Recently, I finished reading a book gifted by a dear friend who passed away this year. Struck by the grief of his loss, I had kept it away for a while and only picked it up in the last couple of weeks. This book, titled "Women of the World", is a fascinating account by Dr Hellen McCarthy, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Divided into four main parts that detail the struggles faced by British women to find their place in the country's diplomatic service in different eras, McCarthy leads the reader from the late 19th century unto the present times.
She begins the book by describing the court painting made at Bismark's mansion in 1873 during the Congress of Berlin. It was here that plenipotentiaries from across Europe had gathered to discuss the fate of South East Europe after the Russo-Turkish war. She notes the complete absence of any woman in that portrait - quite symbolic of the diplomatic life of that time that totally excluded women from any political or diplomatic business. As McCarthy puts it, in the late 19th century, "..women were everywhere and nowhere..accessories, decorative, adding glitter to the male world of diplomacy... Women presided over balls and receptions; they held salons where valuable information was exchanged, they accompanied their husbands, ran the households. And yet they were invisible, absent from minutes and accounts of embassy business."
The first part of the book is set in 1878 when women were present as wives of 'Diplomat husbands' or 'Ambassadresses'. McCarthy gives detailed accounts of many accomplished wives whose 'official duties' spanned from representational entertainment to providing access to the royal women in foreign court, public diplomacy, training young officers and their wives, and in some cases, even doubling up as secretaries to their husbands! One particularly impressive mention in the book is that of Lady Dufferin, wife of the Viceroy to India, Lord Dufferin. Supported by Queen Victoria, Lady D made quite a mark in Cairo, Constantinople and Delhi. In India, she formed a National Association for supplying medical aid to Women Of India 1885which worked for improving maternity care for women, making her way more popular than her much disliked husband.
Moving on from the Edwardian and Victorian eras, the second part of the book, set in 1919, looks at the preliminary entry of women into the heretofore all-male set up of the Foreign Office. This was made possible due to the First World War and increasing professionalization of the foreign service. Not surprisingly, women were accepted mostly as support staff: clerks, secretaries and translators. The war did let in some exceptional women like Gertrude Bell, the famous archaeologist and polyglot, who was recruited temporarily for her extensive knowledge of the Middle East, and who earned the title of Oriental Secretary in the Indian Army. Yet, a woman in a diplomatic position was an exception, and the Foreign Office was ready to fight tooth and nail to oppose this.
The vigor of the opposition can be seen through the arguments posited by the Foreign Office before the Civil Service Commission in 1933 to consider the question of the entry of women in the Foreign Service. The reasons that feminist groups had to counter before this Commission varied from the lack of inherent attitudes in women for diplomacy to the unacceptability of women in various 'backward' cultures, as also their inability to handle consular work of dealing with drunken British sailors! There was also the argument of what the 'diplomatic' husband of these women diplomats would do in tagging along with them. Finally, after two years, the commission recommended status quo and the report was shelved.
The third part, set in 1945, showcases how the pressure of World War II that had led to an increase in the number of women employees just could not be ignored now. Feminists could now stake claim to the achievements of many remarkable women such as Freya Stark who had worked in Baghdad and Yemen, Nancy Lambton in Tehran, and others who had carried out diplomatic work across the Atlantic to change America's isolationist position in the Second World War. The presence of a Labour government and changing social attitude also helped, and finally, in 1946, British women won the right to officially represent their nation abroad, albeit with two caveats: 'Regulation Number Five' - that they had to agree to resign in the event of their marriage; and the number of women were to be capped at 10 percent of the total intake so as to prevent the entry of women in "embarrassing numbers"!
The last part of the book deals with early women entrants and their trials and triumphs. It informs one of how they were denied the chance to be posted to the Arab world and learn difficult languages such as Chinese, since the prevailing wisdom of the day proclaimed they would soon get married and leave. Others were told that they would neither be acceptable nor able to perform their diplomatic duties in many countries - a glaring example is that of Margaret Rothwell who was refused a position in Helsinki in 1972 because the Ambassador declared all the business was conducted by men in saunas!
The second wave of feminism finally made its impact felt on the British Foreign Office and in 1973, the marriage ban was finally overturned. However, it was only in 1987 that the first married female ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, was appointed. The book goes on to chronicle the 80s and 90s which saw radical and progressive developments for women diplomats and spouses. The FCO now has a Gender Diversity Advisor, a Gender Action Plan, a Gender Advisory Group, Gender Champions, Gender Networks which undertake mentoring schemes, talent management programs, "learning sets" and other diversity measures, which are not yet thought of or discussed in many other countries' diplomatic services.
McCarthy's book relies on oral histories gathered through interviews and memoirs, and draws vivid portraits, with exquisite use of tongue-in-cheek wit and irony. While she gives a nonjudgmental account of women who tried to assist the status quo, her sympathy clearly lies with the feminists and women's associations who raised the immense struggle to break through the all-male bastions of the British Foreign Office. She also empathizes with women diplomats, whom she depicts as professionals struggling to do their jobs, rather than activists trying to reform the gender equation in the Foreign Office, a result achieved largely due to external forces. McCarthy also informs us that it was women with elite socio-economic backgrounds with public school education from select colleges who were naturally the early women entrants. With examples of career trajectories of various women diplomats through the decades, she is able to capture the herculean tasks women in this profession undertook to maintain a work and family life balance.
McCarthy concludes the book by stating "... If history teaches us anything, it is that throughout the ages the woman diplomat has struggled to resolve a fundamental and existential tension between being representative of her country and being herself."
While the conclusion resonates deeply with the woman diplomat in me, it also got me thinking that in comparison to the struggles British women waged to gain entry into the Foreign Office, the Indian Foreign Service gave this opportunity to represent the country to women diplomats right from its inception in 1946. Post independence, the founding fathers of the Constitution of India, especially Dr. Ambedkar, were categorical that women in free India would enjoy equal rights and privileges in all spheres, including that of public employment. It is true, however, that the heritage of discriminatory service rules in matters of promotion and appointment continued to be in practice until much later. It was only in the 1980s that the courageous diplomat, the late Ms. C.B. Muthamma, petitioned this matter before the Supreme Court and the verdict put systemic discrimination to rest once and for all. She went on to become India's first woman ambassador.
Gender equality in the Foreign Service may have been achieved in theory in the past century, but the book is a reminder of the challenges that still lie ahead to achieve equality in its true sense. Walking past the C.B. Muthamma Hall dedicated to India's first woman diplomat at the premises of the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, on this International Women's Day, I stood, more than ever before, conscious of the sweat and toil that has gotten us this far. Lest we forget.
(The author is a diplomat in Indian Foreign Service. Views expressed here are personal and may not be attributed to the Government of India.)
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