Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Women in the Workplace in the Foreign Service

For a long time, the American workplace has been a difficult place for women to navigate, and the Foreign Service is no exception. Female foreign service officers and spouses of FSO’s have had to fight against institutional and personal pressures to advance their careers. Not only have women faced discrimination in the workplace, but many often continue to feel pressure to stay at home when their spouse is the primary breadwinner.

Equal Rights Amendment protest (1978) Kheel Center
Equal Rights Amendment protest (1978) Kheel Center

Spouses of foreign service officers often find themselves in particularly difficult situations because of the unique nature of the foreign service lifestyle. Moving around every few years to new countries where spouses often do not speak the language can pose a real challenge to finding a fulfilling job. Additionally, there may be burdens for spouses having to meet the expectations for the role they would play in embassies that pressured them to stay at home.

A 1972 directive changed the traditional expectations, and recognized greater independence of FSO spouses. However, before this directive, the State Department included wives—despite them not being employees—as part of the official evaluations of their husbands. For example, they often had to host and entertain guests, and they were expected to cook and complete household chores regardless of their employment status. The State Department even required female FSOs to resign upon getting married. Although women could go far in their careers at the State Department if they remained unmarried, social pressure made this a difficult decision. Spouses who continued to work were often looked down upon, and there was immense pressure for women to get married.

In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” Mary Kay Davis speaks about the struggles she faced as a spouse to an FSO, the efforts she made to help women working with the State Department, and the progress she observed. Her career overlapped with changes in the State Department and social change brought on by second wave feminism in the 1970s. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi, the wife of an FSO from an earlier generation, and they compare and contrast their experiences in the interview.

Mary Kay Davis’s interview was conducted by Jewell Fenzi on September 2, 1988.

Read Mary Kay Davis’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on women in the State Department click HERE.

Drafted by Katherine Camberg

ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.


“[I]t was very difficult for me to be suddenly in a place where my only contact with the world was through my husband.”

Personal Pressures of Foreign Service:
DAVIS: You asked if I thought the Foreign Service had anything to do with the breakup of the marriage, but no I didn’t really think so, but that the Foreign Service does put stress on a marriage. The moving and changing places all the time and that for me, I was thirty years old when my former husband and I took our first post, and so I was considerably older and I had a lot of work experience. I had also worked at the State Department as a civil servant for six years before that, so I had some feeling for the Foreign Service and international affairs, you could say. I had a lot of work experience, and it was very difficult for me to be suddenly in a place where my only contact with the world was through my husband. I felt I had no identity of my own; I had no routine. Now it sounds wonderful, but I could do whatever I wanted and I felt guilty because I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have my own set of friends. I didn’t have anyone to go on coffee break with at ten-o’clock in the morning if I wanted to. And, plus, I didn’t speak the language. I felt very isolated.

. . . . Actually I did start working after about a year. I did have some problems with the Foreign Service on that. At that time, it was ‘76, so spouses were starting to be able to work, which I was delighted with. I went to the embassy, and they would only hire me as a foreign service staff person, at the lowest salary, because I didn’t have shorthand. I had even had a couple of years of secretarial experience, because that was the way I put myself through college. But I thought I’d do it.

“There were a number of cases pending against State, they were starting to rehire women who had been Foreign Service Officers who had to quit when they got married.”

Family Liaison Office (2001) U.S. Department of State FLO
Family Liaison Office (2001) U.S. Department of State FLO

Past State Department Policy:
DAVIS: I was working in the public affairs office at the State Department writing pamphlets. One of my first projects at State was protocolling, diplomatic usage.

Q: “Social Usage in the Foreign Service’’ it used to be. Did you revise it?

DAVIS: Revise it, yes. As I was reading it, this was several years before, I guess even before I was married, and I thought, “My God! This sounds like something from the forties.”

Q: I was going to ask you, what was your reaction to it? Did you not believe it, or . . . .

DAVIS: It was sort of fascinating. I thought it was a little archaic. When I worked at State, the Women’s Action Organization, I think it was, started then. There were a number of cases pending against State, they were starting to rehire women who had been Foreign Service Officers who had to quit when they got married.

Q: Did you know that we discovered the other day they didn’t have to quit. It was traditional, it was expected that they would quit. And so there were suits filed against the State for women to come back in who had been officers?

DAVIS: Well, they were allowed to come back in whether it was the result of suits or not.

Q: I’d be interested in knowing what those suits were, if they were filed by women members of WAO for some reason or other or by the spouses themselves. You don’t know?

DAVIS: No, but the name that comes to me is Alison Palmer. There was a special program that State had started to recruit women to make up for this obvious imbalance of Foreign Service Officers [FSOs]. I think it was at a grade 12 level, which in 1971 or 72 was quite high for a woman in the government. We had 3,700 applicants by GS-12s throughout the government and they found one woman who was qualified! They said they would hire her just as soon as they had a place for her. I thought these people were not serious about this program.

Q: Do you remember who that was? Did they hire her eventually?

DAVIS: I don’t know. I think we went overseas before I ever found out the end of the story. I think State had some problems. I think it’s probably better now.


DAVIS: Six years. They took something out of my performance rating, I was a civil servant, because they were going through . . . . You were talking earlier about your husband’s performance evaluations including you. But I remember them publishing excerpts from women FSOs evaluations, or else their husbands’. It’s been a few years. I don’t want to slander anybody, but they had comments in them like, “She’s a good worker despite her equine features.” I mean really awful, awful things.

Q: These were things that had been taken out of efficiency reports then, comments about women. Oh, I wonder where those are. I would love to have that for our files.

DAVIS: I’m sure there must be somebody at State who would still….

Q: Now was that an article that someone wrote, or what was it?

DAVIS: I don’t remember whether they were articles or handouts, but I think they were true. In fact, in my performance evaluation, and I didn’t realize this at the time, my boss had put something down about 1972 was a wonderful year for Miss Davis, she did this report and that report, and she got married. And it didn’t make it into the review stage. I don’t think I said anything about it. I think I was so stunned to see it there that I didn’t say anything about it, but it didn’t make it into the final version several levels up.

Q: He probably thought better of putting it in.

DAVIS: Another female boss I think may have thought better of it.

“[H]e sort of resented the fact that he came back for essentially my career and then I got pregnant and only worked part-time . . . ”

Challenges with Family:
DAVIS: Yes, I felt guilty. I work three days and I’m home for more or less four days so I felt like I was turning him over to somebody else to raise. You know mothers can feel guilty no matter what they do. Don’t you feel that way?

Q: Well, I didn’t have a lot of the options that you had. It was just traditional. There was just no thought of working when we went abroad.

DAVIS: I know my mom was home all the time when we were kids too, and she had worked for several years before she married and had children. But she said she used to feel guilty because she was doing the laundry instead of playing with us. Or for yelling at us. I just think that a mother’s guilt is boundless. But I think perhaps, that he [Davis’ husband] sort of resented the fact that he came back for essentially my career and then I got pregnant and only worked part-time and so my career didn’t go anywhere. That may have been part of the problem.

“She wasn’t willing to do all the cooking. I guess he did some, but that was sort of frowned upon.”

Gender based hiring graphic (2015) World Bank
Gender based hiring graphic (2015) World Bank

Experiences of Spouses:
DAVIS: But I think part of that was being young and rejecting part of my parents’ values. I think there was that in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s too. I guess what I hadn’t realized was how much men profited from their wives.

Q: Expand on that.

DAVIS: Well, they did. All men do, I think. When I was in Rome there was another couple, I think they were about our age, and it was also their first post. She has since come back and gotten a PhD. He’s left the FS; she’s come back and gotten a PhD in public health, I think and they moved out of the area. She was very into her career and she worked full time. She was fortunate enough to get a job full-time with the FAO. So they couldn’t entertain. She wasn’t willing to do all the cooking. I guess he did some, but that was sort of frowned upon. People thought they were sort of weird, you could tell. I think there was something in his performance appraisal about how his wife didn’t contribute anything.

Q: It’s not supposed to be.

DAVIS: It may have been taken out in the review process, but I remember she was very angry about that. There was something that he didn’t entertain much because of his home situation. In such a way that it was really hard to. . .

Q: They didn’t really mention her, but . . . .

DAVIS: And the other thing, for bachelors, and for unmarried women FSOs, they had the same problems as those with working spouses. That was somewhat unfair. When I was in Rome there was a lot of discussion, in fact, I think one night some of the wives got together, and they were talking about, they may have had more than one meeting, about should wives be compensated for what they did. Some wives were saying they thought, and these were rather high-ranking FSOs wives, that they should get fifty percent of their husbands’ salary. And I’m like, “Hey! You already get one hundred percent of it. Why do you want fifty percent?”

Q: Weren’t they asking for an additional fifty percent?

DAVIS: No, sometimes they were asking for maybe twenty percent more. Then they were saying maybe half of their husband’s checks should come in their name and I thought, no, that ought to be separate. And then they wanted a percentage of their husband’s salary as compensation. My feeling was, your husband makes a lot more money if, because it didn’t always necessarily correlate that the wives of the men making enough money did the most entertaining. There were other lower-ranking officers wives who did a lot more work. It just seemed to me a continuation of this sort of classism in the FS. The higher ranking your husband was, the more valuable your time was, and the time you expended didn’t seem democratic, didn’t seem American.


Prince George’s Community College 1964–1966
University of Maryland 1966–1968
Joined the Foreign Service 1976
Census Bureau 1968–1970
State Department Public Affairs Office 1970–1976
Rome, Italy—Agricultural Office 1976–1979

View All Featured posts Articles.