Elinor Constable had an illustrious career in the State Department from 1955 until 1993, serving not only as Ambassador to Kenya from 1986 to 1989 but also as the first woman Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Economic Bureau and as Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). She was in many ways a pioneer on women’s issues, dating from the late 1950s when she refused to resign from the Foreign Service when she got married, as was the expectation — not the law — at the time.
While Constable was Deputy Director of the Office of Investment Affairs in the 1970s, Alison Palmer, a Foreign Service Officer, led a class action lawsuit against the State Department regarding discrimination against women in hiring and promotions. She joined reluctantly as she did not believe in such lawsuits and because, as she put it, “For me to argue that the Department was discriminating against me as an individual was ridiculous.” The class action lawsuit was eventually decided in Palmer’s favor.
In this interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy which began in May 1996, Ambassador Constable discusses the importance of French’s Mustard in her family; how she ruffled some feathers as a spouse when she refused the invitation from the ambassador’s wife to be President of the Tea Club; how her husband was singled out as a “traitor” by Vice President Nixon; how she was brought back into the Foreign Service “kicking and screaming;” and the absurd Catch-22 she faced on trying to get into the Economic cone. Later on, she discusses the Palmer case, being a woman in a key leadership position in the State Department, the differing perceptions of women ambassadors, and her time in Kenya.
You can also read the transcript from the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service, about Ambassador Terence Todman’s experiences as a black Foreign Service officer, and the 12-year lawsuit against the Department on discrimination against gays.
Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History
“My mother was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, Francis Jackson French, invented French’s Mustard”
CONSTABLE: My father was a Naval officer… His name was Marshall Greer, and we could spend the whole morning on him. … He married a young woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania. After she died, he met my mother, I guess in the early ‘30s. She came from up-state New York from a very different kind of a family, born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
Her father, Francis Jackson French, invented the yellow French’s Mustard that we put on hot dogs, literally invented it in his laboratory. She was the third of three daughters, much younger than my father. They married in 1932. I was born in 1934 and spent my childhood traveling around the world.
My father was a bit of a hero during the Second World War fighting German submarines in the Atlantic as commander of an aircraft carrier, and then moving to the Pacific where he commanded a carrier division. At the very end of the war, he was the officer on Tinian who signed the final release for the Enola Gay [the plane that dropped the atomic bomb]….
So I grew up all over the world, went to 14 schools…And I swore I would never travel again….I had no defined ambitions. I wanted to go to college. It was assumed that we would go to college. The purpose was not clear. My mother never graduated from high school. My mother was a legendary beauty, and also quite a character. She was about 20, I guess, when she married my father…. So I had no image of what I would be beyond getting married and having children which is what 1951 women were supposed to do.
My parents had selected Bryn Mawr for me because my father knew some people in Pennsylvania. And how the world has changed. College is now very competitive and you’re lucky if you can get in to one of your first five choices. In 1951, on the other hand, I only applied to a single college and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get in.
But I decided I didn’t want to go to Bryn Mawr because a history teacher at Punahou said, “You don’t want to go to Bryn Mawr.” So I said, “Oh, okay.” No analysis, nothing. He said, “Wellesley is a wonderful college. Why don’t you go there?” “Oh, all right.” So I applied to Wellesley and I told my father. He said, “Well, get yourself in.” So I said, “All right,” and did.
“I had absolutely no thought of ever being a professional. I was going to get married and have children.”
In my freshman year at Wellesley (at right) I took a course in political science. I didn’t know what political science was, and I don’t even know why I took the course…. I had no particular career ambitions. My idea was to work at something that was interesting and fun. I didn’t want to be a secretary. That was the other thing women were supposed to be, and I would make a terrible secretary. Everything that makes a good secretary good, attention to detail, efficiency — I’d be terrible in all that. And the notion that this was what every woman was destined to be, was nuts. And I refused to do that. I came to Washington while they were processing the [Civil Service] exam and started job hunting.
First question, can you type? And I said, “No,” which wasn’t entirely true. I could type pretty well. But I said, “No, I couldn’t.” “Well, you women get out of college and you think you can just come down here and get a good job. If you’re not going to type, we don’t want you.” It was quite something.
After I passed the exam I was offered a job working in employee relations at the U.S. Geological Survey. Now that sounds as if it would be interesting. I was assigned to the incentive awards program, and my job was to process all of the employees’ suggestions that came in. I remember one vividly about toilet paper. If you put in really poor quality toilet paper you could save money. Anyway, we rejected that particular suggestion. I was in an office with six women–two secretaries and four personnel technicians—supervised by two men: a frustrated ballet dancer who did not enjoy his job, and a golfer.
“I can’t join the Foreign Service. They don’t take women.”
It was not a stimulating environment. I’d been there about a month, when the sixth member of the team arrived. She took one look around — I think on the second day — and said, “Elinor, how can you stand this?” And I said it was not much fun, but it’s a job. “Oh, you need to get out right now, right now.” We talked about our interests and she said, “Why don’t you join the Foreign Service?” I said, “I can’t join the Foreign Service. They don’t take women.”
People who read this are going to say, “That doesn’t sound like the Elinor Constable we know.” But the odds were overwhelming in 1955. But she talked me into taking the exam. She said, “What have you got to lose? Preparing for the exam and taking it will be interesting and if they don’t take you, so what?” She had been a Foreign Service secretary to Ellis Briggs and had decided to become a lawyer. She ultimately became a judge in California. So I took the Foreign Service exam, and I passed the written exam with flying colors…
You were tested on a lot of other things, not all of them germane. How you handled yourself. How you behaved under stress…Then they asked that tired, tired old question: If a foreigner, that was the term used, asked you to recommend ten books about the United States, which ten books would you pick?
And I said, “If a foreigner asked me that question, the first thing I would do would be to go to my library. I would tell them, let me think about this and I’ll put something together for you.”
“Yes, but Miss Greer… what books would you recommend?”
I said, “I wouldn’t recommend anything off the top of my head because you’ve got to put together a balanced list. If you’re going to give them Faulkner, then you have to give them something that is more positive and up-beat. If you’re going to give them F. Scott Fitzgerald, then you’ve got to do something else, you want a good balance.”
“Well, but what would you give them?”
And I said, “I’m not going to tell you.”
Then one of them said, “We just want to find out what you know about American literature.”
And I said, “Why don’t you ask me about American literature?” They didn’t, they moved on to something else. I mean, I was insufferable. I don’t know why they took me. I would describe the process as extremely patronizing, particularly towards a woman, and subjective…
When I joined the Foreign Service, I think I must have known — I certainly knew by the statistics — that it wasn’t a woman’s institution, and that people in positions of power were all white men. But I wasn’t really looking for a career. In those days that was heresy….
“I desperately wanted to go overseas. I thought that was going to be glamorous.”
I wasn’t looking for a spouse. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I cared about international issues and I was looking forward to working in this area. I did say when I was offered the appointment that I would not work in personnel or consular affairs. A little cheeky of me.
Admin in those days was separate, and consular was relatively separate. But female Foreign Service officers were usually assigned to personnel, and I just said, no, that I will not do. But I said I’d do anything else, and I wanted to go overseas, desperately wanted to go overseas. I thought that was going to be glamorous.
Q: Did you take the basic officer’s course?
CONSTABLE: Yes, at the old FSI in some temporary Navy buildings that have since been torn down. The first session was at approximately 9:00 on the 31st of January 1957, and I remember that day vividly because I sat down next to this gorgeous man, Peter Constable. I had trouble getting through the course. We’ve been married for 38 years now. I was just so smitten it was pathetic.
In those days it was a three-month course. They tried to cover everything including the kitchen sink. Once a woman briefed us on immigration and naturalization procedures. A man raised his hand and said, “After you come into the United States, if you’re not a citizen, you’re not a legal immigrant, what happens?” “What do you mean, what happens?” “Well, you just let them all run around loose?” We all fell off our chairs….
When we completed the course, we were given our assignments and Peter and I were both assigned to the Department. I was assigned to the Economic Bureau and given a job which today I wouldn’t want to do. At that point I was willing to do everything, I still had stars in my eyes.
And again, it was one of these things where there was a certain subtle separation — an awkward phrase — an all-female office. It eventually had a man or two assigned to it. Our responsibility was to produce a newsletter on economic issues every two weeks. There was also a daily summary with five or six lines about economic events around the world, and the biweekly would have longer articles. I did that until I left to have a baby. I did not leave when I got married.
“You can’t force me to resign. If you want me out of the Foreign Service, you have to fire me.”
A month or so before we were married, I was summoned to the Executive Director’s office in EB [Economic Bureau]. The Executive Director in those days — she was the same person when I came back into the Foreign Service in 1973 — was a legendary figure by the name of Frances Wilson. Everybody knows about Frances.
A wonderful woman actually, but a little bit overwhelming. Anyway, Frances had invited me to her office. We were all terrified of Frances, but she congratulated me on my engagement, and I was touched. My goodness, how nice.
And then she said, “When do you plan to resign Miss Greer?”
And I said, “I don’t plan to resign.” Now, I have to tell you, I was quaking inside. But I had heard about this “requirement” that female Foreign Service officers had to resign when they got married, no matter who they married, foreigner, American, Foreign Service officer, it didn’t matter. You had to resign.
She looked at me quite severely, I mean you did not say no to Frances Wilson. And no women had ever done this, in the history of the Foreign Service. I said, “You can’t force me to resign. If you want me out of the Foreign Service, you have to fire me.” Wow!
She said, “Miss Greer, you are required to resign.”
And I said, “Show me the regulation. Show me the law. Where is it?” Well, there wasn’t one. This came as a shock. I was quite prepared for her to pull out a book, and show me some regulation, and at that point I would fight it as far as I could. There was none. There was no regulation. It was custom, plain old custom, buttressed by two practical limitations.
One, you did not have to grant maternity leave to women in those days. So you had to in effect choose between family and work. And second, there was a restriction on the books about family members working together at the same post. So, again, you would have to choose, and if your spouse was sent to Mexico City, you couldn’t go there, and the Department would not lift a finger to help you out. They would probably, just to show you, send you off to Burma. And in those days transportation was difficult. So this was not something you would do lightly.
But we were in Washington, and I said, “This makes no sense. I am not going to be a different person after I am married. Nothing is going to change. And I am going to continue to do this job.”
Well, she had a fit. “I’ll have to go check on this.”
“Fine, you go check on this.” I was very calm externally, but thinking, “Elinor, what have you done?” I think even Peter was a little nervous about this. But we wanted the second income, and I liked what I was doing. And it just didn’t make sense….
Allegedly the issue was taken to the Secretary, then John Foster Dulles. Personally, I don’t believe this, but it obviously went up fairly high.
And the answer came back. “Well, okay, you don’t have to resign. But you have to submit a letter of resignation without a date.”
So I did that. I suppose I could have refused to submit the letter. But one of the things about negotiating is, you’ve got to recognize the deal. When you’ve got it, take it. We got married. We took a short honeymoon, and I went back to work.
And then, of course, we started our family right away, and there was no such thing as maternity leave, so at that point I did resign.
Now, just an interesting footnote. The following year, or later that year, another young woman joined the Foreign Service, Melissa Foelsch [Wells]. She married, but was not asked to resign. Years later, when I got to know her better, we were trading stories and she said, “You know, they never asked me to resign, and that was amazing.”
She chose a different path, which was to have a child and do it on a combination of annual leave and a little bit of sick leave, and come right back to work. I wouldn’t have had the physical stamina to do that. And then she and her husband, then a Foreign Service officer, took separate assignments. They eventually got divorced but they got back together again. But she never left the Service, ever. It was interesting. She has been ambassador to Mozambique, Zaire, UN…
“The Washington Post headlines said , ‘Nixon accuses State Department official of treason'”
In Washington, Peter was assigned to the Public Correspondence branch which was part of Public Affairs… He moved up to be chief of the division at the end of the second year, in charge of answering correspondence. In late ’58 or early ’59, there was a dust-up over Quemoy and Matsu islands off mainland China. And the Chinese were doing a little saber-rattling, and we were responding with some rather aggressive rhetoric. It was making people nervous.
A New York Times reporter by the name of E.W. Kenworthy called Peter, and asked if he could come and interview him about how the mail was going. Peter checked with his boss, and his boss said yes, sure. Peter said, “What do I tell him?” “Well, just tell him the truth,” which Peter did.
The next day there was a headline in the New York Times, “80% of the American public opposes Dulles’ policy on Quemoy-Matsu.” Well, it wasn’t quite right. Some people opposed the saber-rattling, some people opposed the rhetoric, some people thought we should be more aggressive, some people didn’t care. It was more complicated than the headline.
But the headline captured attention. This was a Saturday. Everybody had left town for the weekend, and the only person that the reporters could find was one Richard M. Nixon.
The Vice President of the United States, who said, “Well, anybody who says that has to be a traitor.” There was a banner headline in The Washington Post the next day: “Nixon accuses State Department official of treason.” So we started looking at other careers. But the upshot was interesting. Peter was called in, explained what had happened, and the Department backed him all the way, refusing to release his name.… It died down and Peter’s career never suffered, which was a miracle.…
“Elinor, you can’t do that.” I said, “I just did.”
In the meantime, this being 1961 to 1964 [in Tegucigalpa], I had to deal with expectations that existed for Foreign Service wives. I never met a male spouse until the ‘80s, never met a male spouse in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m sure there must have been somebody out there.
I don’t want to belabor this because I’m sure it’s been described at length by others, but basically you were a mirror image of your husband. The ambassador’s wife was in charge of the women. The DCM’s wife reported to the Ambassador’s wife, and on down the chain of command, or up or down the chain of command. And there were very clear expectations about what junior officers’ wives, which is what I was, would do.
My view of all of this was that I really wanted to be involved in the community. I think it’s nuts to live somewhere without being deeply engaged. But unless you paid my salary, you could tell me what I couldn’t do. But you could not tell me what I had to do. Nobody could tell me that, and I drew that line the very first day I arrived in Honduras.
A few weeks into our tour, the political counselor’s wife, and the Economic Counselor’s wife, who in those days were high-powered women for a junior officer’s wife, came to call on me. I thought that was really nice. One of the two women became a good friend. They said, “Congratulations.”
“Congratulations for what?”
“Well, you’ve just been elected as Chairwoman of the Tea Committee of the Voluntary Dames of Tegucigalpa.”
They repeated it, and laughed, and said, “Don’t worry, it just means you have to arrange tea for 60 women once a month.” I was speechless. I mean I was genuinely shocked. And I said, “You can’t be serious.” “Oh, yes, but don’t worry about it.”
And then I got mad. Our phone wasn’t hooked up, it always took a couple of months to get a phone when you went to one of these places. I said, “All right. I want the name and phone number of the woman who runs this club, and I want to use your phone.” They started getting nervous. And I said, “Are you going to let me call her?”
It took a while but the upshot was we went to Ruth Amott’s house, I dialed this woman’s number…I’ll never forget, her name was Iris Ulargui. “Hi, this is Elinor Constable.” “Oh, Elinor” (I think this may have been in Spanish because I was pretty fluent by then).
I said, “I not only will not serve as Chairman of your Tea Committee. I will not join your organization.” And actually I used some language I don’t want to repeat here, and I hung up on her.
I thought these two women were going to have strokes right on the spot.
They said, “Elinor, you can’t do that.”
I said, “I just did.”
“But the Ambassador’s wife recommended you.”
“Well, she should have asked me first. And don’t you ever give my name to somebody without my permission, ever. Got that?”
I went home, I told Peter what I’d done. And he was conflicted, to say the least. Intellectually, he agreed with me. But another part of it was, Oh my God, what has she done? I stuck to my guns, and I simply scared them to death. The Ambassador’s wife did not know what to do with me. And I found my own role….
“All of the munitions had blown up. You can imagine what that did to the immediate neighborhood.”
From the summer of ’68 to the summer of ’71 [we were in Lahore.] We didn’t like it one bit. I had decided to resume a career, and I was excited about it. To put this into some perspective, the period from 1968 to 1971 was the last stage of what we refer to as the old Foreign Service where wives were considered to be dependents of their husbands in every sense.
We were mentioned in efficiency reports, and by then not only had I resumed a career but the whole women’s movement had blossomed. And women were trying to change things in the Foreign Service, and there we were back in the dark ages again in Lahore. I was not very nice about it. I found it extremely confining.
We had a nine-month old daughter, we had two sons in grammar school, and it never would have occurred to me not to accompany Peter. And I had fun. But to me life is — this is corny as all get out, but I think it’s fundamentally true, it’s fun and pleasure, it’s relationships and love, and it’s work for a purpose. And I had the first two. I had wonderful kids and a great husband, and boy, did I have fun.
But I had no purpose and it just drove me nuts. And people kept coming up with wonderful ideas for silly things that I could do that would tie me down, but would not have very much meaning. It was then that I decided that when we came back to DC, I was going to leave the Foreign Service in the sense that I was not ever going to go overseas again with Peter….
[In 1971] India and Pakistan went to war. We knew what was coming, and I know Peter was very anxious to get packed up. He would come home and say, “Got to get packers, got to get our effects down to Karachi and on a ship.” We left before the war actually did break out.
There was a marvelous incident shortly before we left. I was sitting in the library reading and an explosion ripped through the house — shattered every window in the room that I was in. I was covered with glass. I paused, made sure that I was okay, brushed the glass off myself, walked into the main part of the house where all the windows had also been shattered, the front door had been blown off. I checked to make sure our daughter and the servants were all right.
Then I called the office and I said, “Peter, I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s been a very bizarre explosion in the house. Everybody is fine, but all the windows have been blown out, and I’d appreciate it if you could send GSO [General Services Office] out to cover up our windows before the next dust storm hits.”
And I said, “Are you there? We’re all okay, dear.” And he said, “We just had an explosion that ripped through the Consulate, and we thought there was a bomb.”
Well, a little more sleuthing and we discovered that windows had been shattered all through this part of Lahore. The munitions depot had exploded. All of the munitions had blown up. You can imagine what that did to the immediate neighborhood. And everybody in the area was going through exactly what we were going through. Did the gas main go, did our gas here go, what happened? Pakistanis wouldn’t admit that anything had happened. And, of course, a lot of it sounded like small artillery.
So people said, the Indians are invading. And I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no air cover.” What do I know? I’ve never been in the military but it strikes me if they’re going to invade there ought to be a little air cover.
When the explosion hit, there was a Pakistani pedaling his bicycle in front of our house, he’s thrown up into the air, he lands on the dirt road unhurt, leaps to his feet and says, “Oh, it’s war, it’s war, we’ll be in New Delhi tomorrow.“ That was the attitude. Well, finally it came out that the munitions dump had exploded and they never did determine whether it was sabotage or an accident. But boy, were we ready to get out of there….
“I really was dragged back into the Foreign Service kicking and screaming.”
We returned to DC and I went back to work. This time it took 24 hours to find a job. I picked up on what I had been doing in the ‘60s and went to work for an outfit called Trans-century Corporation, running some projects for the Peace Corps and for VISTA. Then I was recruited for the McGovern campaign by a friend of mine on the Democratic National Committee.
Just before that had happened, Peter came home. Remember when telegrams were pink? With a pink copy of a message describing the new policy about women in the Foreign Service, inviting women who had been forced out to reapply. Now, I had been indirectly forced out, but there was no way I wanted to reapply. I wanted to stay with what I was doing.
I mean, I really was dragged back into the Foreign Service kicking and screaming.
I think Peter’s idea in retrospect was that if I rejoined the Foreign Service, this would keep us together. There was no talk of divorce or separation, or anything like that. But he was smart, he saw the potential for our lives to go in very different directions, and talked me into coming back. And, as I say, I didn’t want to, but I did.
Q: What was the procedure?
CONSTABLE: There was no examination process. You filled out a bunch of papers. You expressed your interest. I can’t tell you now exactly how they were processed. I again recorded the fact that I would not do personnel work. I was able to do the McGovern campaign as a senior advance person working in the East coast, and then when the campaign was over waited a little while while my papers were finally processed and came back in in May of 1973.
You were asked to specify a cone [area of specialty], and I specified the admin cone because in my other jobs I had done program management, and budgeting. And that’s where there was a great need. While it was definitely not my first choice, I thought I could make a contribution and fill a need at the same time, which is always satisfying.
Forget it. Closed shop, absolute closed shop. I couldn’t even get a job as a Special Assistant to the Director of FSI [Foreign Service Institute]. I think partly it was because the admin cone was an old boys’ operation, partly because I was still a Foreign Service wife.
Not being a patient person, I gave this process about two or three months. And then I said, all right, I’ll tell you what. I really want to do economic work, so I’ll do economic work.
“Well, you need the six-months course.”
“Fine, I’ll take the course”. Now, I’m not making this up.
“You can’t take the course unless you’re in the economic cone.”
“Okay, put me in the economic cone.”
“Well, we can’t unless you take the course.” This is a true story.
So I got the list of the committee that selected people for training. I remember John Sprott was on it. There were about five or six people. Now this is exactly what my father would have done. I went and called on all of them. People knew who I was because they knew Peter.
“Hi, I really want to take the econ course. I hope you’ll let me take the econ course.” I can’t vouch for this; but my guess is they put me in the course because they thought I would be trouble.
To make a long story short I got into the course which started in January of 1974. In the meantime I had been working in something called the files project run by Cleo Noel’s widow, Cleo Noel was killed in Khartoum in 197, and his wife Lucille was a magnificent woman who had also been in the Foreign Service. There were about eight or nine of us assigned to it, I was assigned to it temporarily.
It was an awful project, going through old personnel folders, putting everything in chronological order, cleaning out the old files, and removing the inadmissible material. I was especially curious about women officers and wives, some of whom I knew. It became kind of a running joke. We would be going through the files, and I would start to giggle. Everybody would look up, and they’d say, “Oh, Elinor has found another one.”
I read these things out loud to them. Things like: Mr. X’s wife does not know how to behave in social situations, but then she’s French….
In the meantime somebody in personnel had the idea to send me over to the Commerce Department to show whether I was “serious” about economics. My attitude was, whoa, three months at Commerce instead of two years, that’s a deal I’ll take.
In those days you didn’t want to go to Commerce. It’s changed some since then. So we negotiated and I took a job in Commerce working for a special energy task force. It was quite interesting actually. Three days before I was supposed to report, I got a call from the fellow who was going to be supervising me saying, “We’ve just got a call from the State Department canceling your detail.”
“What?” I called my then counselor–I don’t want to say who this was, it was a woman–and I said, “Did you cancel my detail to the Commerce Department?”
She said, “Yes.”
And I said, “Look, I’m not going to say anymore now because I’ll regret it, but you stay in your office, I’m coming over there.”
So I went to her office and I said, “Take my file, put it in the bottom drawer of your safe, and don’t ever get it out again. And how dare you do this without talking to me! If there was a reason for this, or if something happened, fine. But you never talked to me.”
“Well,” she said–and I will name this man– ”Ted Curran told me it was all right. Ted figured that now that you’re in the econ course, you don’t need to go to the Commerce Department.”
“Oh, really? I guess I’ll have to go talk to Ted.”
“What are you going to say to him?”
“Pretty much what I’ve just said to you.”
I’d known Ted for years so I went to Ted and I said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Well, gee, Elinor, I thought you liked the files project.”
“Ted, I’m not going to complain, I’m a professional. I’m going to do it, and I’m going to have as much fun with it as I can have with it. Like it? Are you nuts?”
So I went to the Commerce Department for three months, and it was a lot of fun. And then came back, did the econ course where I refurbished my reputation by graduating first in the class. This is how you get people’s attention….
“I am philosophically a militant feminist, but I happen to like men a lot. I’m not a conflict avoider.”
It’s not an easy thing to do, and the whole business is another whole theme, the business of sexism in the State Department. That’s a tough issue. I had my own approach to it which is a little bit peculiar, I guess. I am philosophically a militant feminist, but I happen to like men a lot. I’m not a conflict avoider. Anybody who knows me will tell you, but it’s not my first preference. My first preference is to be congenial and conciliatory, honest. I say this to anyone who knows my reputation. It makes life much more fun, and more pleasant.
Work is hard enough, without your sitting around glaring over your shoulder, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ You just don’t. You laugh about it.
My first day on the job, Dick Smith, Bill Witting and I were going to a meeting and it happened to be all the way across the building and we walked, and as we got to each door Dick would scoot around in front of me and hold the door for me. And about the second or third door I smiled, and I said, “You know, Dick, you don’t have to do that, and actually I don’t much like it.” He said, “Okay.” Dick is a marvelous fellow.
And at the next door, he let it slam in my face. So the next door I slammed it into his face. By the time we got to the meeting the three of us were laughing so hard we had to pull ourselves together. We would laugh about things, and Dick could come in to me and he’d say, “Elinor, I don’t know. What about this? Is this a problem?” I’d say, “Oh, yes, probably a terrible problem,” and we’d joke about it.
That’s the way I’ve always handled it. Don’t evade, don’t avoid it, don’t suppress it. But make it fun, and it can be fun and silly.
“I was not going to join the suit. I don’t believe in suing the State Department. I didn’t like the style of the people who were in charge.”
And when the women sued the State Department back in the mid-’70s, the class action suit — this is a hard story for me to tell, but let’s be truthful for history. I was not going to join the suit. I don’t believe in suing the State Department. I didn’t like the style of the people who were in charge of the suit.
And I’ve always felt that if you’re a woman or a minority, you need to be very sensitive to the fact that you’re not always promoted because you’re good, and you’re not always left off the list because you’re a minority or a woman. Sometimes you’re just not competent. And sometimes it’s affirmative action. And sometimes it isn’t.
There is a statistical pattern of discrimination which is, I think, clear and well established. And I think by and large it is not just unconscious, but maybe even subconscious. And we need to work on it. But I don’t like the suits. And my husband urged me to join it.
His argument was interesting, and I thought about it and agreed with him. His argument was that the benefits that I was enjoying, the fact that I had been invited back to rejoin the Foreign Service in 1973, the fact that the Department was making an effort to provide opportunities for professional women which, to be fair, it had not made.
If you were a professional, and you were good, you could move ahead. But as a whole the Department was doing what was comfortable. It was because these women had taken risks. You shouldn’t just leave them out there to take all the flak. Okay, so I joined the suit with the idea that if I ever got anything, I’d give it away.
It was a class action suit which was filed by female Foreign Service officers led by Alison Palmer and others. I’m embarrassed to tell you, I haven’t read a lot of the documentation. I’ve obviously read enough of it to give you a general sense of it.
The claim in the suit was that the State Department had discriminated against women in hiring, assigning, promoting, giving incentive awards, every step of the way. That the Department as an institution had discriminated against women. And that the women as a class were entitled to remedies, either retroactive promotions….
“My career took off like a rocket. So for me to argue that the Department was discriminating against me as an individual was ridiculous.”
The class action suit was finally decided in favor of the women and the Department was required to offer up some remedies. I, fortunately or unfortunately, wasn’t eligible for any, and it wasn’t an issue. In any case, my own career had zoomed…
I mean I was promoted as fast as anybody in the Foreign Service. I became an Ambassador, I became an Assistant Secretary. I was the first woman to be a Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in EB. I was the first woman to run the International Finance and Development portfolio in the Economic Bureau. Some other firsts which I forget. My career took off like a rocket.
So for me to argue that the Department was discriminating against me as an individual was ridiculous.
Now, there were two occasions when I originally came in and was asked to resign, and then when I rejoined the Foreign Service. I had been in the Civil Service at the GS-13 level, which in those days translated to FS-04.
I was brought back as an FSR-5, and I complained about it. Not because I expected a 4, but because I’m not a door mat, and I wrote a memo to the Director of Personnel and said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate, I should be a 04.” He was furious, and was reliably quoted as saying if she didn’t want the 5, why the hell did she come back in? He was really quite put out with me.
He wrote back and said, “No, you have a 05 [a lower grade].” Well, that’s what I expected but at least I had made the point. But then it was interesting.
The first thing I did when I came back was sit on the files project. And one of the things I did on the files project, was check the files of anyone who had come in laterally. And guess what? The men came in at 04 if they had been a GS-13, and I came in as a 05. Well, my view of that was it came out in the wash so fast, it was almost irrelevant. Who cared?
And I also learned then and later when I was forced to become an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor, that the terms of your initial employment contract are not grievable. I never even considered filing a grievance. I was counseling with someone else who was considering filing a grievance. I never considered it.
I think every organization needs a grievance procedure. I think it is essential, it is appropriate. Having said that, I can’t imagine ever filing one. I have encouraged some other people to file one. I counseled a minority candidate some years ago, and when he told me his story he sheepishly said, “I filed a grievance.”
And I said, “You should, and whether you win it or not, you’ll feel better about yourself having laid out your case.” But I know so many people who have become obsessed by their grievances, and for whom that’s their whole life….
You need a grievance procedure. Institutions do occasionally, whether it’s consciously or not, take decisions about individuals that are arbitrary and unfair, and that’s what the procedure is supposed to deal with. I’m very conflicted about it, and I never would have done it.
“All of the things being equal, we will hire the person with whom we are the most comfortable”
Q: What was your impression coming from your perspective of Alison Palmer and the leadership of this group?
CONSTABLE: Alison, if you’re reading this, forgive me. I didn’t like them, and I didn’t like her, and I hadn’t even met her. Years later, when I finally met Alison and dealt with her on an issue, I thought she was terrific.
I don’t want to pick on the State Department because we are better than a lot of other institutions on this issue. We were then, and we are now. I’ve popped around government and the private sector and I can tell you we’re not as far as we ought to be, but we don’t have to be ashamed of our record.
I hope my militant feminist friends will forgive me. But I think to change an organization like this somebody has to be willing to stand up, and break a lot of crockery. Because it isn’t going to happen naturally. It doesn’t feel natural.
All of us, if we have to fill a position, and we have five applicants, all of the things being equal, will hire the person with whom we are the most comfortable. And that often means the person that’s most like us. We don’t quite think of it that way. You have a top-notch woman, and a top-notch man, and you’ve known the guy, maybe you went to school with him, maybe you served with him once before, he’s the one you want. And it’s not that you’re actively discriminating against the woman because you think she can’t do the job. You’re just a little more comfortable with this other choice.
And if we’re left undisturbed, and unprovoked, it’s not what each of us does every single time, but it’s what collectively as an institution we do most of the time, and then you just perpetuate this pattern. And somebody has to come in and fight it.
Now, if you’re a Foreign Service officer, or employed full time, trying to keep unfair duties from being imposed against Argentine footwear, you don’t have time for this. You also know that if you’re aggressive and provocative you’re going to make people uncomfortable, and that’s true if you’re a man or a woman. We women are given a little less scope for behaving that way.
So you manage situations, you manage people, you try and be collegial, and it is by definition not very collegial to come in and say, “Hey, you didn’t hire me because you’re discriminating against me.” Well, you’re not going ever to want to hire me after I’ve done that to you. But I think it was necessary, and I’m glad they did it. As I say, I don’t know about the suit, but there was a lot surrounding the suit. There was a lot of agitation, and it wasn’t my style. I think there was a tendency to blame everything that went wrong in one’s career on the system, and that’s not healthy.
I’ll never forget once, it was back in the late ‘70s. I had lunch with a woman of my generation, and the promotion list had just come out and I was on it, and she was not. I felt bad about that, but it was appropriate. She was just not competent. And she looked at me, and she said, swearing a little bit, the State Department just won’t promote women.
Well, I felt a little bit awkward. I’m a woman. I’d just gotten promoted. It was just really sad. No sense of perspective, or proportion. And there was a lot of that. But I think the agitation was necessary. I think we’re not there yet.
“Since I came back in the ‘70s the State Department has changed dramatically”
My own experience has been that once I get the job, I have no problem ever again. Getting the job has been a problem. When I came back in in ’73, I described trying to get a job in admin, and I think people just weren’t comfortable. There weren’t a lot of women working in that area then. But when I got into the Economic Bureau, got my hands on a job, there was no issue. And there literally hasn’t been an issue or a problem since in my career. Since I came back in the ‘70s the State Department has changed dramatically….
If I may be totally indiscreet, when [Secretary] Warren Christopher, came back to the Department in early ’93, and had that meeting…he was asked about equal employment opportunity and said, “Of course, I’m committed to it, and care about it. It goes without saying.”
He should have stopped right there. Because his next sentence was, “You need these people at the table because they bring their special perspective.” All I can say is, I thank God I was not in that room. I would have lost it right there. And if you’re thinking as a diplomat that you want a woman there with her special perspective…
You have to, for the record here, look at the Warren Christopher’s State Department which has more women career Foreign Service assistant secretaries than any State Department in history. And more political appointee women Under Secretaries than any State Department in history. And probably — I haven’t counted this one, more women political Assistant Secretary appointees than any State Department in history. And the Secretary’s immediate staff has included women.
So in terms of what counts, which is putting women in key positions, and letting them perform, he gets very high marks. But I was just astonished…
“We make desperate moves to get minority Foreign Service officers into key positions, and then sometimes just let them hang”
By the way, I make a sharp distinction between women and minorities. I think we are nowhere on minorities, nowhere. And we make sort of desperate moves trying to get minority Foreign Service officers into key positions, and then sometimes just let them hang. We haven’t figured that one out yet.
I think that we need to pay attention, and keep our sense of humor, and just keep working on it. We can’t ignore it. I have had three occasions to sit down with minority officers and secretaries and say, you’re not performing. And in every case the answer was, “You’re the only person who’s ever told me that.” I said, “Of course. Most white people are scared to death to say that to you. They don’t know how. But I’m here to tell you that you’re not cutting it. Now what are we going to do about it?”
The first case was a secretary who ended up working for the Secretary of State. I counseled her. In her case it had nothing to do with her being black. It had everything to do with the fact that her personal life was in a shambles. I took her aside and I said, look, if you’re a woman — this is back in the ‘70s — if you’re a woman and you’ve got personal problems, you have to hide them because the office doesn’t understand. The organization doesn’t understand.
So let’s figure out how you can disguise all of this, and get your professional life, and your personal life, related to each other so that you can function in here. We worked on it. She was a fabulous secretary, she ended up on the Secretary’s staff. I was really thrilled about that.
Then there was a case of a staff assistant to the Assistant Secretary, a political appointee. “We’ve got to get rid of this guy.”
“No, no, you better not.” I said, “I’m going to deal with this, and you just drop out of it.” I took the fellow to lunch, and I said, “You’re not performing. Now we have two choices here.
One, you and I can start every day with a “what’s going to happen today”, and how you handle it, and in the course of the day anytime anything goes wrong, you and I will sit down and we’ll figure it out, and we’ll fix it. Or we can reassign you to a job in the trade area where you can focus on fewer issues, and don’t have these crazy deadlines, but it’s your call. You decide.”
So he went home and talked to his wife, he came back in the next morning, and he said, “I think I’ll do the trade job.”
And several years later, I ran into him in an elevator and he said, “Thank you for doing that. You’re the only person who ever sat down with me and told me that I wasn’t performing.” And, you know, he’s doing fine. His career went along fine, he had fun, he did jobs he could do….
But what struck me in every one of those cases was that nobody had ever talked to these folks, and the performance problems were glaring, they weren’t subtle. It wasn’t a question of taste. You know, you come in late every morning, as the secretary was doing. That’s not a preference. You can’t come in late. The staff assistant was missing deadlines and losing papers. You can’t do that if you’re a staff assistant, etc. So I worry about it. It bothers me the way we do it.
“I find it hard to talk about being an ambassador because it’s a very tough job. It isn’t what you expect it to be.”
From 1986 to 1989 [I was in Kenya]…I find it a little hard to talk about being an ambassador because it’s a very tough job. It isn’t what you expect it to be. It isn’t what the public at large thinks it is: glamour and fun, and gadding around. It is excruciatingly hard work. If you’re going to be a good ambassador, you have to get involved in a level of detail that really isn’t interesting all the time.
You have to, in the current Foreign Service, worry about morale — I think much too much.
My philosophy about morale, which is very unpopular, is that you carry your own morale around with you, and that you’re responsible for it. If there are specific external circumstances that are a serious problem, you bring those to somebody’s attention, and you see if there’s a reasonable solution. You don’t whine all the time. I think part of it is the modern Foreign Service, part of it is Kenya.
Kenya, at the time I was there, was one of those posts about which people have unrealistic expectations. Like Paris. It’s supposed to be marvelous. It isn’t marvelous. There are health problems. There are security problems. Your work can be interesting, or less interesting. You could end up working for somebody who is unpleasant.
I think one of the things that happened, particularly with the support staff and the large regional staff, was that they would arrive in Kenya, they would be less than enchanted, and then they would worry that there was something wrong with them because this was supposed to be paradise, and it wasn’t. And then they would focus on remedies that were silly. The one thing that everyone wanted was a commissary…
“Being a woman is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, once I get my hands on the job”
[Being a woman ambassador] is an issue, not a problem. But it is definitely an issue. I found in most of my career that being a woman is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, once I get my hands on the job. For most of my career being a woman has made it harder to get the job in the first place. I don’t think it had anything to do with my going to Kenya because George Shultz liked me, and he didn’t care.
When I arrived the staff mostly had never worked for a woman. Most of the country team was male…. So I arrived in Kenya, I explained to the country team that they couldn’t call me “madam,” they had to call me “Ambassador.” Then I said, the way to approach working for a woman was to treat her just like a man, except when we needed to look for a bathroom. Other than that, there is no difference. You don’t have to worry about it. Some of them thought that was funny, who knows what they thought.
“My feet went out from under me straight up into the air. I landed on my rear end, and slid half way down”
One of my very first field trips was hysterical. I arrived in November. A little later that month a U.S. carrier arrived in Mombasa. We used to use Mombasa as a liberty port. The Admiral commanding the carrier would always invite the Ambassador to come down for a meal, and it was a good thing to do because you could go down, show the flag. I like the Navy, my father was an Admiral in the Navy. It was thrilling the first time I was piped aboard an aircraft carrier. And I could do some work in Mombasa, anyway, it was a good thing to do.
So we flew down to Mombasa, we helicoptered out to the deck of the carrier. And then someone decided, again without consulting me, that I shouldn’t go down the ladder, it might be too steep. I was wearing flat shoes with cork soles that I always wore on field trips, and they took me down the ramp at the rear end of the helicopter, which unfortunately had a very thin coat of oil, or grease of some kind on it.
So I took three steps — it’s too bad somebody didn’t catch this on film, and my feet went out from under me straight up into the air. I landed on my rear end, and slid half way down. The Admiral and all the flag officers were standing at attention waiting to say hello to me.
The look of horror on their faces, which I did see because I did go completely over, and of course several people helped me scramble to my feet, and I got up and turned to my aide and I said, “Don’t you ever take me down a ramp like this again. What’s wrong with a ladder?”
And they never did again. That was just stupid. So I walked across the deck and there was a photographer with me and he said, “Are you all right?”
And I said, “Yes, I’m fine but do not take any pictures of my rear because it was covered with a big oil stain.” And there’s a photograph of me snarling at the photographer which I have. There were silly things like that.
“I think there is a different set of expectations about a woman ambassador with regard to things like morale, family… not necessarily about policy”
The only real problem, and it’s very hard to articulate this. A number of women have tried, and I don’t really think they’ve succeeded. I think there is a different set of expectations about a woman ambassador with regard to things like morale, family, that sort of thing. Not necessarily about policy, you can get through that. (At right, Ambassador Constable presents the Bronze Star to Marine Security Guard Casimir Puchalski.)
The first agency representative, CIA, which in those days was notorious for not having women in any senior positions, was a good buddy of mine. We were very fond of each other, we had no problem doing business together. The same was true of all of the military personnel who worked for me. The military is very sensitive to chain of command, and therefore work for you.
Q: This is something really an ambassador has over a woman officer somewhere else. Because when you’re the ambassador you’re the 500 pound gorilla in the American system, and that’s it.
CONSTABLE: I think that’s right, and the military is very good about that. And I can be fairly tough, and I’m analytically tough. That part wasn’t a problem. I do believe, however, that the community at large expected me to be more sympathetic about things like commissaries, housing, and that sort of thing. It’s very hard to pin that down because it’s very amorphous, and its rather subtle, and I’m not sure people even realize that they’re doing this.
Q: I think the term is they expect you to be more nurturing.
CONSTABLE: Yes, and I’m not, and I’m just the opposite if anything. I used to tell people who whined about Nairobi, “If you don’t like it here why don’t you go to Ouagadougou? Do you want to transfer to Somalia?” That was not smart, I shouldn’t have done that, but that’s how I feel about it. I cannot abide whining. So I think that was the only problem. The Kenyans, of course, didn’t know what to make of me…
“The Kenyans expected me to be soft. So I would let them believe that when it suited me, or I would get very nasty when it suited me.”
The Kenyans, forget the colonials for a minute, the Kenyans I’m sure expected me to be soft, and sweet and nice. So I would let them believe that when it suited me, or I would get very nasty when it suited me. The president of Kenya and I had a very good relationship, partly because as a woman I could get away with things.
I would have private meetings with him, and [President of Kenya Daniel arap] Moi, would say something and I’d lean over and pat him on the knee, and say no, you don’t want to do that, now come on. And do things that no man could ever get away with….
There were many opportunities to take advantage of being a woman. When I first arrived the Political Section wanted to set up a lunch with me and other key women, and I wouldn’t let them do it. They did not understand the point. I said, “First, I have to establish myself as the Ambassador. When I have done that, then we can go back and start doing this sort of thing, but I am not a woman first, I’m an ambassador first, and you better get that through your head.”
They didn’t get that at all. This is less necessary now. My successor was a man, then a black woman, and now a white woman. It is now okay for a woman to be ambassador. But I was the first one….
The American Women’s Organization wanted me to be the honorary president. And I said no. I said this was not a professional organization. It (was then) an organization of spouses, and I am not a spouse. I said, I will come to your events. You can host them at the house, I’ll help you out, but it is not appropriate for you to ask me to run the organization, and many people did not like that. But I couldn’t do that.
But then as I got myself established as the Ambassador, and there was no question about who was in charge, and after having poked Moi in the eyes a couple of times, figuratively, not literally, and some of his ministers, it was very clear they were going to take me seriously.
Then I began to cultivate some of the senior women, and became friends with them. And the other thing I began to do as I traveled around the country (more than any of my predecessors, or probably successors), I would talk about women.
And I would often start speeches in villages in Kenya with “I understand the women do all the work here.” And the women would all smile from ear to ear, and the men would turn to me, “Oh, that’s not right Your Excellency.”
And I’d say, “I don’t know, that’s what they tell me, that’s what I hear.” And do a certain amount of that. It was very touching, rural farm women would come up to me and say how excited they were to see a woman ambassador. And boy, that was just wonderful….
2 Replies to “Elinor Constable — “If you want me out of the Foreign Service, you have to fire me””
This is a tremendous interview presented in an incredibly sophomoric manner. The stock photos, the poor proofreading/editing and clip art do not do the material justice, IMHO.
We’re sorry you feel that way. You can always read the entire oral history: http://www.adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Constable,%20Elinor.pdf
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