Women in Diplomatic Service, 1924

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park

Until 1922, neither the United States nor Great Britain included women in their diplomatic services.  There was a major difference, however, in the practices of the two countries.  In the United States it was by tradition; in Great Britain it was by law.  Under paragraph 1 of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919, “All posts in the Diplomatic Service and in the Consular Service are reserved to men.”  The United States changed its practice in regard to diplomats in December 1922, when the Department of State appointed Lucile Atcherson as the first female in the American Diplomatic Service.[1] See here for more detail on that.

In May 1924, the Duchess of Atholl raised the issue of women appointees in the House of Commons.  The U.S. Consul General in London, Robert P. Skinner, reported on the resulting exchange in the following despatch.[2]  Skinner was one of the most senior officers in the Consular Service at the time.  He joined the service as a Consul in Marseilles in 1897 and was later appointed as Consul General in that city (1901), in Hamburg (1908), in Berlin (1913), and in London (1914).  One of his colleagues noted that he “was a man of great energy, very sharp intellect, and wide culture.”[3]

reports that only men can serve in the British Diplomatic and Consular services
states that the British position is right because women are not able to  effectively deal with problems in the Diplomatic Service
Despatch No. 17217, Subject: Women and the British Foreign Service, May 22, 1924

Writing after the appointment of the first woman to serve as an American diplomat, Skinner’s last paragraph was an explicit criticism of existing policy.  His comments are not surprising.  In those years the men of the Diplomatic and Consular Services, and later the Foreign Service, were almost uniformly against the presence of women in their ranks.  Skinner’s comments did not hurt his career.  He was subsequently appointed as Consul General in Paris later in 1924, as Minister to Greece (1926), as Minister to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (1931), and as Ambassador to Turkey (1933).  He retired in 1936. Today, about 40% of American Foreign Service Officers are women.

[1] At the time, American representation overseas was handled by the separate Diplomatic Service and Consular Service.  Under the provisions of the Rogers Act of 1924, those two services were combined into the now-familiar Foreign Service of the United States.

[2] Consulate General London to Department of State, Despatch 17217, May 22, 1924, file 701.41/13, 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[3] DeWitt C. Poole, “Reminiscences,” quoted in Robert D. Schulzinger, The Making of the Diplomatic Mind: The Training, Outlook, and Style of United States Foreign Service Officers, 1908-1931 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), p. 190 (n. 128).