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More American in US Foreign Service Careers - 2002-03-23

American women have made great progress in their struggle for equality with men in the workplace. But in some professions, their advancement has been much slower than in others - in diplomacy, for example. The United States currently has 146 ambassadors serving in various nations. Twenty-six of them are women. Two of the six under secretaries of State are women, and eight of the 32 assistant secretaries of State are female. These figures might indicate that American women are still far from being equal in high-ranking positions of the Foreign Service. But only a few decades ago, the situation was much worse for women - they had to resign from the Foreign Service when they got married.

Avis Bohlen, Assistant Secretary for Arms Control at the U.S. Department of State, says that's why she had not planned to pursue a diplomatic career when she graduated from Columbia University in 1965.

"I went to work for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the early 1970's and while I was there, the State Department inaugurated the Equal Opportunity policy to try to bring more women and more minorities into the Foreign Service. They had something called the mid-level entrance program and I applied for that, and that's how I came into the Foreign Service," she says.

Avis Bohlen joined the Foreign Service at the time when women began a concerted effort to improve the status of female officers in foreign affairs agencies. In 1971, Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer filed a complaint with the Foreign Service Grievance Board, asserting that she had been denied overseas assignments solely because of her gender. Impatient with the slow pace of action on her grievance, in 1976 she expanded her case in a class action suit on behalf of all women in the Foreign Service. While Alison Palmer's suit was still pending, the U.S. Congress passed the Foreign Service Reform Act of 1980, requiring the service to recruit, hire and promote more women and minorities. Ms Palmer's case was finally settled in 1996 - the year Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State in the United States.

Retired Foreign Service Officer Clyde Taylor says the 1980 law has made a significant impact on the status of American women in diplomacy.

"I was in charge of assignments and counseling for State Department personnel back in the 1989-1992 period and I know that back then - and it has continued since then - that there are special efforts to try and see that women and minorities are considered for senior positions and for positions that are considered to be those that prepare people for chief-of-mission jobs, such as being a Counsel General or Counsel of the Post. So you will find an increasing number of women in deputy assistant secretary positions (and) assistant secretary positions," Mr. Taylor says.

Women have served in various capacities in the U.S. Department of State from its earliest days in the late 1700's. But State historian Mark Susser says the agency did not employ any women in full-time positions until almost a century later - in 1874.

"However, for many years, even these positions were largely low-level clerical positions. It wasn't until 1918 that a woman achieved a supervisory rank the woman named Margaret Hanna became Chief of the Correspondence Bureau. But progress for women still came very slowly. It was nearly 30 years after this 1874 decision to hire women for full-time clerical positions before the Department [of State] even employed women for positions in our embassies overseas and that also was for clerical work," Mr. Susser says.

Mark Susser says many in the State Department argued that an officer must be available for assignment anywhere in the world. Since cultural and political obstacles seemed to preclude the posting of women in parts of Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and other regions, women were deemed unsuitable as Foreign Service Officers. Some State Department officials also suggested that women could not handle the hardships associated with duty abroad.

But in the 1920's, women were allowed to take the foreign-service exam, the first step towards an overseas assignment. Lucille Atcherson passed it with the third highest score in 1922 and became the first woman Foreign Service Officer. Despite this milestone, very few American women became diplomats until the 1950's. One of them was Ruth Bryan Owen, the daughter of former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. In 1933, President Roosevelt named her Minister to Denmark. But Ruth Bryan Owen and a few other female chiefs of foreign missions were political appointees - which means they did not work their way up through the Foreign Service ranks. Only in 1953 did President Eisenhower name a female Foreign Service Officer: Frances Willis, Ambassador to Switzerland.

After 37 years of distinguished sevice, she became the first woman named Career Ambassador - the highest honor for a professional diplomat.

Edward Crapol, the author of a collection of essays titled "Women and Foreign Policy," says despite individual success stories, discrimination against women in diplomacy continued until very recently. He says even the seemingly powerful Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1980's, complained of not being recognized by her colleagues.

"There's a metaphor she used: one day being in one of the rooms at the White House at a meeting she noticed there was a mouse there and she made the analogy that she was about as recognized as that mouse was."

In the last year, almost half of the newly hired Foreign Service officers have been women. State historian Mark Susser says that means there are now more female diplomats available for ambassadorial posts or senior positions at the Department of State. He says very soon we might see a much more equitable men-to-women ratio in the American diplomatic service.