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.


Frances Willis, The First Career Female Ambassador

Frances Willis was the first female to rise to the rank of Ambassador as a career Foreign Service Officer. After she was graduated from Stanford with a PhD in Political Science in 1923, she taught political science at Gardner College and Vassar College until she decided to switch careers, saying “I didn’t want to just teach political science, I wanted to be a part of it.”

She passed the Foreign Service exam in 1927 and left shortly after for her first post in Chile, followed by posts in Sweden, Great Britain, Belgium, Spain and Finland. She rose quickly through the ranks, showing her competency and talent for diplomacy. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her Ambassador to Switzerland in 1953, making her the first career female Ambassador. (Eisenhower also named Clare Boothe Luce Ambassador to Italy that same year as a political appointee.) She subsequently served as the Ambassador to Norway (1957-1961) and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka (1962-1964).

As part of her career, she witnessed many important historical events: she was serving in Brussels in 1940 when World War II broke out and the Nazis invaded Belgium. In addition, she served as the Ambassador to Switzerland during a time when women were not even permitted to vote in the country and she worked closely alongside Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first female Prime Minister and head of government in the world, while serving as Ambassador to Ceylon.

She retired after her post in Sri Lanka in 1964, moving on to serve in various positions and committees for the U.S. government. She died on July 23, 1983, after battling a long illness. In 2006, the U.S. posthumously honored her by selecting her as one of six “Distinguished American Diplomats” to place on commemorative stamps. (Clifton WhartonChip Bohlen, and Philip Habib are three others.)

James Cowles Hart Bonbright served as the Second Secretary at Embassy Brussels from 1941-1942. He was interviewed by Peter Jessup on February 26, 1986. Joseph A. Mendenhall served as the Economic and Political officer in Bern from 1951-1955 and was interviewed by Horace Torbert beginning February 1991. Harry A. Cahill served as the Vice Consul in Oslo, Norway from 1959-1961. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning on July 1993. William B. Dunham served at the State Department’s Office of Swiss Benelux Affairs from 1954-1956. His experiences are extracted from his memoir given to ADST in 1996.

Fisher Howe served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Oslo, Norway from 1958-1962 and was interviewed by Kennedy beginning on February 1998. Larue R. Lutkins served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) from 1962-1965 and was interviewed by Kennedy beginning October 1990.

Martha A. Rau was the spouse of Foreign Service Officer Donald Rau, who served as Consular and Political Officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 1959-1961. She was interviewed by Pam Stratton beginning September 1997. Harry I. Odell served as the Economic Officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 1961-1964. He was interviewed by Peter Moffat beginning April 2000. Walter A. Lundy served as the Consular/Political Officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 1961-1963. He was interviewed by Raymond Ewing beginning September 2005.

You can read about Clare Boothe Luce, Constance Ray Harvey, who won the Medal of Freedom for her work in WWII, and see the panel discussion on women in the Foreign Service.

Return to Fascinating Figures

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History


“The Department hoped Frances would marry and get out of the way” 

James Cowles Hart Bonbright, Second Secretary, Embassy Brussels, 1941-1942

BONBRIGHT:  The other second secretary was Frances Willis, a lady who had entered the Service in the same class at the same time as I had. So we had known each other.

She was an interesting and hard-working and intelligent woman. There had been women in the Service before her, but most of them had married or gotten out for one reason or another. I think the Department rather hoped that this would happen to Frances. In our Foreign Service school days, one of our other classmates — I won’t name him here, it doesn’t matter — was very taken with her and courted her.

In a most unusual move, the Department sent him and Frances to the same post in Chile, obviously in the hope that they would marry and get Frances out of the way. But she resisted the temptation, if it was a temptation, and stayed behind, and became the first career woman to achieve the rank of ambassador and ended up in Switzerland. A fine woman.

“She was a very human individual”

Joseph A. Mendenhall, Economic and Political officer, Bern, 1951-1955

MENDENHALL: [Minister Richard C.] Patterson was succeeded by Frances Willis, who is very famous in the Foreign Service as our first career woman officer to be named as an ambassador. Indeed, very surprisingly, the Swiss who did not even permit women to vote agreed to accept her as the first American Ambassador to Switzerland.

I enjoyed very much working for her. She was a very precise lady who knew her own mind. I got along extremely well with her and enjoyed it very much. Not that I think any of us did anything of very great significance in our Swiss assignment.

She was also a very human individual. When my family and I left Switzerland in June of 1955, we took a train from Bern, about 5:50 a.m., for Genoa in order to catch a ship. She, the ambassador, insisted upon being down at the train station at that hour to see us off — a junior officer. This was rather typical of the very human attitude which she took towards all members of her staff. 

“She was, in short, a first-rate FSO”

William B. Dunham, Swiss Benelux Affairs, 1954-1956

DUNHAM:  The embassies in Brussels and Luxembourg City provided similar helpful experiences as did the Embassy in Bern where I met up with a good friend, Frances Willis. She was the senior and the most distinguished woman in the Foreign Service. I had worked with her in the Department and all of us who knew her were elated when she was appointed Ambassador to Switzerland, the first time for the U.S. to have an ambassador there — and a woman at that in a country where women didn’t have the vote.

Frances had been just such a trailblazer throughout her long career and she continued to be so as she reached the top levels of the Foreign Service. She was appointed to the rank of Career Minister when it was instituted; when the Career Ambassador rank [the equivalent of a four-star general] was established, she was again promoted to that rank. All who knew her work and her contributions to our foreign policy and to U.S. representation abroad knew she had fully earned such recognition and distinction….

Those of us who knew and worked with Frances at home and abroad were well aware of such qualities. I have attended meetings where Frances, the only woman present, quietly and unobtrusively steered the proceedings and moved them along to useful conclusion. Nothing pushy or manipulative, simply a deft touch, good humor, impressive competence and the authority that brings with it.

She was, in short, a first-rate FSO. The visit to Switzerland was, as one would expect, as well-organized and helpful as the visit in Holland. In addition to all the official activities, there were some opportunities to travel about and also to meet officials and others socially. At one such affair Frances invited a large group to a film showing, with dinner before for a small group.

I had the good luck to sit next to her mother, a tall, spare, unpretentious, Lincolnesque lady with a lively spirit and sense of humor. She kept all of us who were seated near her highly entertained.

The dining room opened through a wide doorway into a large reception room and from our side of the table we could see a few people beginning to arrive as we were finishing dinner. The butler quickly closed the big double doors, at which point Mrs. Willis confided, “He’s doing that so they won’t feel bad because they weren’t invited to dinner, too.”…

“Showing the world that being a woman was not a disadvantage in any way”

Harry A. Cahill, Vice Consul in Oslo, 1959-1961

CAHILL: I served as her protocol officer in addition to my regular consular duties. Protocol is challenging when the chief of mission is a single woman, when there is a monarchy with a widower king, when the government is socialist labor, and when there is abundant aquavit and cold weather.

Q: How did Ambassador Willis operate?

CAHILL: She moved with strength. I think she liked to see herself as fair and tough. She slipped on the ice on the way to a speaking event in western Norway and broke her leg, refused to go for medical treatment until the speech was done. She bravely stood at the podium and went through the whole program without flinching. She was slightly crippled from this for the rest of her life.

In all her work she was firm and decisive, showing to the world that being a woman was not a disadvantage in any way.

“She knew where every bit of dust was in the embassy”

Fisher Howe, Deputy Chief of Mission, Oslo, 1958-1962

HOWE: Frances, bless her memory, was a very competent, intelligent lady who was however a detailist if I ever saw one. She knew where every bit of dust was in the embassy and went through every detail of every communication. I suppose it was very good for me to come under that as my first post in the Foreign Service. She delegated very little although she was hauled back to the general assembly to be a liaison with other countries and so I had long periods of being chargé.

Frances delegated to my wife all of the uxorial [wifely] responsibilities, calling on other ambassador’s wives, calling on all the Foreign Service people. They had some magnificent house that goes with the DCM, a very modern house, on the outskirts of Norway. Well, Frances, it’s worth an anecdote.

We had a new embassy constructed while we were there and it was done by [famed architect Eero] Saarinen. He came over for the dedication. There was a debate between him and the Ambassador as to where the seal was going to be put. He had designed a Viking traditional building and he wanted a Viking shield to be placed in stone out in front of the building.

Frances said, “The regulations say the shield of the United States will be affixed to the U.S. embassy.” She wanted it slapped on the wall. Saarinen said that was aesthetically outrageous.

The ambassador won, as she would.

“She was not a delegator”

Larue R. Lutkins, Deputy Chief of Mission, Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 1962-1965

Q: You had two ambassadors there, Frances Willis and Cecil Lyon. I wonder if you could compare and contrast their styles.

LUTKINS: Well, that’s a very good question. And there certainly was a marked contrast there. They were both old pros. Frances Willis was our first career woman ambassador. She had already served as chief of mission in Bern, Switzerland, and then in Oslo, and this was to be her last post.

She was a thorough professional, had come up from the ranks and knew the Service inside out and the regulations, and knew everybody’s job in the embassy better than they did. But she was not a delegator. I don’t mean to say that she didn’t have a good grasp of the overall situation, but she couldn’t resist immersing herself in every detail in every section of the embassy.

It didn’t leave too much for the DCM to do except carry out some of her wishes, naturally. I found her a delightful woman and a very intelligent, able woman, but the contrast with her and Cecil Lyon was very marked.

I served with Frances Willis for two years and Cecil for one. Cecil Lyon’s approach was that, after about three months of working together and sizing me up, he said, “The embassy is yours. I’ll concentrate on the big picture, and you run the embassy.”

“She really was upset if there was an empty seat at her table”

Martha A. Rau, Spouse of Foreign Service Officer Donald Rau, Consular and Political Officer in Colombo, 1959-1961

RAU: When we came into the Foreign Service, it was simply understood that a wife would have an efficiency report written on her along with her husband, that we would entertain — that was part of our husband’s job, that we were expected to entertain all his contacts, as many of the local officials as possible. And so we didn’t have any choice, it was just assumed that this was our duty. And I did not object. In fact it was a wonderful experience….

You wore your white gloves, you presented your [calling] card, you stayed 15 minutes to half an hour and you were on call for whatever your principal officer or his wife needed you to do. You always arrived at official functions 15 minutes ahead of time. If it was necessary for you to bring food or drink or furnish something, you did that. When there was a party and if they needed help, you always appeared.

Frances Willis was our Ambassador in Sri Lanka when we were there and she was of the old school. The Sri Lankans were notorious for arriving at parties with either a man without his wife or a wife without a husband, and always coming late. So Frances Willis insisted upon having a complete table. She really was upset if there was an empty seat at her table. She would always ask an extra embassy couple to come to the dinner and then depending on if a man arrived without his wife, the wife stayed. If the wife came without her husband, the husband stayed.

And I know many times I had to stay while Donald went home to fill in the extra place at the table. Because this is one of her things that she just could not tolerate.

When I was seven, eight, nine months pregnant in Sri Lanka and the fleet would come in — that’s when the naval vessels used to come in for a visit, and we always entertained them — I was expected to be at the reception, on my feet, entertaining, assisting.

And she said, “I expect you to do your duty until you are eight, nine months pregnant. When you’re in your last month, you won’t have to participate in social affairs. But you were expected to support your principal officer.” And again, yes it was inconvenient, but it was also a real learning experience.

“She was one of the genuine brains that I met in the Foreign Service”

Harry I. Odell, Economic Officer in Colombo, 1961-1964

ODELL: Frances Willis. You’ve heard of her. She was a career officer, of course, and she was our first minister at that time to Switzerland. Then when we raised the legation to embassy rank, she became the first ambassador. Then she was subsequently Ambassador to Norway and then her sort of retirement post was Sri Lanka. That was a good thing for me.

She was one of the genuine brains that I met in the Foreign Service. I met a lot of very bright people, but she was in her 60s at the time. She doesn’t seem all that old to me now, but did then. She was bright and very demanding. She could have quite a plodding demeanor that some people didn’t like. But she had a great capacity for going to the heart of an issue.

I found her very helpful in the sense that she could sense what you were getting at very quickly, sort of like a good editor helping somebody write something. At least with me, she could sense what it was. I was fortunate professionally in Colombo that I had been kind of bumping along and the job was not terribly exciting. Having to write about tea and all and rubber….We didn’t have a great deal of interest [back in Washington].

We had a fairly large AID [Agency for International Development] mission. I never quite understood how the AID mission had gotten to be that substantial in Ceylon, but it was a big one.

The first thing was, Miss Willis decided that she wanted to keep the AID mission director kind of at arm’s length — for whatever reasons, I don’t know. She wanted me as her economic officer to be the one that kept in touch with the AID mission and kept her informed as to what they were up to, which was not easy because they were up to all kinds of things. That was the first thing. I had to report to her on what they were doing.

This got me involved with the AID mission director Jack Bennett, who had been a fairly senior guy in the Treasury at one time. I don’t know how he ended up in AID, but I think that was Jack’s retirement post somehow. He and I got along fairly well.

I told him, “Jack, the best thing I can do for you is — you are persuaded that your AID mission is doing good things — let me see as much of it as you possibly can. I’m not a spy, but Miss Willis is asking me questions every day.” So, he arranged for me to go with all of his field officers to every damn thing they were doing, which got me all over the island. I saw all sorts of things, which was fun.

“I was lucky to have worked for her in that I much benefited from exposure to her long experience”

Walter A. Lundy, Consular/Political Officer in Colombo, 1961-1963

LUNDY: There was a remarkable ambassador who arrived in Colombo about the time I was assigned there, Frances Willis. She was the first woman to have made it through the career ladder to an ambassadorship. In retrospect, however, I have mixed feelings about her. She was an extremely hard working and completely dedicated public servant; on the other hand she simply had no idea how to delegate.

She had to see every written word that left the embassy. Such scrutiny reduced the volume and content of the reporting. I had an easier time there than my more senior colleagues who knew what they were doing, while I was very junior and had so much to learn. I was lucky to have worked for her in that I much benefited from exposure to her long experience.

I believe strongly, however, the first rule of management is that the best supervisor is the person who supervises the least. Ambassador Willis’ very cautious management style made life difficult for the deputy chief of mission, embassy section chiefs, and heads of other agencies….