Women were not allowed to work in the Foreign Office until the 1940s. Why did it take so long for this last bastion of sexism to fall?by Helen McCarthy / October 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Can a woman be a diplomat? This might seem an odd question in the 21st century, when women can be astronauts, business executives, media tycoons or anything else they set their mind to. But in Britain in the first half of the 20th century, the capacity of a woman to represent her nation overseas was a topic of hot debate. Feminists clamoured for equality, while the Foreign and Commonwealth Office chiefs warned that the appointment of female diplomats would endanger British prestige abroad. It was not until 1946 that the government conceded that it would be safe to let women loose in Britain’s embassies.
So what accounts for women’s late arrival on the diplomatic scene? Most professions grudgingly opened their doors following women’s enfranchisement in 1918, but others—the FCO among them—held out, jealously defending their masculine privileges. Diplomacy, it was argued before various official committees in the 1930s, presented a special case because national interests were at stake. The purported risks of sending female representatives overseas were threefold. The first concern was the effect on foreign governments; how would they react to doing business with a woman? One British official commented in 1934 that they would “probably look upon it as rather a bad joke,” while his colleague predicted worse: foreigners, he argued, “would probably feel that they themselves were not being taken sufficiently seriously for being asked to receive her.” In either case, efforts to promote British global interests would suffer.