For 26 years – from their entry into the Foreign Office until the marriage bar was lifted – the UK’s women diplomats had to choose between a husband and public service.
Britain’s first female diplomats
By Alex Barker
Published: November 6 2009 14:25 | Last updated: November 6 2009 14:25
|Lady Cicely Mayhew, first woman to join the British diplomatic service, this year|
She is remarkably matter-of-fact about having blazed a trail for women by becoming the King’s first female emissary in 1947. “My attitude was, about time too!” she says. Mayhew had already come up against the barriers that ambitious working women faced – during her wartime service at Bletchley Park, where the codes that protected German communications were cracked, she received lower pay and ranked beneath men who could not boast a first from Oxford. By comparison with that, the diplomatic service was a step forward, albeit a touch patronising. “Our new lamb, that’s what they called me,” Mayhew recalls. “They were all very kind, very courteous.”
The Foreign Office had fought for decades to keep Mayhew’s kind out, often going to great lengths to prove women unworthy. In response to one 1930s committee investigation, it called on every head of mission to consider the question of women in the service, the results of which FCO historians recently reprinted in a striking paper. Even by the standards of their era, the views are extraordinary.
One ambassador said it was “unthinkable” for a diplomat to “produce babies”. Our man in Berne feared that “the clever woman would not be liked and the attractive woman would not be taken seriously”. Then there was this from Bucharest: “The hard-bitten Englishwoman nurtured in the London School of Economics, with a Marx and Engels outlook; the product of Girton or Somerville, interested chiefly in ancient Greek theatre, but wielding from time to time a forceful hockey stick; the shires girl who breakfasts off an ether cocktail and who will abandon the Chancery entirely for the polo field – none of these would be suitable representatives.”
When women, led by Mayhew, finally breached the Foreign Office ramparts, little was changed to accommodate them. Old habits endured. New applicants were still taken to a grand country house, plied with stiff Martinis and tested after dinner, without warning, on administering a fictitious island. There was no special guidance for female entrants and, in age-old Foreign Office tradition, no training either. “You were just flung into a department head-first and told to get on with it,” said Rosamund Huebener, who joined the year after Mayhew. “I had no idea what I was doing and nobody knew what to do with me. It was tremendous fun.”
Some continents, however, remained out of bounds: the Middle East and, more surprisingly, South America. “They thought any young woman would suffer what was euphemistically called a fate worse than death at the hands of some Latin lover,” says Dame Margaret Anstee, who went on to a glittering career with the UN in Bolivia among other places.
|Lady Cicely Mayhew in Yugoslavia in 1948|
And that was the end of Cicely Mayhew’s career as a diplomat. More than anything else, her future had depended on one thing: staying single. Along with all female diplomats, Mayhew’s letter of service stated that she would be “required to resign on marriage”. Other Whitehall departments had dropped the so-called “marriage bar” after the war. The one exception was the diplomatic service.
Very little official explanation was offered, save that diplomats could be sent anywhere in the world at short notice, a condition deemed incompatible with married life. (What on earth would their husband do?) Diplomatic Service Regulation No 5 was just “the order of things”. Those women who left to marry were stripped of their pensions and given a dowry, amounting to a month’s salary for every year they had served. The marriage bar remained in place, rigorously enforced, until 1973.
For 26 years, from the moment women were admitted to the diplomatic service to the point the marriage bar was lifted, Britain’s pioneering female diplomats faced the starkest choice possible between their careers and their private lives, between public service and a husband. There was no middle way.
. . .
The Foreign Office’s decision to do away with the marriage bar was inevitable. Debate was already under way in Britain about the need to guarantee basic equality in the workplace and elsewhere, and in 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the Sex Discrimination Act. If the Foreign Office had not removed the bar voluntarily, it would not have been long before it was forced to do so. The mandarins knew they would eventually have to bend with the times.
But – bizarre anachronism though it now appears – the existence of the marriage bar for female diplomats as recently as 36 years ago underlines both how much has changed in the relationship between people and their jobs, and how little. Society still agonises over trade-offs made by working mothers and the halting progress women are making towards equal representation, particularly in senior executive and professional positions. The solution has been to seek – and to legislate for – the “work-life balance”, a state of being we are all enjoined to achieve.
The pioneering female diplomats who served in the Foreign Office between 1947 and 1973 had that balance struck for them. Their superiors concluded that no accommodation between career and family was possible – at least not one involving a husband or children. It was a bar that at some point applied to professions ranging from teaching to the law (see panel below). The tide of equality legislation swept it away, implying to the generations who followed that no job is inherently incompatible with a family life.
But, as any female diplomat will attest, some jobs lend themselves less well to family responsibilities. The barriers may have gone, but the personal trade-offs remain. Moving across continents every three or four years takes a toll on any family or relationship. Women remain significantly underrepresented. To this day the Foreign Office struggles to design a system that is flexible, meets equality legislation, is fair to both sexes, is kind to families and effective. It may be a puzzle with no solution.
. . .
Faced with the stark choice between professional ambition and desire for domesticity, most of Cicely Mayhew’s contemporaries also chose a husband over a career. Mayhew, in common with others, admits it was not a straightforward decision to leave the job she loved. “It is silly to pretend I didn’t have doubts, then or later,” she said. “Did I do the right thing? Should I have stayed? Now of course I have my family, two boys, two girls. How could I possibly wish them away?”
Departures such as hers touched off something of a brouhaha among the male superiors left behind. “The Foreign Office is perturbed,” declared one newspaper article (which described Mayhew as a “glamour girl”). “Its women diplomats are so attractive that it is losing them too fast. All their training and experience is being lost.” In the face of this exodus, foreign secretary Ernest Bevin apparently snapped: “We’ve turned the Foreign Office into a matrimonial bureau!”
|Dame Anne Warburton, our first female ambassador|
“You’ve had 11 of the best years of my life,” Gardner replied. “What are you grumbling about?”
Yet it is wrong to assume that the pioneering female diplomats saw the marriage bar as unjust at the time. The gravity of the choice it forced upon them certainly added an extra edge to marriage proposals (one Foreign Office veteran admitted that it took her six years to decide). But many took the marriage bar for granted or never thought of mixing a family and a career, regardless of the rules. There was no push to remove it.
Some of those who persevered came to rationalise the direction their careers had taken as the result of never having met the right person. One put it this way: “If you are very much in love, it is pretty clear what you do.” Some pioneers are candid about the emotional price of a career in diplomacy, of options narrowed, of paths chosen “in spite of yourself”. But none admits to having forgone pure love for a job.
“It didn’t bother me very much. If I wanted to marry, I would have been ready to leave the service,” Anne Warburton told me as we sat drinking coffee, looking out at her Suffolk garden. “There were times when I enjoyed that side of life, but not to the point of wanting to leave the service. I was enjoying life as I was.”
Warburton became Britain’s first female ambassador, presenting her credentials to the Danish court in 1976. Others followed, but there were no more than a dozen senior women through the 1970s and 1980s, and until 1987, when Veronica Sutherland took up her post in the Ivory Coast, every British female ambassador was unmarried and childless.
Warburton is still regarded inside the diplomatic service with some awe. But she is unassuming and modest to a fault. If there were barriers in her way because of her sex, she bears no grudges. She recalls the odd case of discrimination. (Our ambassador in Helsinki once turned down a woman for a posting, claiming “policy is so often made in the sauna”.) But Warburton was never seriously put out. “If you arrive as the herald of other people, maybe you feel that that’s good, that’s progress and you don’t start complaining.”
Some pioneers acknowledge that later generations may find it odd that they did not protest more. “If the Service has changed its attitudes, so too have the women who belong to it,” explained Juliet Campbell, the former ambassador to Luxembourg and probably the first to lead a majority-female mission overseas. “In retrospect, I am struck by how those of us among my contemporaries who thought of ourselves as feminists felt we had to prove ourselves, without concessions. To have suggested that any special allowance be made was a tacit admission of inferiority.”
|Juliet Campbell, former ambassador to Luxembourg|
It is a common gripe. Diplomacy is a peripatetic business that leaves little time for blossoming romances or ageing parents. Every diplomat’s contract includes a mobility clause, meaning they can be sent anywhere at any time. “There was an assumption that you couldn’t expect to spend all your time in green pastures,” said Campbell. “I remember being told that it was time to go and get my knees brown. You couldn’t expect because you had children or, as I later discovered, elderly parents, to think that this was a reason you could stay in easy touch, because you would be told, rather briskly, ‘we all do at this stage of life’.”
A stint as a single woman in Bangkok was particularly hard. “Society moved in certain sorts of groups and circles and as a relatively senior woman you were neither fish nor fowl, nor good red herring,” she said. “There were the wives, there were what were then known as dolly-birds, the pretty secretaries, and there were lots of gorgeous Thai girls all over the place. I somehow felt I didn’t belong. That’s probably the biggest price, at times: you can gather I’ve had a pretty good life and I’m not fussing, but I would say I had periods of being acutely lonely.”
. . .
There was no party to say goodbye to Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones when she left the Foreign Office. It was Christmas 1995 and she was a 32-year veteran, the most senior woman diplomat of her time and arguably the most influential the service has ever had. But there was no card, no carriage clock, no leaving do. “You must be joking,” she told me as we sat in her small Chelsea house. “I just left. It was not very nice. Everybody had a sense it was a failure, which it was, in a way.”
|Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, whose glittering Foreign Office career ended in regret|
Too much time has passed to unpick properly the rights and wrongs of why she resigned. One fact stands out: she is the only political director in living memory not to move on to a top ambassadorial post. She wanted Paris, the plum appointment, and asked not to return to Bonn, where she had just served. In the event, a man six years her junior was given Paris, while she was only offered a ticket to Germany. She walked.
Neville-Jones admits playing her hand badly. But she is still smarting at the sniping that followed her exit. Anonymous diplomats were quoted saying her mind was not up to scratch, that she was “strong-willed and abrasive”, not “sufficiently emollient for the niceties of diplomatic life”, a touch heartless. “It’s unpleasant, isn’t it?” she said, jumping forward in her chair. “That is not something that you would ever hear about a man.”
Who did she confide in during this difficult period? “Well that’s one of the hard things about not being married, because you’ve nobody else to talk to. I talk a bit with my brother, my brother’s very supportive,” she said. “My mother couldn’t begin to understand what was happening. Though, interestingly enough, she said to me afterwards, ‘I sensed you were unhappy in that job.’ So it must have shown.”
She pressed on in business, and recently joined the Conservatives as David Cameron’s national security adviser. But almost 15 years on, her premature departure still splits opinion. The controversy survives, in part, because the women’s diplomatic revolution is unfinished. Not long after Neville-Jones, another senior woman fell at the Paris hurdle. And a woman has yet to hold one of the seven top Foreign Office jobs.
I wondered if Neville-Jones sacrificed anything to the marriage bar. “Well, I’m not married,” she said, after a moment’s pause. Over the years she rejected a few suitors, but only came close to accepting one proposal, and even then never really “agonised about it”. She admits the marriage bar played a part. “Do I regret it?” she went on, anticipating my question. “It would be nice to be married. But do I look back and say, this is a fearful regret? No, I don’t. The one thing I do think about my life is – for God’s sake – don’t complain. You choose to do something, you take what goes with the territory.”
. . .
Yet there is little doubt that, from a woman’s perspective, what goes with the territory is changing. The marriage bar is long gone. Our man in Havana is now our woman. The number of women in senior management remains woefully low – 21 per cent of the total and just four out of the top 29 jobs – but compared even with a decade ago, when the proportion was 6 per cent, it is a small triumph.
The new watchword is flexibility. Sir Peter Ricketts, the well-regarded head of the Foreign Office, has introduced schemes to help balance family and career. A “mobility clause” still appears in every contract, but it is far less strictly enforced. Job shares are more common: a husband and wife team now head the mission to Zambia. So is remote working. So the schemes are in place – the real battle is to change the culture. A Foreign Office survey found that more than 40 per cent of staff still feel issues of work-life balance and flexible working cannot be openly discussed.
|Anne Pringle, ‘rock chick’ and Britain’s first female ambassador to Moscow|
As a man who has just married a diplomat, I’m understandably concerned about the peripatetic lifestyle. Moving countries every four years – kids and careers in tow – sounds like the opposite of settling down. Pringle spoke to me with some trepidation – knowing my wedding was just a few weeks away. “I hope I don’t put you off,” she said.
She didn’t. But her lifestyle would not suit everyone. Since they married 20 years ago, her Moscow posting is the first time she has worked in the same country as her husband. “I don’t think anyone would pretend it’s easy. I’d say my husband and I are past masters at shuttle diplomacy,” she told me. For a while it was Paris and Brussels, then Singapore and London. “It is quite a long haul. But it’s worked for us. We have barely missed a beat and certainly barely ever missed a weekend,” she said.
At this point, she must have noticed the wobble in my voice. “Most people find it slightly bizarre that we are still very, very together. But you have just got to find what works for you. The joy of nowadays is that you are not in a straitjacket. Spouses 30 years ago were in quite a straitjacket in terms of not having many choices for what to do. Now things are a bit more flexible and that helps both sides.” I do hope she is right.
Alex Barker is an FT political correspondent
A brief history of the marriage bar
Boeing Air Transport’s hire of eight young nurses as flight attendants in 1930 set the precedent for employing only attractive, unattached women, writes Sonia Van Gilder Cooke. In the 1960s, stewardesses challenged the industry’s tacit marriage bar and in 1968, airlines dropped the policy along with forced retirement at the age of 32.
In the early 1870s, the Post Office opened the doors of its Returned Letter Office and Savings Bank to women workers. In 1875, however, the Office introduced a marriage bar that stayed in place for seven decades, until 1946.
Bank workers: Barclays
Women first joined Barclays during the first world war, yet had to wait until 1961 to retain their positions after marriage. The Bank of England and Lloyds Bank had abolished their marriage bars by 1952, but Barclays continued the policy, with its chairman suggesting as late as 1964 that “family commitments” rather than career should be the priority of young female employees.
Despite the eminence of many married female employees in its early years, the BBC adopted a marriage bar in 1932. The bar was jettisoned in 1944, the same year the BBC reporter Audrey Russell became the nation’s first accredited female war correspondent. Gender discrimination persisted, however: women could not become general trainees or newsreaders until 1960.
In 1923, London County Council banned the hiring of married women teachers; it was followed by educational authorities nationwide. The National Union of Women Teachers argued that marriage brought “human understanding” to the classroom and won the right to continue working after marriage in 1935.