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From ‘Wife of’ to Assistant Secretary of State: Phyllis Oakley Rises Through the State Department

While it was never written into the formal policies of the U.S. Department of State, it had been common practice for women in the Foreign Service to retire once they were married. In the early 1970s, after years of legal challenges from Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer and others, the State Department finally dropped the practice and allowed women to re-enter the Service, despite their marital status.

As Phyllis Oakley notes in her oral history, she was the “’wife of’ for sixteen years,” specifically to FSO Robert  Oakley from the moment they wed in 1958 until 1974, when she was able to apply for re-entrance to the Foreign Service. Once she re-joined, Oakley quickly rose through the ranks of the State Department, beginning in the Bureau for International Organizations. She retired in 1999, having served as the Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research (INR). 

Oakley describes her initial resignation from the Department, as a result of her plans to marry in Cairo (and how the clerk was shocked that there were no camels or goats in the dowry); the evolution of the Department’s policies towards women; the effects of the Alison Palmer case; and her at-times rocky transition to life in the Service. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2004.

You can read more about the Palmer caseStephanie Kinney, who helped push for the creation of the Family Liaison Office (FLO) at the Department, and Ambassador Elinor Constable’s experience as a spouse and FSO.  You can also read the transcript from the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service.


“They didn’t see any use in pushing and fighting for certain positions when the outcome was quite evident when one got married”

OAKLEY:  Even in those days [in the 1950s], many officers spent their first tours in visa sections in far off posts. There was no feeling that one could influence that first assignment. There was just a higher authority that told you where to go and off you went like a good soldier….

Bob did not have an assignment either when he finished the A-100 course [the orientation for new Foreign Service Officers] and some French training just before Christmas. He was sent to study more French in Nice, which at that time was the site of FSI’s overseas French programs….And right after that, in May of 1958, he was sent to Khartoum as the General Services officer.

By this time, we had decided to get married and it was a very complicated situation. I knew that I had to resign. I must say that at the time my consciousness was very low. Women in the Foreign Service knew that if they married they would have to resign and we accepted that discrimination without batting an eyelash.

At the time, there weren’t many vacancies for junior officers; if the Department had offered me something potentially interesting and challenging, I might have felt differently about resignation. My decision to get married was undoubtedly greeted by Personnel with relief because it was just one less person whom it had to place.

I was told that the Department could not pay my way to the Sudan to get married, but that it might be able to arrange a marriage by proxy. Dwight Dickinson was the person in Personnel trying to be helpful and take care of my problems. I told him that I did not want to get married by proxy; I didn’t think that it really was the way to start a marriage.

A number of people found my situation quite amusing and used to laugh at my wedding plans; it confirmed their prejudices about the Foreign Service accepting women….

The 1950s were totally different from today. In those days, when women married, they generally did not work. I never asked to see the regulations about married women; I did not object nor demand a job when I got to Khartoum. I just accepted life as it was generally lived.

In fact, the Department operated by custom, and not because of legal limitations, but no woman thought of challenging those customs — our consciousness was very low indeed….

It never occurred to me to challenge the Department on its personnel policies. I was deeply in love, ready for marriage. I did not see myself as a victim in marrying Bob; it was the beginning of a new phase in my life. I had had a feeling on a number of occasions in college and at Fletcher [School of Diplomacy], as I was taking one more test or filling out one more application, that it might have been easier and time to give up and just get married.

That is what many women did. They didn’t see any use in pushing and fighting for certain positions when the outcome was quite evident when one got married. I knew how they felt as I had had similar feelings at moments of discouragement. But when I decided to marry Bob, I didn’t feel that I was doing it because other professional avenues were just too hard; I looked forward to being a partner in a shared life in the Foreign Service….

I called Bob immediately, not easy then, before he got his official orders and was told to be in Khartoum in three days. It became very complicated to get home for a wedding from the middle of Africa in June, 1958.

In the end, it all seemed too much and simply easier if I flew to Cairo alone to marry Bob. Bob was to come up to Cairo a little earlier to make the arrangements — and for our honeymoon which we hoped to take in Beirut…

“That was our wedding and to this day we don’t know if it was all proper and legal”

So on Sunday morning, June 8, we went to the Cairo registrar’s office for the civil ceremony. The office was piled high with dusty old files and papers up to the top of the 16-feet high ceiling, with a lazy ceiling fan moving slowly around. We had our embassy friends along as witnesses.

When the last papers in both Arabic and English were completed, the clerk turned to Bob and said, “All right, now where is the dowry? How many camels and goats were agreed upon?” I had to tell the clerk that my father didn’t have any camels or goats.

He looked at Bob as if he had lost all of his marbles — marrying a woman without getting camels and goats! What benefits could he possibly get from this marriage! In any case, that took care of the civil side of the marriage formalities.

In the afternoon, we went to the Anglican cathedral. All the British clergy had had to leave the country after the Suez invasion, so an Egyptian archdeacon and his assistant presided. Our two friends, Jim and Betty Sartorious, were our attendants and gave me away, and there was an organist and her husband. You can’t get much smaller than that but we had a proper service, followed by a small reception hosted by Jim and Betty in their apartment for a few from the embassy.

That was our wedding and to this day we don’t know if it was all proper and legal. But who knows? Our marriage certificate is in Arabic, with an attestation and translation stamped by the embassy. In any case no one has ever asked to see it….

At last, the newly married couple went to the airport, again in the middle night, to get our flight to Khartoum….It all seemed a bleak, godforsaken place at first glance, I must say…

In those days, it was still the practice in the diplomatic community for newly arrived wives to call on those who had been at post for some time. Several of us newcomers would go around and call on the British and the French and the Germans, etc., wearing hats and gloves even in the heat of Khartoum.

The British had garden parties; we played bridge. Men had to wear “Red Sea Rig” which was a tuxedo without a jacket. The ladies wore English flower print dresses or frocks. I couldn’t tell the difference between the flowered dresses worn during the day and those worn at night, but I was told that there was.

It seemed that we were quite busy socially, primarily because of the young Sudanese we met. We ended up teaching them “Monopoly” which we would play outside in the garden in the evenings, with floor lamps on long extension cords.

One of the participants of these soirees was a young man, Monsour Khalid, who later became Sudan’s Foreign Minister. He later became an opposition leader and remains a good friend. We had in our group a young lady from the el Mahdi family, Sarah, who became the first Sudanese girl to go to study in the U.S., sponsored by some leaders from the League of Women Voters. She actually spent a summer with Warren Buffett and his family in Omaha — this was about 1960. We saw Sarah and the Buffetts when we went to Omaha that summer on home leave and Warren and I have talked about her over the years. So somehow or other, a lot of lasting connections were built…

“I was ‘wife of’ for sixteen years and know how difficult it is to manage a family under very trying circumstances”

Sometime during our tour [in Beirut in 1974, pictured], we began to hear that the State Department was changing in regard to women. The issue of married women in the Foreign Service had been revisited and policies were changing — for example, women were no longer required to resign when they married.

So I went to see the Embassy’s personnel officer and told her that in light of the policy changes being implemented and in the likely event of a next assignment to Washington, I would want to apply for a return to the Foreign Service. The personnel officer suggested that I not wait until the summer of 1974, but that I submit my request right away. She knew that the process would take some time and she, wisely, was prepared in lend a hand in getting the paperwork completed in Beirut and submitted to the Department….

By the end of June 1974, we were all back in Washington. Bob had been pulled out of Beirut earlier in the spring to be in Geneva if Middle East peace talks started there, but I stayed so that the children could finish school. I knew by then that in the fall my request for reentry would be approved and that I would rejoin the Foreign Service.

At this point, I felt I could do it — our daughter was going to enter high school, the National Cathedral School — and our son was going into junior high, and we would probably be in Washington for a while. So the timing for reentry was quite propitious and soon after our return to Washington, I “came back in.”

I should say one other thing about my decision. I have never denigrated the role of women and wives in the Foreign Service; I was “wife of” for sixteen years and know how difficult it is to manage a family under very trying circumstances and many moves. The management of children and a household and the required social life was a full-time job. We had wonderful posts; I did volunteer work when I could. I did learn what it took to play a contributing role in the Foreign Service overseas and it was an invaluable education. So I didn’t reenter the work force because I looked down at the role of a Foreign Service wife….

Bob originally had been assigned to the Senior Seminar, but that was changed early in the summer to a position on the Policy Planning staff, although by the fall he was reassigned again, this time to the NSC [National Security Council] staff to replace Hal Saunders on the Middle East. My application to rejoin the Foreign Service was approved and I more or less told that I had to find a job — no one seemed in charge of placing me.

I have always said that the Foreign Service was not society’s leader, but a follower. In the late 1960s and 1970s, American views on working women and women’s rights evolved, rather quickly. Society came a long way in a short period of time.

On the other hand, it took the concerted effort of a group of concerned women in the Foreign Service to get change moving in that institution. The first major case was that of Alison Palmer. She sued the Department over its assignment policies and was helped by other women who also felt discrimination. She with others opened up a whole range of women’s issues in the Foreign Service.

I remember that a couple of years earlier I had spoken with Cleo Noel, a very good friend who was working in the Office of Personnel. [Read about Ambassador Noel’s assassination in Khartoum in 1973.] He had been assigned by Bill Macomber, the Deputy under Secretary for Management, to develop the Department’s defense of the existing policy on forcing the retirement of women from the Foreign Service when they married.

Macomber wanted to know what tack the Department’s defense would take. He was told by Cleo and others in Personnel that there wasn’t any defense. It was a policy that had just developed over years and never reviewed. But the world had moved on and that policy needed to be eliminated.

I think also that as the Department looked at the issue of what to do with those who had been forced to resign because of an archaic policy, it recognized that it applied to so few cases that it was not worth a battle. It was simply easier and less costly to open up the system for those who wished to rejoin. Not only were there so few cases to begin with, but many of the small number who had left had gone on to other careers and would not wish to rejoin. I never knew exactly how many there were of us — I would guess under 20.

The Department’s decision was certainly the right one, both statistically and operationally. It shouldn’t have been very hard. When we were in Beirut, I knew that this issue was really bubbling in Washington.…My processing started in April or May 1974 and was finished in October.

“I was happy enough to be returning to the Foreign Service so I decided not to challenge the offer of a 7. In retrospect, I made a mistake.”

One remarkable aspect of my re-entry was that there was so little discussion of that issue. Everyone assumed that finally back in Washington we would be there for some time. The problem of the first overseas tour did not seem to loom very large at the time, either between Bob and me or in the Department.

I was fortunate enough to have Bill Buffum, our former Ambassador in Beirut, offer me a job in UN/P (UN Political Affairs) in IO [Bureau of International Organization Affairs] (where Bob had started) handling most Middle East questions, including the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. I worked directly for John Baker who was the office director.

I was struck very early in this process by how little I actually knew about the organization of the Department and how it worked even though I had been associated with it for many years. I laughed very hard when after writing my first cable our secretary came to ask me what “tags” I wanted on the form. I looked at her dumbfounded. I didn’t know what she was talking about.

The women who had applied for reinstatement and had been accepted were given no refresher training at all. I guess the powers-that-be must have thought that as a wife I would have known all about the organization and processes of the Department.

In retrospect, one reason I was so green in so many ways was because these were matters Bob had never discussed with me. He didn’t care or talk a lot about process. So I knew little about how the Department actually worked, but I did have some advantages in that I knew about Beirut and the Middle East. So I did not have many problems with substance, but I certainly had to learn from scratch mundane things like tags on cables and “memcons” [memoranda of conversations].

When I reentered the Foreign Service, I had had the experience of living abroad in many different places. I had taught American history in a small college in Louisiana, while Bob was serving in Vietnam. I had worked as a part-time consultant in international affairs for the YWCA [World Young Women’s Christian Association], working essentially as an NGO. I had headed the American Women’s Club in Beirut that gave me some managerial background. So I was not exactly inexperienced, but I did find that none of this really counted when I reentered the FS.

As I had resigned as an FSO-8, there was an issue of what new grade I should be offered. The first suggestion was FSO-7 but I thought I should be offered something higher — FSO 6 or 5 in light of my age and experience.

I had heard that someone whom I had known in Beirut, who clearly was opposed to allowing married women back into the Foreign Service, served on the panel that was discussing the issue of my new grade level. So there were hints of bias on the part of those who could not reconcile themselves to new times. At that point, I was happy enough to be returning to the Foreign Service so I decided not to challenge the offer of a 7.

In retrospect, I made a mistake. It does take time to reach every level in a career system. I would have been better off to have reentered at a more reasonable rank. There was no one to turn to for advice on what to do with the Department’s offer.

Also about this time, the Department changed its ranking system. It dropped the FSO-8 designation and reordered all personnel into a new system. I was moved up to FSO-6. Thereafter, I was promoted rather quickly and I probably made up for lost time. Nevertheless, I think had I been given what I think I deserved based on my experience, it would have made a difference. I attribute the Department’s position to outdated thinking by men who were resisting the expansion of women’s rights in the Foreign Service.

Q: It is not a surprise that men feeling increased competition might well have resisted the new policies. But did you find career women in IO who also opposed the new approaches?

OAKLEY: Not really. You have raised an interesting question that I did not consider at the time, or since. I never received anything but full support and encouragement from the women in IO. We were a new phenomenon; I claimed, and it was undoubtedly true, that I was the oldest FSO-7 in the Service. Everyone knew that Bob was a rising star.

The question was whether I could make it in the Foreign Service. Would good things happen to me — and us? Would it all work? In that sense, I felt I was given more encouragement than neglect or hostility, although I am sure that there were people who disapproved of what was going on.

Q: Was there any effort made among the re-entrants to plea with the Department for some short reentry training?

OAKLEY: No. There were so few of us that neither we nor the Department were pro-active. So there was no training, no luncheon meetings, no nothing. I did have a long transition period with my predecessor, Xenia Wilkinson, which was very helpful because she spent a lot of time tutoring me. The other people in IO were also extremely helpful. There were two or three other newcomers in the bureau — a fellow named John Tefft, who has just been named Ambassador to one of the Baltic States [Lithuania, later Ukraine and Russia] and an officer by the name of Molly Williamson, married to an FSO as well, although she joined after marriage.

We were all learning together. I think that most of the people in the office tried their best to help but there were a few who I think probably did not view the Department’s new policy with enthusiasm. They also may have had some questions about how and why I had gotten this very good job in IO.

Our office director, John Baker, seemed a rather difficult and cold man, but I must say I now have more sympathy for him. He probably should have insisted that I get some training. I was very green and not accustomed to State’s office routines and therefore probably not much help at the beginning. I had to learn all of this on the job.

I must say that I did have a wonderful job. I was handling aspects of the Middle East that were never very far from the top of the UN agenda. My job was to keep the PLO out of the UN, the Israelis in; I must say I did much better on the latter than on the former — they were finally admitted in 1974 over our objections. We were all dealing with a continual stream of urgent issues, such as votes on membership and questions with the specialized agencies, which became proxy political battlegrounds for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It turned out that eventually I became the bureau’s expert on Middle East questions in these specialized agencies. I didn’t think my drafting initially was very good, but over a period of time, I think my writing became acceptable.