“An Act of Displeasure:” Reaction to the Possibility of a Woman Ambassador, 1951

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In April 1950, the United States and Ireland elevated the diplomatic presence in their respective national capitals from a legation (headed by an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary) to an embassy (headed by an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary).  The last American minister and first American ambassador to Ireland was George A. Garrett, whose tenure covered the period from July 1947 to May 1951.

When Garrett left his post in May 1951, the question arose of who was to replace him.  Here, it is worth noting that the designation of a new diplomatic representative is not a unilateral action by the appointing country; the host country must be willing to accept the appointee.  In this process, the country making the appointment, in this case the United States, requests of the host country, Ireland, approval – agrément – to send the chosen person as its representative.  For some reason, Irish authorities believed there was the possibility that the United States would name a woman as the new American ambassador.  Why that is true is not clear.  At that point, only four women had received appointment as the chief of a U.S. diplomatic mission:

●Ruth Bryan Owen, Minster to Denmark, 1933-1936

●Florence Jaffray Hurst Harriman, Minister to Norway, 1937-1940

●Pearl Mesta, Minister to Luxembourg 1949-1953

●Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson, Ambassador to Denmark, 1949-1953

The Irish reaction to the rumor of the appointment of a woman is reflected in the following memorandum by William Bruce Lockling, the First Secretary of the U.S. embassy in Dublin.

recalls view of Irish diplomat that if a woman were appointed ambassador, the post in Dublin would go from high to low regard
Memorandum of Conversation from William Bruce Lockling, June 12, 1951 (NAID 302021)

Thus, the lack of women as chiefs of mission of U.S. diplomatic posts is not necessarily totally at the feet of American officials. 

Francis Patrick Matthews replaced Garrett as U.S. ambassador to Ireland in October 1951.  In later years, Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy Heckler and Jean Kennedy Smith served as U.S. ambassadors there from 1986 to 1989 and 1993 to 1998, respectively.

See these earlier posts on the first woman admitted into the Foreign Service, on early attitudes towards women in foreign service, and on recognizing women in foreign affairs.


Source:  William Bruce Lockling, Memorandum of Conversation, June 12, 1951, file 124.40A3/6-1251, 1950-55 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

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