Washington — Although the hall at Georgetown University was packed, the roomful of State Department women in their Gucci shoes and carefully coifed hairdos seemed to represent an elite minority -- wives of our country's nearly 5,000 foreign service officers and ambassadors. Together, they composed a controversy- sparked meeting on "Diplomacy: The Role of the Wife," organized by former Ambassador Martin F. Herz under the auspices of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
But wives of embassy employees from Sweden, Canada, and Australia confirmed the scope: The problems faced by overseas dependents are the same everywhere, whether their spouses work for a United States or a foreign embassy, a military base or a private corporation. Unable, in many cases, to pursue their own careers and forced to adapt to the stress of cultural differences, constant mobility, and possible terrorism, the wives work to find a niche where none is obvious.
Oliver L. Troxel, former US ambassador to Zambia, put it humorously: "It is perhaps not realized outside the service that the wife who refuses to adjust to her foreign environment, mopes around the house, and does her best to make her husband miserable is almost never a problem except to herself. Such wives have created those officers we know who, legends in their time, seem to be at work 24 hours a day.
"The problem arises," he contends, "with the intelligent, attractive, and charming wives who can unfortunately be found at every post." As he sees it, "These underemployed women, if left to their own devices, will, in about 70 percent of the cases, choose to play the diplomatic lady; about 20 percent will busy themselves with good works; while the remaining 10 percent will seek to seduce someone else's husband."
It is the 70 percent, by Mr. Troxel's reckoning, who are causing all the trouble. Traditionally, foreign service wives were expected to follow the lead of the ambassador's wife as "caterers to the State Department," a situation that created and condoned legendary "dragon ladies" who passed judgment on the clothing, children, and activities of all embassy wives.
"You don't know how far we've come." said one of the conference attendants. "Twenty years ago, I had to ask permission to wear slacks in my own home."
Then in 1972, at the urging of the American Association of Foreign Service Wives, the State Department passed a set of directives which prohibited any such demands being placed on dependents. No longer would our government get "two employees for the price of one," as the protesters put it.
The directive opened up more choices for foreign service spouses but provided no real solutions. Wives who enjoy the diplomatic role find that they still receive neither compensation nor recognition for their jobs. Douglas Heck, former US ambassador to Nepal, gave a graphic illustration: "The fellow who preceded me was single and had managed to wrangle a full-time person from the State Department to 'run the plantation.' But my wife was expected to do it for free."
It is not just ambassadors' wives who serve their country free of charge. Many others, with husbands on both public and private payrolls, enjoy the "richness" of serving abroad and are anxious to move into the local community and "work with the people."
Stephanie Smith Kinney, a foreign service wife who became a foreign service officer in 1976, talked about the local reaction to this type of activity:
"In the eyes of most non-Americans, the American woman is considered to be a special breed; at least collectively. Born of a pioneer and immigrant tradition and experience, she is dynamic, not passive, a doer, an independent thinker, somewhat revolutionary in her ability to seek and achieve social change peacefully, if not always quietly," she says.
"Her organizational abilities are legend. She is one of our secret strengths if we would but include her in our inventory of resources and value her contributions accordingly."
Ms. Kinney agrees with a suggestion given in 1978 by noted anthropologist Margaret Mead to a group of United Nations diplomats' wives. Dr. Mead thought that these women could be an effective international network for the purpose of advancing the status of women throughout the world.
As Ms. Kinney puts it, "We could all do worse than to be noted not only as pushers of some very fine cookies but also as persons actively involved in advancing the status of 51 percent of humankind."
Margery Boichel, one of some 250 wives attending the conference, gives a small and touching example of this networking. "We were driving through a remote part of the Middle East -- really remote -- and we had to stop in the road to let some shepherdesses cross," she says.
"When they saw that I was driving the car, not my husband, they started to cheer! I was so touched by that."
Whatever role the overseas wife chooses to serve, it was clear from the tone of the conference that these women want some sort of compensation or recognition from their husbands' employer for their diplomatic work.
Others, like Priscilla Rope, are not interested in "pursuing their husbands' careers. The State Department is my husbandhs employer -- not mine!"
These women underscored the special stresses their husbands' careers place on their own job hunts. "Even stateside," one points out, "corporations are reluctant to hire us because they know we could be moved any time."
In 1978 the State Department set up a Family Liaison Office to address these problems and offer a "partial solution," according to Janet Lloyd, the office's first director. "I don't believe there is a total solution, because solutions are highly individual matters," she says.
The office was set up with a basic mandate of providing information and support services to wives and families of the foreign service, a job that involves much red-tape unsnarling and paper digging.
But they have also tried to open or support a range of options for dependents , including:
* Bilateral reciprocal work permits.m The office has negotiated such agreements so far with Canada, France, and England, and continues to work toward agreements with a handful of other countries.
* Functional training.m The office recognized that there are many countries where, even with a work agreement, the opportunities for employment simply wouldn't exist for many careers. So they are training women for possible embassy jobs, either as consulars or in budget and fiscal work.
* Career counseling.m The office helps dependents locate possible jobs, both overseas and in the Washington area.
* Continuing education.m In areas where employment is simply out of the question, the office works to open university and other educational opportunities, so spouses can maintain or improve their job skills during their tours of duty.
* Separation and maintenance allowance.m This option gives families a theoretical choice, allowing them to stay stateside if they can demonstrate pressing reasons. The allowance, however, amounts to only $5,000 to $6,000. There are those who believe that the allowance should instead be offered to those who choose to accompany their husbands to particularly difficult posts.
* Monetary compensation.m Paying wives for their work is a topic under "considerable discussion," says Ms. Lloyd, but she points out how difficult it would be to define both the work to be compensated and the type of compensation. A more viable option, perhaps, is for the embassy to give resume credit for volunteer work -- an option already in operation.
Other solutions discussed at the conference include having the wives become foreign service officers -- an option more than one wife has taken, though they warn that it carries "its own set of problems"; giving social security credit to any spouse of a government employee stationed overseas ("anyone who serves overseas makes sacrifices for their country", says an unpensioned wife); banding together and going on strike ("We could wreak havoc," says Ms. Rope with a smile); rotating jobs found overseas among embassy wives; or, as one Canadian wife said with her tongue in her cheek, "writing the directive so that only single people work in the foreign service."