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Wives and Women in the Foreign Service: The Creation of the Family Liaison Office

A 1957 State Department publication of “Suggestions for Wives from Other Foreign Service Wives” introduced the idea that the main occupational role for wives was the support of their husbands. While never written into the formal regulations of the State Department, it was common practice for women employed in the Foreign Service to resign once married, and even more so once they had children. Until 1972, the spouses of FSO’s were considered government employees, and were therefore included in the employee evaluations of their partners. The introduction of the 1972 State Department Directive, the Declaration on Spouses, changed this. It provided spouses with more freedom, removing the pressures of being included in evaluations. It also overturned the ban on the marriage of female diplomats. 

While the 1972 Directive was a step in the right direction away from sex-based discrimination, it was not the only step that needed to be taken. Through the partnership of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Wives (AAFSW, later changed to Worldwide) and others, these efforts were expanded, culminating in the release of the AAFSW Forum Report. The Report included a questionnaire answered by the partners of FSO’s abroad, highlighting the concerns of wives specifically, which was then submitted to the Secretary of State.

Stephanie Kinney played an instrumental role in the publication of the AAFSW Forum Report. She is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer, one of the first “tandem couples” (i.e., both are FSOs), and winner of the Department of State’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Harriman Award for her leadership role in creating the Department’s Family Liaison Office (FLO).

She discusses her experience in the “Wives Seminar;”the questionnaire of FSO wives, which led her to the conclusion that the neglect and cavalier treatment of spouses was “not a women’s issue. This is a management concern.” That in turn led to meetings with other spouses and the attention of upper management and the eventual creation of FLO, which responds to the needs of Foreign Service families as they cope with the disruptions caused by a mobile and sometimes dangerous lifestyle and provides assistance in the areas of family-member employment, the education of dependent children, and crisis support.

She was interviewed by Monique Wong beginning in November 1992 and again by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 2010. You can also read about the historic Palmer case, Ambassador Elinor Constable’s and Phyllis Oakley’s experiences as a spouse and FSO, and a few short anecdotes from women who served in the 1960s.  You can also read the transcript from the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service


“It appears that the only way for a married woman to make it in the Foreign Service is to marry a successful officer”

KINNEY:  My high school in central Florida in the early ’60’s, 1961 to be exact, taught us to write research papers by giving us a really dumb topic. The topic was “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” For reasons that I don’t remember, it occurred to me to write about being a Foreign Service officer. So I sent off to the Department of State and got all sorts of information and gathered pamphlets and read books and found a person in Winter Haven who was a retired Foreign Service officer and interviewed him.

But the fruits of my efforts and my research were discouraging as I recorded in the last paragraph of the research paper which went something along this line. “And so if you’re a young girl who hopes to have both a family and a career, it would appear that the Foreign Service is not for you. It appears that the only way for a married woman to make it in the Foreign Service is to marry a successful officer.”…

I went to Vassar College and spent my junior year in Spain where I became quite enamored of things international and knew that I wanted to work in the international area but figured that probably teaching Spanish or history and working as an academic might be the only particular route. I met Douglas some years later….

I was teaching at a private school in Boston and he had just come back from the Peace Corps in what was then Upper Volta and had returned to the Kennedy School to get an MPA, Masters of Public Administration. We courted for a very short time, were married, and the next year he finished up school and we had to make career decisions.

And I was absolutely elated because word had just come out in the newspaper that the State Department was changing its Directive on married women and married women would indeed be allowed to join the Service. So we came to Washington in I think it was September of ’71 and he started his A‑100 class and I took the Foreign Service Exam in October, the old exam when it was given on a predictable date.

I was elated some month or so later to be told that I had passed. I took the oral exam and was thrilled to death to be told that I was the second married woman who had ever been admitted into the Service at that time. So I was thrilled to death, but I had to wait on the list the same as everybody else, and I had been interested in USIA [U.S. Information Agency], being a water lily floating on the sea of culture, essentially I thought that would be the metier for me.

But President Nixon at that time, having little faith in the younger generation, put a freeze on hiring for junior officers. This was the period of Vietnam and he figured he didn’t need any more rabble‑rousers in the government than he already had and was interested only in hiring mid‑level, reliable journalist‑types that he felt would tell the kind of story he was interested in about the War.….

[Doug] went to A-100 [the orientation class for new FSOs], and I went to the “Wives Seminar.”

Q: What was the spirit and attitude of the wives that you were with?

KINNEY: We were questioning more than I think had been the case five years before. I only know my class….There was a lot of expectation that times were changing.

The “Declaration on Spouses” edict had been published, so it was clear that wives no longer had to do “representation,” but it was still expected. It was still seen as something important. There was still an emphasis on the importance of the wife’s role. After all, we were all taking the “Wives Seminar.”

Dorothy Stansbury was the head of the Wives Seminar, and she really stressed the diplomatic value and importance of getting out and networking. We were to bring people to the table, into American homes and thereby facilitate relationships. Doing so would facilitate the business relationships of the male officers and thus the work of the U.S. Embassy.

It all made great good sense. Most people just thought that anyone who wanted to be paid for work or have a career of her own was a little crazy or a troublemaker….

It was this kind of generational shift for people in my generation; we were questioning the details but accepting that we were in a new era, which for the first time prohibited any comment or review of our activities in our husband’s Officer Evaluation Report (OER). Nonetheless, we were not so naïve that we thought we could go out and burn bras and not harm our husband’s career in the process.

So there was a respect for both the privilege and the responsibility of being married to an officer; however, many of us no longer saw ourselves as an extension of him, rather it was a responsibility taken on by a couple made up of two individuals….

I accompanied Douglas to Mexico, which was his first assignment and kept myself busy down there….Not being a member of the Service, being new to it, I didn’t have any sense of the way things used to be, we were still very much in a traditional regime in Mexico. Senior wives ‑ they weren’t dragon ladies. To my mind they were doing what was appropriate and what was proper and what was necessary from the standpoint of providing leadership for the younger generation.

I mean to tell you, you learned how to do your calling cards, you were given serious protocol, you were told to show up at parties fifteen to twenty minutes in advance. No, you may not talk to Americans and if they caught you spending too much time or sitting down would come over and nudge you and say, “Circulate, circulate.” They were not doing that in a tyrannical or authoritarian way but simply tending to what was at that time understood and properly, and still in my opinion today, is the proper business of good diplomacy, something that I think today we’ve lost. I don’t think we do a very good job. That’s another topic.

But I was brought up in that context and in that experience in what you could call the last gasp of the old traditional regime. It didn’t bother me. People did things properly, they did it well and one took a good deal of pride in it.

That was all anybody knew then. It didn’t occur to people to question it particularly. It was good manners. It was good proper behavior as a U.S. representative. It was needed because there was work to be done, there was entertaining to be done….

“The thing that I remember most was this growing sense of empowerment by gathering information and being together”

Q:  And then you came back and you joined the classes [for wives] with Dorothy Stansbury. Was that sort of the beginning of all these events that lead up to FLO?

KINNEY:  I went to Dorothy and…she said, “Well, there’s somebody you ought to meet who might be interested. You might be interested in getting to know her and maybe you all could do something together,” and she directed me to Hope Meyers [Chair of the Research Committee on Spouses]. And Hope and I met. As I recall we had tea at her house on P Street and commiserated. She was, I think, touched by my fervor and energy and the younger generation coming on.

That was in ’73….In the meantime, I passed my thirty‑first birthday, I discovered I was pregnant, came back to Washington, and had to start all over again. My frustration level was, needless to say, high. And I was going through a major transition in addition to the work issue and all of this other just gave fuel to the fire.

Q: What happened to your exams? The Foreign Service exams that you passed?

KINNEY: Well, yes. Mr. Nixon lifted the freeze two months after my eligibility ran out.

So that also added to my frustration. Just everything. That year. I just remember that summer was so awful. I just hated everything. I was furious. “Hell hath no fury” and I was really fit to be tied. I thought, “Well, you can go around being angry, but I’ve always been somebody who was taught that you have to find something to do about your anger, so.”

I thought, well, I was pregnant. There was no chance of my getting a job knowing I was going to quit nine months later. I felt obliged to tell them. I remember I interviewed out at Madeira [elite boarding school in the Washington, D.C. area] and I blew the interview because I knew I was pregnant at the time and  my heart wasn’t really in it. So I decided, “I’ll do volunteer work.” So I got a job as issues analyst at Common Cause on energy issues and went to Dorothy’s class and decided, maybe I would meet some people there who would be helpful to me. And I met Hope [Meyers].

And then the next thing I knew we were meeting in what became known as the Working Committee on Spouses. There were six of us as I recall. It was Hope and Anna Ralph, Cynthia Chard, myself, Molly Kux … We would meet every Tuesday in the Department, initially to complain to each other and talk about all the things that we didn’t like, and then to start identifying things that we could do to change things.

One of the things that we learned from each other was that the so‑called “regulation” that required married women to resign never existed. 

It never existed. It was just practiced. We got information from the Director General, we talked to people, we learned as much about management as we could. We tried to learn about why people were opposed to these changes involving women that were beginning to take place. We talked about the problems that resulted from taking away the old structure without putting anything in its place.

Our frustration derived largely from the fact that, although we had been declared “private persons” from the ’72 Directive, there was nothing private about our lives at all. Our lives were totally circumscribed by our husbands’ professions and their vagabond existence, dragging us from pillar to post with no chance of career continuity, pay or anything else.

And so out of that frustration came the sense that, all right, there was one thing worse than being an adjunct to your husband. It was being a non‑person. That private persons weren’t really private persons at all, they were just non‑persons because we didn’t exist at all.

At least before you existed. You were recognized in OERs [Officer Evaluation Reports]. There was a certain responsibility owed to you because, although you weren’t paid for your work, it was recognized that you did certain things and therefore the Department in general dealt with you. Now nothing.

The Research Committee on Spouses became somewhat loosely allied with the Women’s Action Organization. The more we did, the more WAO, the Women’s Action Organization identified themselves with us and would point to us and say, “Ah, they’re part of our group.” I don’t ever recall feeling all that close to WAO. Basically my recollection and my feelings at the time were that it was the six of us against the world trying to gather information. It was WAO and our nominal association with WAO that did enable us to get in the building, and that was important, and get the room so we could meet every Tuesday.

I think Hope was the one who arranged the relationship with WAO. I don’t remember. I’m sure she must have. But the thing that I remember most about that experience was this growing sense of empowerment by gathering information and being together, sort of solidarity. Getting increasingly fatter as my baby grew in my tummy. The wonderful sort of irony of being an impending mother starting this little nascent revolution with the six of us.

“This is not a women’s issue. This is not a malcontent’s problem. This is a management concern.”

Organizing a study -‑ it wasn’t a study, it was really a questionnaire that Cynthia Chard and I did that to my mind was one of the most seminal acts of the Research Committee on Spouses. It was a very unscientific questionnaire. It was designed for the simple‑minded to get simple answers and it was about two pages long with considerable space after each question. It was distributed to as many men as we could get our hands on in the Department who were officers.

The single most important thing we learned from it was that ‑ One, we got a tremendous response back. As I recall, about 33 percent, which is very high for any kind of questionnaire like this. Two, 25 percent of the respondents indicated that the working status of their wife would influence their next assignment.

And at that point, I said, “Aha, this is our handle! This is not a women’s issue. This is not a malcontent’s problem. This is a management concern.” And from that point on, we started attacking the issue as a management issue.

Q: The fact that it affected the husband.

KINNEY: It affects the Service and so forth. We collated the information, pulled it together, and sent it in a small report to Carol Laise who was Director General of the Service at that time. I think we met with her. I don’t remember all that clearly.

I remember being periodically disappointed and indignant because Carol didn’t seem to give us the support that we thought we deserved. But basically we kept at it. In that same time frame, Cynthia Chard also did the first effort at putting together a spouse skills talent bank. One of my memories of that is afternoons over at Cynthia’s house addressing thousands and thousands of these forms to send out. She financed it with her own money. Maybe we put in some contributions, I don’t know, but that was where that started.

We did that work in this format for about a year and then I remember Hope coming into one of the meetings and informing us that new leadership was coming on at AAFSW [Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide]. She asked me in particular to please come. She was a stalwart member of AAFSW, which was the old traditional lady’s aid society kind of organization for Foreign Service women, although they would not have appreciated that description. That was the way I looked at them.

Hope asked me to come to one of the meetings and to explain my concerns. That this new president was coming in and she thought maybe there was a chance of doing something. And I remember her saying, “Stephanie, you must work. You must give the traditional organs a chance. You can’t just dismiss them. You can’t act as though they don’t matter because they do.”

Lesley Dorman was coming on as the new president, and what I remember about that meeting is that I walked in and it was in a Georgetown home with lovely antique silver. Tea and crumpets crowd to beat the boots. Pearls, real big fat ones all over the place. This was old‑style Foreign Service.

And what I remember about that meeting is being asked to speak and never in my life having used the conditional, the subjunctive mood as much in my life because I proceeded to suggest to these dear ladies that while as a young spouse I was concerned about x, y and z because this was how I felt about it and perhaps this might indicate that there could be ‑ notice the use of the subjunctive ‑ difficulties and concerns, particularly among the younger women in the Service that might be of interest to AAFSW such that AAFSW might feel inclined to investigate whether or not there was a possibility that there was something they should be doing.

I am stepping on eggs and being as diplomatic as my poor, bedraggled little mind knows how to do at this point and getting bigger and bigger. So, much to my delight, there was a subsequent lunch, I think at Hope’s house, with Lesley Dorman. And Lesley, ever skeptical about young whippersnappers and the obstreperous younger generation was quite tart and quite the disciplinarian to make sure that I understood that I could not just go off popping off and being radical. That I had to give her and everybody else a chance. And that there was a proper way  -‑ a “proper” way — to do things.

But that was the beginning of, I think, a warm and affectionate, mutually respectful relationship over the coming years that proved to be a very good synergism and very productive one. Lesley was usually holding onto my coattails and trying to keep my feet on the ground when I would go orbiting off into furious space and I would get frustrated from time to time. But basically we provided a happy balance for one another and accomplished some very fine things together.

She was very skeptical in those early days and not at all sold, and it used to amuse me tremendously. Or at least that’s my recollection because I know when we would talk about it afterwards, that there was never any question that she was leading the charge all the way.

But it was very courageous of her. It was an extraordinary departure for the president of AAFSW to engage in this kind of activity because what I proposed to them and what Lesley accepted was the formation of the AAFSW Forum on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families. And that was the beginning of the Forum.

“’My God, how did I have the audacity to assert with such certainty these things, because what if it hadn’t been that way? What if I hadn’t been right?’”

I became the Chairman of the second committee, I think. We were divided up into chapters. What I did essentially was to provide the philosophical and ideological underpinnings for the group and chapter two was The Foreign Service Woman or the New Foreign Service Wife ‑ I don’t remember the name of it. But it was the philosophical basis for what we were doing and sort of the concept for the report… 

The Forum Report would have been published then in ’77 because one of the really miraculous things was that we moved from the publication of the report to the inauguration of the office in one year. So we must have started The Forum in ’76….

We had meetings at George Mason [Center]. I remember the first time we wondered whether anybody was going to show up and we were stunned that there was a roomful of women and they were just all over the place. Vocal and candid. We sent out a very open‑ended questionnaire, again Cynthia and I cooked this up, to get the Forum started.

The report itself was written in response to letters and phone calls and anecdotal information that we received as a result of another questionnaire. This one was an one‑pager and again I remember being over at Cynthia’s house until I thought we were going to go crazy.

We sent out over a thousand of them overseas this time. The other one had been done in the Department. This was sent exclusively overseas. It was very open‑ended. We in essence said, “Tell us what you’re worried about. Tell us what’s good. Tell us what’s bad. Tell us if there are any particular problems that you’re facing as a result of being the wife of a Foreign Service officer.

It was directly addressed to the wives. You know, Mrs. Harry Barnes, Jr. [wife of the Deputy Executive Secretary]. We had the Stud Book [which briefly listed the names of FSOs and their backgrounds] and we had an assignment print‑out that we could filch from someplace. And a lot of people had changed, you know. But again, we got a phenomenal response back to these one‑page, open‑ended questionnaires. People would write seven and eight‑page letters.

There was nothing scientific about it. It could only be described in scientific terms as anecdotal information. But there was a distinct pattern, and as we would read through these things, we would begin. One, we saw and heard echoes of our own experiences and anxieties and anguish and frustration and so forth. We were gratified that there was a lot that was positive in it and we wanted to make sure to emphasize that portion of it. But there were a lot of problems and they began to fall into a pattern.

And so as we began to read these responses, that’s how we formed the basis for the organization of the report based on what we got back. We met with women in Washington. We had these meetings at the George Mason Center and took notes and listened and so forth.

We consulted the wives’ senior generation. I remember Betty Atherton and Jean Newsom. The really splendid senior wives at the time who had lived the traditional lives of Foreign Service wives, but wanted something better, something different for the younger generation and were very supportive. Many of them had worked in their own way, had been career people, and had to give up careers, one thing or another….

The report was submitted to the Secretary of State. It was also submitted to the Director General. The ironic and curious thing where I was concerned was that in 1976, in the midst of all of this, I had taken the exam again in 1975, passed, took the orals, passed, and came in on my own in September of ’76.

The first year I was in the Service, I still spent more time promoting and helping direct the revolution than I did working as a Foreign Service officer because by this time I was in full swing with Hope and Lesley and a couple of other people, moving this thing along.

And by this time it really had assumed quasi‑revolutionary proportions. We were a force to be dealt with. Everybody knew it. You came anywhere within 50 yards of me, at least, and you were very likely to get the latest report from the front. I was expending a tremendous amount of energy on it.

This was something I felt very, very deeply about and with a certitude that I look back, and I remember after the FLO [Family Liaison Office] was up and everything, looking back on it and thinking, “My God, how did I have the audacity to assert with such certainty these things, because what if it hadn’t been that way? What if I hadn’t been right?” (At right, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with Family Liaison Office Director Janet Lloyd opens FLO on March 1, 1978.)

But fortunately, I never questioned it. But the first six months or so in the Foreign Service, I was very involved and I started working it from the inside because now I was inside the Service and I was able to provide the link between the outsiders and the insiders.