Women in the Foreign Service – You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
It is remarkable to think that there have been three female Secretaries of State in the last 15 years. However, the Foreign Service was not always so accommodating to women. Times were quite different in the Mad Men era — including the assumption that women should resign from the Service once they got married — as these three women point out in excerpts from their oral histories.
To read a brief background on women in the State Department, go to our sister site, usdiplomacy.org. You can also read an in-depth article on the Alison Palmer case on discrimination against women. Go here for other Moments on women.
“She is engaged to a fine German man and will be leaving the Service because of this”
Susan Klingaman entered the Service in 1966 and served in several posts, including Bonn.
Q: How did you get into the Foreign Service?
KLINGAMAN: I got in the same way everyone else does. I took the Foreign Service exam but I took it in 1961 when I still felt I was on a straight road to teaching. I took the Foreign Service exam because almost everyone at Fletcher was taking it and I thought I might as well take it for the experience. I had absolutely no knowledge of the Foreign Service. I had no ambition to go into it. I took it. I passed it. And so they invited me to the oral interview in Spring 1962 and I thought I might as well take the oral interview and so I took it primarily for the experience. It was quite an experience!
The oral exam for the Foreign Service was the longest and most grueling and most confrontational exam I ever encountered before or since. In those days the name of the game was to make the interviewee as uncomfortable as possible. The reason was simply to see how poised we were, how we would extricate ourselves from potentially embarrassing or awkward situations, and how well we could think on our feet.
There were three male examiners on one side of the table and I was on the other side. I had prepared myself as best I could. In those days the gossip around the Fletcher School was that you should read the New York Times for several months, you should know where Yemen is located, you should be prepared for them to offer you a cigarette and not provide an ashtray, all of those little tricks. I was prepared for those but I was not prepared for the length and intensity of the exam.
I was not prepared for some of the questions that I received which quite frankly were very sexist.
One of the questions was one I was well prepared for and it was simply what are you going to do if you are accepted into the Foreign Service and then you decide to get married. And my answer was quite simply that I would have to resign. They asked me why and I said there was a regulation in the State Department that requires women to resign if they get married, no matter to whom. So I would because I would be required to. I would not necessarily want to but that would be the requirement. They accepted that answer as obviously the correct answer. They didn’t ask me, really, for my views on that….
Q: Were there any problems with Americans in the area?
KLINGAMAN: Yes. There were a number of naturalized Americans, German Americans, who returned to Germany because their social security went farther there in their retirement. We had some that were on German welfare, some who were mentally ill who gave us problems. I remember one woman who was both on welfare and mentally ill who came in to my office and wanted yet another loan from our consular contingency slush fund. I declined to give it to her for various reasons and I distinctly remember her standing up, this is a woman giving another woman lots of problems, standing up, looking at me, saying “Have you ever had your eyes scratched out by a woman?”
Obviously I hadn’t. I just looked wildly around me on my desk and saw the large, heavy black iron instrument which we used to imprint the seal of the United States on visas, with the long black handle. I stood, picked it up and said that no, I had never been scratched by a woman and didn’t plan to be now. She just moved right out of my office and I realized that I had the seal of the United States as my best defense weapon from there on out!…
Also I think I should tell you that I became unofficially engaged to a German during this period, a German law student I had met during my Fulbright days in Mainz. So much of my social life was going back and forth to Mainz where he was. And he was coming up to Dusseldorf.
The marriage regulations, which we have mentioned, never really distressed me because I figured that if I married this German I would have had no intention of staying in the Foreign Service anyway. But I also want to tell you that the consul general wrote a very enthusiastic note in my efficiency report saying Miss Klingaman is a wonderful officer but she is now engaged to a fine German man and will be leaving the Foreign Service because of this. It was all very upbeat. Today of course you would not be allowed to mention something like this in a performance evaluation but he did, and it didn’t upset me at the time.
As it turned out I didn’t marry this German. When I returned to Washington on home leave from Dusseldorf I saw that efficiency report in the personnel files and lo and behold that portion of my efficiency report had been underlined in red and flagged by the promotion panel. I was in fact promoted during my stay in Germany. I met one of the men who had been on that promotion board later and he said that they had decided to promote me anyway, despite the fact that I was going to get married. But the point is that a comment like that in my efficiency report could have kept me from getting a promotion and wouldn’t be allowed to be mentioned today in an efficiency report. But the fact that it was mentioned did not bother me at all at the time. Times have changed.
The consul general was the primary reporting officer on politics in the Rhineland. He never sought the assistance of the vice consuls in this effort. The closest I got to that was to be invited numerous times to his dinner parties.
Why was I invited? Because every once in a while at seven o’clock at night after I had returned home from work I would get a frantic call from the consul general. “Miss Klingaman, Miss Klingaman, one of the German wives can’t attend the dinner tonight. You know the Germans are very superstitious about having odd numbers at the dinner table so could you please come and fill in?” I went with mixed feelings, annoyance that my own plans for the evening had been disrupted but glad that I could be included at least to that extent with some of the higher ups. It was interesting for me although of course when the time came for after dinner discussions the men adjourned for their cigars and cognac and I went with the women into the sitting room. That bothered me at the time because I was interested in German politics, but it wasn’t something that I was going to make an issue of. I really couldn’t make an issue of it, and I wasn’t really so inclined.
I guess the male junior officers were excluded, too. Actually they were not even invited to the consul general’s dinners because it was always a woman needed to fill in.
“Why don’t you marry a Foreign Service officer?”
Elizabeth Ann Swift entered the Foreign Service in 1963 and served in Indonesia and Iran.
Q: How was the oral exam at the time?
SWIFT: Oh, it was hysterical. I went in having been told it would be a personality test. They just wanted to see if you were a nice person, and if they would like you. Wrong. They asked me all sorts of horrible questions about what was the gross national debt, which I could not tell you today, and certainly couldn’t tell them at that point. All sorts of esoteric and wonderful questions, none of which I knew, and I did a terrible, terrible job on that first exam.
At that point you had your exam with three people for maybe two or three hours, and then at the end they sort of said, “Thank you very much,” and you went out, and the chairman called me back in and he said, “Miss Swift, we’re very sorry to tell you that you haven’t passed.” And I knew it already so that didn’t bother me. And he said, “But we really liked you.” And I thought that was an odd comment, and “We’d really like to have you in the Foreign Service, so why don’t you marry a Foreign Service officer, and you can become a part of the Foreign Service that way?” I was so angry, because I’d been brought up by my mother, my father having died when I was very young, and I had been brought up in girls’ schools until I went off to Stanford and Radcliffe, had done very well at Radcliffe, and by that time Radcliffe was coed in everything but name with Harvard, and I’d always competed well with the guys. It never occurred to me that I was any different from any guy, and it never occurred to me that there would be something different about hiring a woman as to hiring a man.
I was so angry I walked out of the front door of the State Department and swore I would never, ever come back, and almost went into the Peace Corps but the Peace Corps wanted to send me to Tanzania, and I wanted to go to Thailand. So I got a job at the State Department in the Message Analysis and Dissemination Office of the telegraph branch.
“Now, now, we like young ladies”
Arma Jane Karaer would become Ambassador to Papua New Guinea in 1997. Here she discusses entering the Foreign Service in 1966.
KARAER: Back at Minnesota my professors were critical of government and all of them said to me, “Oh, that’s very nice, that you passed the test, Miss Szczepanski, but you know they don’t take women.” For the first time in my life I was really angry at the establishment. I was so angry. I went into the oral interview thinking, “Okay, they’re not going to take me, but by golly, they’re going to spend the time interviewing me.”
Now, I also knew that we had passed the Civil Rights Act. I wondered how this was going to impact. I went in there and they started asking questions about my background. I had worked for one summer at the Department of Agriculture as a summer intern. They wanted to know how this had taught me about America, American policy, the American economy, and so on. They asked me personal questions mostly. They asked me if I was engaged and I said no, I wasn’t. Well, they kept coming back to that, asking in different ways, was I planning to get married. I said, “You know, gentlemen, if you want me to say that I don’t like men and that I’m never going to get married, I won’t, because I do, and maybe one day I will be married, but I haven’t predicated my life on it.” The head of the panel said, “Now, now, we like young ladies.” I thought yes, right, as long as they don’t get married. Then they started the actual questions of the test. It was great, because having got that off my chest, I wasn’t nervous anymore. Because along with being told that they never took women, I had also been told all those stories about how they tried to trick people during the test.
Q: The general presumption was that if a woman became a Foreign Service officer and married anyone, they were expected to resign. That stopped about five or six years later, but at that time, the general feeling was that if you took a woman on you were displacing somebody who would probably have a career in the Foreign Service. It was a fallacious thing, but I mean that was the mindset.
KARAER: Although it was the general belief that you had to resign if you got married, that wasn’t true, because men didn’t have to resign if they got married. The problem was that they would apply the “being available for worldwide service” rule very strictly. So even if you married another officer, they had no program to try to keep you both officers in the same place.
If the Department said, “He’s supposed to go to South Africa and you’re supposed to go to Iceland. Suck it up or resign,” that’s what happened. There were some female officers in the service who were married, but they were married to men who were retired. One I heard [about] was an artist, another one was a writer, men who could take their careers on their backs with them. Of course there were very few women officers and most of them, as you say, resigned once they married. Anyway, after the question period was over, they asked me to wait outside of the room for a little while. Then they called me back in and they told me right away that they were going to recommend that I be hired. I was called to go to Washington the following January. So my A-100 course started in January of ’67 and that was my entry into the Foreign Service.