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WORLDLY WISE

- Women of enterprise and audacity

Women of the world: the rise of the female diplomat By Helen McCarthy, Bloomsbury, Rs 599

The title is misleading. This book deals only with the British diplomatic service, and the step by step approach taken by British women to first join, and then to achieve high positions in the profession, might be of absorbing interest only to a British reader. When Helen McCarthy describes the women trying to enter the diplomatic service as ‘heroines’, it is evident that this will be strongly feminist book, and it makes no pretence at not being polemical.

Women’s involvement in the arena of high politics is nothing new, and the author starts with a light-hearted review of English diplomacy starting with Elizabeth I and Victoria. She goes on to praise the diplomatic skills of the wives of Palmerston and Derby, around which time the royal courts were formalized into bureaucracies. Therefore, far from being a straight-line narrative of the struggles of women to be admitted to the foreign service, and then to be accepted as equals by their male peers, this account, which draws heavily on surprisingly few memoirs, has many digressions and excursions into anecdotes of marginal relevance, and consequently incurs suspicions of padding.

Initially, the British foreign service was exclusively for the privileged who could spend their private means and had the strings to pull to enter the profession. Until the First World War, two-thirds of those admitted were from the gentry or aristocracy, and those from the lower orders were given the unattractive poorly regarded left-over posts, while the consular corps consisted of “loners, chancers and climbers”. In 1856, a written examination was introduced, and by 1910, it had become reasonably competitive. The minimum age was raised to 22, and there was a selection board interview, but even then, salaries abroad were paid infrequently and there was a need to fall back on personal resources. The only women in the London Foreign Office between 1889 and 1918 were typists and clerks, working unseen in secluded back rooms.

At this stage, some women of enterprise and audacity make their appearance abroad in various capacities for the British state. The mother of Vita Sackville-West was Victoria, her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, who went as his hostess to Washington. Gertrude Bell, the arabist and traveller, was both rich and politically well-connected. Staying with the Hardinges at the Viceregal Lodge in Delhi, the viceroy dispatched her to Basra in 1916 to compile a book on tribes and prepare maps for the Mesopotamia campaign against the Ottomans. She became a serious actor in Middle East politics, and attended the Versailles Conference in 1919 and the Cairo Conference in 1921. McCarthy refers to Nancy Astor, the first woman member of the British parliament, Edith Lyttelton who represented the Empire at the League of Nations, and Beryl Power, a delegate on the Royal Commission on Labour in India in 1929, to chart the rise of the British woman in public life, but none were diplomats. Between the wars, Freya Stark’s expeditions and writings about the Middle East made her an established figure, and like Bell, she was a guest of the viceroy in Delhi, this time Wavell, but she and Bell were not diplomats in any accepted sense of the word though they were given assignments by the government on account of their special expertise in Arab lands. The author cites many other, less famous, women who worked for the government in various capacities, but she does not mention Noor Inayat Khan.

In 1933 British ambassadors’ views were canvassed by the Foreign Office on whether women had the potential to serve as diplomats. The response was negative despite the precedents of pioneer diplomats like Nadejda Stancloff of Bulgaria in 1921, and ambassadors like Russia’s Alexandra Kollontai (1922) and later American Ruth Owen in 1933. It was not the fault of the ladies, opined the mandarins, but of “Johnny foreigner who... is not ready for this experiment... how could women pull rowdy sailors out of brothels, or investigate matters... including homosexual crime or an outbreak of venereal disease?”

The manpower shortages of the war years then came into play and in 1942, the government announced that women could apply for administrative posts in the Foreign Office. That year, Canadian-born Mary McGeachy became Britain’s first diplomat in Washington, though in a temporary capacity. Four women, none British, signed the UN Charter at San Francisco in 1945. Back in London, a new committee was set up in 1945 to re-examine the question. Women were declared eligible, and 17 joined up in the first five years, 30 years after winning the vote, and 20 years after women could scale the high ranks of the domestic civil service. But there remained a marriage ban (dropped in 1973) and a quota of 10 per cent that was dropped in 1963, two years before the UK foreign service was renamed the diplomatic service. In 1973, the first woman high commissioner was appointed to Botswana, and in 1976 the first woman ambassador, to Denmark. The first married woman was appointed ambassador in 1987. Twenty-three per cent now occupy what are considered to be the top echelons, but no woman has yet been appointed to Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Paris, New Delhi, the UN or the EU; or as permanent secretary.

It is an accepted truth that women are historically under-represented in the diplomatic world, but this book would have benefited from comparisons with some other countries. In India Vijayalaksmi Pandit was ambassador in the first year of independence, the brilliant Hansa Mehta helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a woman was in the first batch of the Indian foreign service in 1949, the first foreign secretary in 2001, and currently both the foreign minister and the foreign secretary are women.

Despite references and a bibliography that suggest an academic work, this is for the general reader, in demotic and somewhat sensational style. The author uses the term ‘ambassadress’, which does not exist in diplomatic parlance, for an ambassador’s wife. This is on the whole an entertaining essay by an outsider who seems rather spell-bound by diplomacy and its old-fashioned elitist image.