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MARCH 2016





Female members of the Foreign Service of the 1950s through the 1990s

break through barriers at the Department of State.


his selection of excerpts from the oral

histories of three retired female Foreign

Service officers—Elinor Constable, Phyllis

Oakley and Mary Olmsted—brings to life

the atmosphere of the Foreign Service in

the second half of the 20th century. These

are but a few voices from that era, but

they convey the spirit and determina-

tion of the generation that witnessed and

helped open the way for women in the career Foreign Service.

We are indebted to the oral history collection developed

and maintained by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and




—The Editors

‘Show Me the Law…!’



had no particular career ambitions. My idea was to work at

something that was interesting and fun. I didn’t want to be

a secretary. That was the other thing women were supposed

to be [in the 1950s]. … And the notion that this was what every

woman was destined to be, was nuts. I passed the written exam

with flying colors. … I would describe the process as extremely

patronizing, particularly towards a woman, and subjective. …

A month or so before we were married [her fiancé was also

in the Foreign Service], I was summoned to the executive direc-



tor’s office in the Economic Bureau. The executive director in

those days was a legendary figure by the name of Frances Wil-

son. We were all terrified of Frances, but she congratulated me

on my engagement, and I was touched. My goodness, how nice.

And then she said, “When do you plan to resign, Miss Greer?”

And I said, “I don’t plan to resign.” … No woman had ever

done this in the history of the Foreign Service. I said, “You can’t

force me to resign. If you want me out, you have to fire me.”

She said, “Miss Greer, you are required to resign.”

I said, “Showme the regulation. Showme the law. Where is it?”

Well, there wasn’t one. This came as a shock. I was quite

prepared for her to pull out a book, and show me some regula-

tion, and at that point I would fight it as far as I could.

There was none! It was custom, plain old custom, buttressed

by two practical limitations. One, you did not have to grant

maternity leave to women in those days. … And second, there

was a restriction on the books about family members work-

ing together at the same post. But we were in Washington, and

I said, “This makes no sense. I am not going to be a different

person after I am married. Nothing is going to change. And I

am going to continue to do this job.”

We started our family right away and there was no such

thing as maternity leave, so at that point I did resign. …

[Some years later, in 1973], we returned to D.C. and I went

back to work. … Peter came home with a pink copy of a mes-

sage describing the new policy about women in the Foreign

Service, inviting women who had been forced out to reapply. …

When I rejoined the Foreign Service, I had been in the Civil