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The Palmer Case and the Changing Role of Women in the Foreign Service

There have been a number of prominent women who have served in the State Department over the past century:  Francis Willis, the first female career Foreign Service Officer to become ambassador; Clare Booth Luce, a political appointee as Ambassador to Italy; Constance Ray Harvey, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom for her  work during World War II, not to mention the number of women who served recently as Secretaries of State. But the road to equal opportunity for women has often been a bumpy one. The unprecedented opportunities for women which opened up during WWII closed just as dramatically after the war as the Foreign Service returned to its previous hiring practices. It was very difficult in the postwar years for women to be hired by and promoted within the Foreign Service. From 1961 to 1971, recruitment of women remained at 7% and the rate of promotion was slow.

Several incidents eventually forced the State Department to enact major changes. Several women in the late 1960s formed the Women’s Action Organization (WAO), which worked closely with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), to push for abolishing the regulation that prevented women who married from entering or remaining in the Foreign Service.

More famous was the Alison Palmer case. Palmer had begun her career in the Foreign Service in 1959 specializing in African affairs. Several ambassadors had objected to her assignment to their embassies in Africa in the late 1960s, and during one assignment, she was expected to act as social secretary to the Ambassador’s wife. She then started an internal grievance procedure through the Department’s Equal Employment Office charging sex discrimination. In 1969 Palmer, then stationed in Vietnam, was notified that the EEO had found in her favor but refused to enter the report in her personnel file. In 1971, she then filed a sex discrimination lawsuit which she won three years later. Her victory resulted in an order from management barring all discrimination in assignments.

In 1972, the State Department overturned its ban on the marriage of female diplomats. It also took steps to improve inequities in housing allowances and in the recruitment process, and issued the Declaration on Spouses, which removed wives from their husbands’ performance evaluations.

In 1976 after numerous attempts at getting higher ranking positions as a Foreign Service Officer, Palmer then filed a class action lawsuit against the State Department for discrimination in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

After several years of litigation, a 1989 court order found that the Department had discriminated against women in the written portion of the Foreign Service Officer Test. The State Department was then restricted in administering written exams that had adverse impacts on women. In 2010, Palmer (at left) decided to terminate the lawsuit as all parties agreed that the State Department had finally demonstrated compliance of the court orders by making reparations to women who were affected and modifying hiring systems.

The lawsuit shaped the Department and had a tremendous effect on its operations for decades. In this series of interviews, key people reflect on the Palmer case, the prevailing attitude towards women FSOs and spouses in the 1960s and 70s, as well as its unintended consequences. Morris Draper, interviewed in February 1991, examines the assignments process and prejudice within the Department bureaucracy. Samuel R. Gammon, III discusses dealing with Palmer in a February 1982 interview. William C. Harrop, then Director of AFSA, discusses the bitterness Palmer felt towards the Department and the lawsuit she filed against him; he was interviewed in August 1993.

Anthony Quainton, who as Director General oversaw the State Department’s personnel system, discusses the deleterious effects the lawsuit had in creating resentment such that “everybody now believes themselves to be in a discriminated minority, including white males.” He was interviewed in November 1997. Stephanie Smith Kinney, who was instrumental in helping establish the Family Liasion Office at State, discusses the wide implications of women and feminism in the State Department; she was interviewed beginning in March 2010. All interviews were conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

You can read more about Phyllis Oakley, who rose from FSO spouse to Assistant Secretary, Stephanie Kinney, who helped push for the creation of the Family Liaison Office (FLO) at the Department, and Ambassador Elinor Constable’s experience as a spouse and FSO.

Check out these articles the experience of women FSO’s in the 1950s and 60s, being black in a “lily white” State Department, and about the lawsuit to allow gays to serve openly in the Foreign Service.


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“The Foreign Service is a pretty conservative organization and its members don’t usually take a lot of chances”

Morris Draper

Career Management Officer, 1964 to 1966


Q: You were a career management officer. That called for a review with each officer on his past and potential career. What were your views of the process?

DRAPER: I enjoyed the job very much. The way the process usually started was that an officer would call on the phone and say that he or she would be coming to Washington from an overseas post in the very near future and that officer would like to see a career counselor. We would give the officer an appointment for a few days hence during which time we would review the file. I would look for patterns in the annual evaluation statements which would give me some clues as to the officer’s strengths and weaknesses. That would give me an opportunity to review his or her career quite frankly with the officer. Then we would discuss how the assignment process worked. There were a lot of problems with that process.

It was during my period in Personnel that some of the class action suits against the Department were begun. Alison Palmer, for example, was at that time seeking an assignment in Africa. It was really ridiculous. After performing quite well in the Belgian Congo, during its revolutions, she couldn’t get another assignment in Africa. And this was after she took some training at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a first-rate officer, but couldn’t get an assignment, even in Ethiopia. It was terrible. We in PER sympathized with her, but just couldn’t get her an assignment, despite our efforts. We just couldn’t over-ride some senior Ambassadors who refused to have her or any women at their posts, besides secretaries. This was particularly true at dangerous posts….

The Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was far better than any of the other bureaus in opening positions for women, even in countries with traditional societies. We have no problems in making these assignments. Assigning women to countries like Egypt was of course no major problem, but from early on, we sent women to Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and the North African states. But the African Bureau was much more conservative.

Alison Palmer was so indignant at the time and became very resentful of the system despite the efforts of Hep Funk, who was her counselor. But he just couldn’t overcome the resistance. It made an antagonist out of what would have been a very productive member of the Foreign Service. There were of course other prejudices and problems.

Q: Was the system relatively open, subject to competition or were there a lot of Bureau prejudices?

DRAPER: There were a lot of prejudices that were difficult to knock down. We were trying to broaden officers and to get them away from seeing repeatedly only one or to foreign cultures. We were encouraging broadening assignments. There was a lot of enthusiasm for this approach among some specialties….

The Foreign Service is a pretty conservative organization and its members don’t usually take a lot of chances. They are not adventuresome, at least not as much as they were when they entered the Foreign Service. That is one of the reasons why you didn’t get many inter-Bureau transfers. Furthermore, Bureaus were highly protective of their “stars” and fought very hard to keep them. There were other reasons.

[Under Secretary for Management William J.] Crockett maintained that there was very little “selection-out”. So we worked very hard and tried to crack-down to increase the number of people who would be “selected out”. It was a terribly painful process and very unjust in many respects because the difference between the low- and the middle-level performers was so marginal and small. We tried to screen out any material that was prejudicial because of such matters as personality differences. We relied to a considerable extent on Inspectors Reports because often they were sent to a post to handle problem cases.

The role of the counselor was peculiar because he or she had to let an officer know what was happening. It was often kinder to say to an officer that the future looked bleak — i.e. that there would no promotion until some of the black marks in the file were overcome — and he or she should consider resignation while still young enough to start a second career, rather than to be “selected out”. So most of the so called “selection-outs” were the result of counseling rather than of the formal promotion process. People retired or resigned rather than any formal action being taken. Nobody liked the process, but Crockett insisted. This led to problems like a suicide and a lot of broken families. It was counterproductive.

During this period, we lost a number of people to medical problems especially in Africa. The medical process was very inefficient. That problem was turned around very quickly, but it took some catastrophes to do it.

“She was totally right, but her approach was so strong”

Samuel R. Gammon, III

Executive Assistant to Deputy Undersecretary of State for Management William Macomber, 1971 to 1973 


GAMMON: This was the period of the beginning of the family problems in the State Department. Macomber put out an order which was that wives were people too! Much to the disgust of his wife Phyllis who said “I am so too an adjunct to your career.” That was the beginning of the whole path that has led to Family Liaison and dual assignments and the attempt to accommodate by the Service, which I think is an impossible task in the modern world with the two-career family and so forth. That, plus the grievance problem — the State Department had no grievance system — plus the whole Alison Palmer-Cynthia Thomas issue.

Both individuals were essentially feminists early on in the vast and healthy change which has taken place in society and in the Service. Both of them, more Alison Palmer, had been victimized by the fact that the State Department, though very enlightened in many ways in the Foreign Service, was not particularly sensitive on such matters.

My first dealing with Alison Palmer had come in p-o’ed [pissed off] when she was a staff corps assistant in Near East-African assignments

and I was brand new in European assignments and personnel. She came on so strong on the telephone and I didn’t know beans what we were talking about, but I began resisting vigorously on the theory that nobody’s going to steam-roller me. And we ended up with a compromise in which European personnel got away with something we shouldn’t have. She was totally right, but her approach was so strong.

Then she served in Addis working for [at right, Ambassador Edward M.] Korry, while I was in Asmara. We saw one another only a couple of times. There she was treated as a sort of an assistant to the Ambassador’s wife, not as a substantive officer. The old days were not very good for women….

There’s no question about it that she did have a very distinguished career. And she had been turned down for an assignment to Uganda by another old career ambassador because he didn’t see how he could use a woman officer. Korry took her, but then misused her abilities.

At any rate, she had a legitimate grievance, I’ve forgotten the nature of it, and went to the old style clumsy, farce of a grievance system and was told, “Oh, you oughtn’t to pursue this, you’ll get a bad name in the Service that will damage your career!” So Macomber was out front working to solve the problem of how to accommodate families, wives, women, and career people and set up a real grievance system.  Beginning to get into the desperate shortage of minorities then in the Service. Working on that front, he was dealing with the grievance problem to try and set up grievance machinery. 

“She could be difficult – I would say even vicious”

Ambassador William C. Harrop

Director of African Affairs, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, 1969 to 1971; Chairman of AFSA, 1972-74 


Q:  Why was AFSA trying to represent just the Foreign Service, as opposed to becoming a branch of AFGE, which would cover the Civil Service?

HARROP: Well, the feeling was that the diplomatic service was, in fact, a separate service, that the Rogers Act of 1924 and, later, the Foreign Service Act of 1946 had been landmark pieces of legislation which created a personnel system which was effective and useful and quite essential to the proper conduct of diplomacy. The Foreign Service was composed of people who were worldwide available, who carried their rank in themselves from place to place, who were evaluated by other Foreign Service Officers, and which had the “up or out” promotion concept. We felt that all of these things were essential to maintaining a high quality system of international representation. We were persuaded that we would lose those qualities if we came under the regular executive order.

Most particularly, if we were represented by the American Federation of Government Employees [AFGE], we would have been represented by an organization of which, perhaps, 99.5% of the membership was from the Civil Service and .05% from the Foreign Service. Since many of the issues, as we saw them, were issues which separated the Foreign Service from the Civil Service, we wanted to represent ourselves.

We were able to succeed because we knew our own institution better than they [AFGE] did — much better than they did. We were more determined. The representation of this tiny little number of Foreign Service personnel was more important to us than it was to them. They had much larger fish to fry. We became rather proficient at labor-management relations, to tell the truth. We worked very hard at it and we became fairly skillful at managing these issues. I had suits brought against me by individuals. I had to appear before the Labor Relations Boards and in court. It was a very difficult business.

Maybe I should tell this story, a rather strange one. A woman officer [Alison Palmer] whom I’d been associated with earlier on had been working in Vietnam. She was assigned to a job in Washington which she didn’t want. At the time I was then both Chairman of AFSA and still Director of RAF [Office of Research for Regional African Affairs] in INR. She wrote me and said, “I want to stay in political work. The Department wants to put me in this management and personnel stuff. I don’t want to do that. Couldn’t you find a position for me in INR?”

I called up the Personnel people and said that this officer wanted to work in INR and not where you have her assigned which, I think, was to the Board of Examiners [of the Foreign Service]. I asked, “What is the situation?” They said, “Well, if you would like to have her there, it’s not important that she go to the Board of Examiners.” So she came to work with me in INR.

Then, eight or 10 months later, when we got into the thick of the troubles over representation, she embraced AFGE — became an activist for AFGE, of which there were several in the Department at the time. Then she filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against me. She claimed that I was not qualified to head the American Foreign Service Association since I was, myself, a management official and, therefore, was part of management and not part of the body of employees. The evidence was that I had had the influence to change her assignment. So I was brought before a board in the Department of Labor and had to defend myself, successfully in the end with the pro bono help of an expert Washington attorney.

Q: I recall the period. There was an awful lot of heat within the Foreign Service, particularly among people who felt that the Foreign Service “had done them wrong”– didn’t promote them or something. You know, hell hath no fury than someone who hasn’t been promoted. Did you find that this group, which was really just mad at the Foreign Service, was leading the AFGE stuff?

HARROP: It was a very difficult time. An officer named John Hemenway had been selected out of the Foreign Service. He brought a private lawsuit against me as Chairman of AFSA, which I had to defend in court. He claimed that I had made it more difficult for him to run for office in AFSA. There was a lot of ill feeling and a lot of passion. Another officer who had been dropped from the Foreign Service — I don’t know whether he had been “selected out” or just failed to be promoted — named John Harter also was very bitterly opposed to me, although neither I nor AFSA had had anything to do with his career. These people felt that the leadership of AFSA was itself a kind of establishment. In order to get at the Foreign Service, they wanted to go with AFGE and really shake up or break down the whole Foreign Service system….

One of the issues which we had at that time was the role of women. We were energetic, working with NOW [National Organization of Women]. We had some active women on our Board [of directors]. I tried to promote the role of women in the Foreign Service and to achieve greater equality — I think, with some success….

Q: Could you talk a little about how Alison Palmer worked or did not work with AFSA, because she was a very controversial figure?

HARROP: She was a difficult person for me to communicate with. Alison Palmer…brought suit against me for helping her to change her assignment in Washington. I didn’t mention her name before. She could be difficult – I would say even vicious. She had become completely embittered about the role of women in American society, and particularly in the Foreign Service. She seemed cynical, almost iconoclastic, and carried through that way. She was an intelligent and capable officer but was just totally soured….

In fact, some five years later, when I was first nominated to be an ambassador, they came to testify against me before the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee, and then pursued me in subsequent nominations in a hostile and provocative way. It’s very sad, but I suppose it could be said, that there are people such as these who were destroyed by their experience in the Foreign Service. You would have to go carefully into the whole history [of this matter] to understand it.

“The pursuit of these cases has had a very deleterious effect…Everybody now believes themselves to be in a discriminated minority, including white males.”

Ambassador Anthony Quainton

Director General of the Foreign Service, 1995-97


QUAINTON: I can remember thinking the intellectual quality of the A-100 course was not very high. There were a lot of talking heads and I remember almost nothing of it actually. …The class has stayed in touch over the last 38 years. In fact, we still have reunions which include those who have left the Service. The women all left the Service within 15 years, several to get married and were required to leave, several dropped out and one, who became famous, Alison Palmer, who was the author of the women’s class action suit against the Department. After that suit was launched, she too resigned from the Foreign Service. So, the women did not survive in the Service a long time. In fact, it is interesting compared to the current dire concerns about the durability of a career in the Foreign Service today that I think half of the members of the class were gone within 15 years — for personal reasons, some went into academia, one left over a policy dispute on Biafra, others just didn’t want to stay….

In those early weeks in 1996, I spent a lot of time meeting with constituencies, groups of employees who had an axe to grind in the personnel affairs of the Department of State – Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA), Blacks in Government, the Thursday Luncheon Group, another African-American group, Asian Pacific officers, Hispanic officers, the Civil Service Council, the Senior Executive Service Council, etc. There were a whole range of people whose particular interests were in the advancement of their subgroup. They were concerned about the discrimination that they had faced in one way or other within the personnel system….

The women’s group, which I met with, was the least active of all the groups in the Department, in part because the hiring policies of the Department over the last 10 years have been gender neutral. Thirty-five to forty-five of the incoming Foreign Service officers have been women. They were doing well in the Service. Many of the problems of the past had been rectified. I spent a lot of time on women’s issues, though not in the context of the women’s organization but in the context of the Palmer lawsuit.

Indeed, of all the things that I spent time on in the next 18 months, the two law suits were the most consuming. One was the Palmer suit brought by Alison Palmer over 20 years before and which is still in the courts to this day, and the other, the Thomas suit, brought over 10 years before by a black Foreign Service officer. Both alleged systematic discrimination in the personnel policies of the Foreign Service. Both cases involved Foreign Service officers, not other categories such as Civil Service employees.

And, indeed, the statistics were quite dramatic in periods of the 1980s when it was clear that neither women nor blacks advanced as rapidly like their peers. They did not pass the Foreign Service Exam in comparable numbers. They did not get awards, particularly superior honor awards, in comparable numbers to their white male colleagues.

I’m not sure why this all happened, but by getting these issues into the courts, where they are now, they have created an extraordinary paralysis of the personnel system, because any policy change, which would impact either African-Americans or women, must be reviewed in the courts. So, you can’t easily change the examination, the promotion system, or the performance evaluation system which all need change to bring the Foreign Service into the 21st century because of the constraints imposed by the various judges who are overseeing the two cases.

Before I got to the DG [Director General], I think it was early in 1995, Secretary Christopher had been held in contempt of court for failure to implement the court decisions in these cases. The Secretary made it quite clear that he never wanted to be held in contempt of court again and that we would scrupulously honor the court orders under which we were operating. We had not, in fact, reported as we were supposed to, nor had we made the progress to which we were committed and which we said we were making. The Secretary found this very trying. (Quainton at right)

Warren Christopher was deeply committed to equal opportunity in the Department for minorities as well as for women, and to find that we had been delinquent was something that was abhorrent to him.  But these court cases and the review of the government’s briefs as they made their way through the court system took an enormous amount of my time and that of my senior colleagues. There is no class action suit in the personnel area without implications throughout the government. How the Department handled these cases had repercussions for other agencies on how they handled personnel issues.

We have been required by the courts to promote officers, women officers, and African-American officers who were not promoted by their peers under the previous system. With some reluctance, but I had no choice, I signed a whole series of Superior Honor awards that landed on my desk one day, all for women, because the courts had found that we had discriminated dramatically against women in granting superior honor awards. I am not quite sure how it was done. This pile landed on my desk quite early in my tenure. People were given honor awards for three years of hard work in the Foreign Service.

It is quite easy to write those, but it was a travesty really, and did great harm to the Service, even recognizing that the Service had not behaved well, in the sense that there was discrimination. It is not quite clear to me why there was discrimination, for the statistics cannot be gainsaid.

But the pursuit of these cases over a 20-year period has had a very deleterious effect on the Department and on the Foreign Service and has created enormous resentments to the point that everybody now believes themselves to be in a discriminated minority, including white males. It is unhealthy to have an institution in which there is an institutionalized sense of grievance against the personnel system, and a belief that other people are going to get a better shot than I am because of who they are or what they look like or what category they belong to.

Now, almost everybody believes that.

“Was this purposeful sexual discrimination? I never thought so.”

Stephanie Smith Kinney

Policy Coordination Team, Office of the Director General, 1976 to 1979


KINNEY: The creation of what came to be called FLO was a function of my being invited to go to work for the Director General of the Foreign Service, Carol Laise. …I was hired by Ambassador Laise, in her words, “To solve the problem you’ve created.” It was a wonderful opportunity. It also taught me a lot about the Foreign Service. I was an FSO-07, and I was miraculously assigned to an FSO-02 [senior-level] job slot in the DG’s front office. I learned early on everything is negotiable, and there are no firm rules or standards in the Foreign Service.

This situation certainly favored me at the time, but its longer-term costs to the Department and the institution of the Foreign Service have been high. Once FLO was up and running, I also had reason to read just about every study that had been done on the Department and the Foreign Service until then, and, as a result, I learned more about both institutions than most incoming officers. I had a clear vision of what we needed to do on family issues, and I saw myself as the link between the people who had the power and the influence to decide and make things happen and the people who needed and very much wanted to see things change.

The sound bite of the day was, “The only thing worse than being a dependent (which is what people had been officially named before the 1971 Declaration on Spouses) is being a non-person.” Even senior wives could relate to that. FLO was designed with two functions in mind. The first was to provide easily accessible, needed information to family members so that they could make informed and sound personal decisions and solve problems that resulted from or were conditioned by the realities of Foreign Service life and State Department bureaucracy. The second function was to provide a link to management such that when policy decisions that had a direct or indirect impact on families were being made, there would be a voice for families at the table. This voice would be the Director of FLO, drawing on the information that FLO would in turn be able to collect from and about family concerns. Miraculously, this is eventually what came to pass….

Q: I remember one time running across Cynthia Thomas, who had been brought into the Foreign Service after her husband committed suicide when he was selected out due to a confusion of evaluation reports. 

KINNEY: Oh, I remember that case very well. There were two Charlie Thomasses, and the files got mixed up, and Cynthia’s husband was selected out on the basis of the other Charlie Thomas’ file. It was that case that changed the policy on officer access to evaluation reports. That was another part of the Macomber Reforms. Cynthia’s husband insisted that there was a problem, but — in keeping with the policy of the day — he was not allowed to see his evaluation report and so could not defend himself. He became something of a cause celebre with some and a pariah for many. (Kinney at right)

He tried, but was never able, to find a real job after he was selected out, and so exercised the most serious form of protest:  suicide. The mistake was eventually recognized but too late, but the Department did take it upon itself to take care of Cynthia by offering her employment since her life as a Foreign Service wife had left her with no record of paid employment….

There were many women who also felt discriminated against and blamed the “old boys” and “the system.” The Women’s Action Organization (WAO) was a focal point for feminist activism at State. Allison Palmer, an FSO who aspired to service in the Middle East, was one of the leaders, along with Marguerite Cooper King and others. Alison was famous because she also took on the Episcopal Church and became its first female priest, after she made life miserable for the State Department for almost twenty years as a result of the class action suit she filed on behalf of women.

Interestingly, Alison used the 1975 exam (the second one I took) as evidence of exam discrimination, a charge I always had trouble with. In my view, the exam tested for knowledge relevant to a diplomatic career and aptitude; the problem is that most women at that time did not have backgrounds or degrees or experience in economics, management, political science, and exotic cultures. I would not have done as well as I did had I not been indirectly associated with the Foreign Service.  If preparation matters at all, then at that time, women as a group were not as well prepared academically or experientially to pass the exam as men.

But was this purposeful “sexual discrimination?” I never thought so. And those of us who did it the hard way paid a heavy price in male resentment and ridicule for years afterward because of all those women who “got in for free” or got “free promotions.” But serious and dramatic social change is never easy nor fast.

Alison’s was a good cause, but she was never known for her temperance. I knew of Cynthia’s case. I never spent any time with her, but we tried very carefully in the Research Committee on Spouses to stay away from WAO, first because they were an employees’ organization and second because of their style. We did not think their tactics and their rhetoric would advance our interests. Marguerite Cooper King was one of them. Marguerite and I became friends, but there was wariness and a very deliberate distinction between the two groups because the WAO was so bitter and fierce in its rhetoric that it did not win friends and influence people within the Department.

Form and style were and have always been important in the Department. I remember a Deputy Assistant Secretary dressing me down for framing an argument in terms of substance over form. “Form” he said, “matters and don’t ever forget it! It often communicates much more than ‘substance.’ ” Maybe it was my Southern background; maybe it was just common sense, or maybe it was because I needed all the wives to feel comfortable with what we were proposing, but I instinctively recognized the need to act in a way that was seen as reasonable and with the Department’s interest at heart.

There were lots of wives who looked quite askance at this younger generation….The old “honey gets more flies than vinegar” just seemed to me an obvious rule of thumb in a place as hidebound as the Department of State. This was an essentially 19th century British model and organization coming to terms with some pretty dramatic demographic, social and economic change within the U.S., whose increasingly educated younger generation of women was spreading a strong feminist perspective and series of complaints.

In 1974 or thereabouts, it became increasingly evident that you could no longer maintain a middle class lifestyle on one salary, or that it was going to be increasingly difficult to do this over time. By then, we also had the first really large generation of college-educated women who had not gone to school to get married but rather to acquire capabilities and skills for which they wanted to be paid. They didn’t want to give it away for free.

In society at large, you also had the reality of one marriage in two ending in divorce, which particularly if you were tied to the Foreign Service, meant that you were putting yourself in financial and personal jeopardy. This became more apparent as the ‘71 Declaration on Spouses freed male officers to divorce, something that earlier might have adversely affected their careers. All of the sudden, the below average FS divorce rate became average, and it was clear that assuming your husband would be true forever was foolhardy.

This was especially true when it was very evident that there were lots of bad marriages in the Foreign Service and lots of “foreign affairs.” I mean I saw it on [her husband] Douglas’ junior tour in Mexico; our DCM was a drunk and a philanderer. There were a number of very sad cases of FSOs who left their wives and left them high, dry and impecunious.