to the employment of women. A few were in favor… but the majority fell between these two opinions. Several ambassadors concluded (sometimes rather reluctantly) that a woman could do the office work of a diplomat but that she would be at a serious disadvantage in being taken seriously by the people with whom she would have to deal outside the embassy. The British ambassador in Switzerland gave as his opinion that in dealing with foreigners «a clever woman would not be liked and an attractive woman would not be taken seriously.» The British ambassador to Norway took a different line, saying that in consular work it would be difficult for a woman to deal with rough sailors and – here I quote – «it would be distinctly unpleasant for her to look after syphilitic seamen.» Indeed, it was only after the Second World War that the way was opened for women to join the diplomatic service. The foreign secretary of the day, Sir Anthony Eden, pointed out that it would be a pity if women who had been tested by difficult and sometimes dangerous work during the war should not be able to compete to join the Foreign Office. Even then, those women who did become British diplomats were not always treated entirely seriously. But views changed as women showed that they were as capable of successful diplomacy as any man. But women were not treated with equality until some years later. Equal pay for women was introduced in 1955. Until 1972, all women had to submit their resignation upon marriage. And in practice, until 1985, all senior female British diplomats overseas were unmarried, even though there was no longer any requirement for this to be the case. Today 35 percent of the British diplomatic service is made up of women and there are over 20 female ambassadors. We still face difficulty, not least because there is a high drop-out rate of female officers who find it impossible to reconcile the demands of living and working overseas with those of raising a family. Nevertheless, we are making determined efforts to ensure that more women are able to reach the highest reaches of the Foreign Office – not only because it is important that British embassies overseas properly reflect the composition of the British people, but also because the different skills and approaches that women bring to the Foreign Office result in better decision-making and a more effective organization.