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The marriage rule that held women back at the State Department

The marriage rule that held women back at the State Department
© iStockphoto/The Hill illustration

When a family friend gave Phyllis Oakley a sample of the State Department’s foreign service examination, she doubted she could pass. A few years later, she scored high enough to become a member of America’s diplomatic corps, prepared for a life on the front lines of the nation’s missions abroad. 

But within a year of joining the State Department, she resigned. 

Oakley had met her husband Robert, also a Foreign Service officer, and per State Department guidelines, a married woman was forced to resign. 

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“It was just simply accepted. If a woman married, she resigned. I never asked to see the regulation, I never fought it; nice girls in the 1950s didn’t do that,” Oakley said in an interview with The Hill. 

“When I say this to young women they look at me like, ‘That must have been in the Middle Ages, and you’re still alive.’ It was in the ’50s and early ’60s, and that really isn’t so long ago.” 

The State Department regulation that forced Oakley into an early retirement had been established in the early 1920s, in the wake of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. The amendment sparked a cultural revolution that brought women into typically male-dominated fields. 

The State Department was not an early adopter of women’s liberation into its professional workforce — women generally served as secretarial clerks, not diplomatic officers. Women who wanted to enter the foreign service had to be dogged in their pursuit of an opportunity. 

Very few were successful. Only a handful began to enter the State Department in the early years of suffrage, largely because it was so difficult to secure a place to take the Foreign Service entrance examination, and then pass the test.

Lucile Atcherson, who in 1922 became the first woman to pass the exam, had to get private tutoring because she was barred from the all-male preparatory classes, wrote Homer L. Calkin in his 1978 book “Women in the Department of State: Their role in American foreign affairs.”

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“The director was horrified when she asked to enter the class,” Calkin wrote. “It would ‘destroy the morale of the young men.’ ”

Meanwhile in London, the U.S. consul general at the time, Robert P. Skinner, was also confused as how to handle a persistent young woman looking to take the entrance exam.

Skinner thought she was entirely capable, Calkin wrote, but worried that if she got married she would compromise America’s standing abroad, believing it inconceivable that a woman would be out in the world with a husband at home.  

“He questioned if her position in a foreign community as the head of a U.S. Government office would not ‘bring the whole arrangement into ridicule, destroy her usefulness and render the position of her husband intolerable,’ ” Calkin wrote. “As one solution, he suggested that rules be adopted before women were permitted to take the examinations which would automatically terminate appointments upon a woman’s marriage. That rule was to prevail for 50 years.” 

Atcherson lasted five years at the State Department before resigning, in 1927, to get married.

The first senior female diplomats were politically appointed, and their marriages were not entirely prohibited. 

Ruth Bryan Owen, a Democratic congresswoman and who was married twice before, became the first woman appointed to lead a diplomatic mission, heading to Denmark in 1933. She resigned in 1936 because she married a foreign national, a Danish military captain. 

In 1949, the politically active and married Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson became the first politically appointed ambassador, also leading the embassy in Denmark.  

Yet for Frances E. Willis, the first female career foreign service officer to reach the rank of ambassador when she took over the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland, her breakthrough was only possible because she never married. 

“She was an interesting and hard-working and intelligent woman,” James C. H. Bonbright, a colleague of Willis in the foreign service and a two-time ambassador, said in a 1986 ADST.org interview with Peter Jessup.

“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.”

Phyllis Oakley remembers hearing about Frances Willis when she joined the State Department, which held her up as an example of the heights women could achieve.

And 16 years after she left the agency, another cultural revolution that brought women’s rights to the forefront allowed Oakley to return to the State Department, when Foggy Bottom rescinded the marriage rule in the early 1970s. 

“What changed in that time was the United States,” she said. “All of a sudden we got the Vietnam war, hippies, women’s liberation, the pill, protests — and so, in the early ’70s things were entirely different.”

Oakley became the first woman to hold a staff position in executive leadership and the first female spokesperson for the State Department, under then-Secretary of State George Shultz.

She has lived all over the world and been involved in many major diplomatic events in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia. “Great fun,” she calls it. 

Oakley, now in her 80s, says women have come a long way in making themselves an indispensable part of the State Department — including as three secretaries of State, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement MORE.

She credits young people for pushing the culture change at the agency that allowed for her to come back and succeed. She’s keenly aware of the power of cultural revolutions and is watching today’s movement calling out anti-Black and minority racism as an opportunity for the State Department to do more to increase diversity in its ranks. 

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“It was mainly, I feel, through the young officers who felt that the department had to change or it couldn’t survive.”

--Updated on Oct. 6 at 11:35 a.m.