By David Langbart
The National Archives holds records relating to many firsts:
First atomic bomb.
First man on the moon.
Here is another first. This is Lucile Atcherson.
[Source: Lucile Atcherson; Official Personnel Folders-Department of State; Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO]
The following seemingly innocuous paper documents her “first.” Lucile Atcherson was the first woman appointed as a United States Diplomatic Officer or Consular Officer (the U.S. did not establish the unified Foreign Service until 1924, at which point Diplomatic and Consular Officers became Foreign Service Officers). Other women had previously served in the Department of State or overseas, but all of the latter had been in clerical positions.
[Source: Department of State to Lucile Atcherson, December 5, 1922, file: 123 At 21-, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD]
Atcherson accepted the offer of appointment. Even though her career was short, her breakthrough into the male-only world of U.S. diplomats eventually saw Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Hilary Clinton serve as Secretary of State and head of the Foreign Service.
Lucile Atcherson was born in October 1894 in Columbus, Ohio. She graduated from Smith College in 1913 and subsequently did graduate and research work at Ohio State University and the University of Chicago. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement and during World War I worked overseas in the American Committee of Devastated France. She spoke French, German, and Spanish.
Atcherson began her quest to join the American diplomatic corps in 1921, enlisting the support of political leaders in her home state of Ohio. Department of State officials tried to steer her towards a clerk position where her war relief experience might be helpful. Instead, in May 1921, she applied for a position as a Diplomatic Secretary (a secretary in the Diplomatic Service of the time was one of importance; secretaries performed substantive work, not clerical duties, under the direction of the chief of mission). Her application was accepted and she subsequently passed the July 1922 Diplomatic Service examination, at which point she was placed on the list of those eligible for appointment. As noted in the document above, she was notified of her appointment as a Secretary in December 1922.
Atcherson accepted her appointment and spent her first two years of service in the Department of State. For most of that period she worked in the Division of Latin-American Affairs. She also spent time in the Bureau of Indexes and Archives where she made a good impression in the use of the Department’s codes and ciphers.
After two years in the Department, the Office of Foreign Personnel determined to send Atcherson overseas in order for her to experience the real work of a Diplomatic Secretary and to see if a woman could effectively operate in that arena. She was assigned to the U.S. Legation in Switzerland, then headed by noted American diplomat Hugh Gibson. After her tour of duty in Bern, she was assigned to the U.S. Legation in Panama in early 1927. She was not to be there long. While in Switzerland, Atcherson met Dr. George M. Curtis. They decided to marry and after a short time in Panama, Atcherson resigned, effective September 19, 1927.
While Lucile Atcherson may not have made an impact on U.S. foreign relations, by virtue of her appointment, she opened the door to all the women who followed in her footsteps.
For more information, please consult:
Homer L. Calkin, Women in the Department of State: Their Role in American Foreign Affairs, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1978
Molly M. Wood, “Lucile Atcherson Curtis: The First Female U.S. Diplomat,” The Foreign Service Journal, vol. 90, #7-8, July-August 2013, pp. 44-48.
I thank my NARA colleagues Ashley Mattingly and Erin Townsend for their assistance.