In 1933 Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of William Jennings Bryan, became this country's first woman to serve as a minister abroad. Since then, a thin trickle of women have headed posts from Great Britain to Nepal; seven of the 134 United States ambassadors today are women.
And although all ambassadors serve ''at the pleasure of the president,'' as one describes it, only one of these seven -- Ambassador Faith Ryan Whittlesey in Switzerland -- came by Presidential appointment.
The other six came up through the foreign service on a career path State Department officials say is widening for women and minorities. In 1971, 5 percent of the foreign service officers were women -- a figure that leaped to 15 .6 percent in a decade, they say.
But Carol Laise, who served in top jobs from country director to ambassador to director general of the Foreign Service, says her trip along this path was a question of ''leaning on half-open doors.'' A modest, dignified woman who set out with wide curiosity and no family responsibilities after World War II, Ambassador Laise attributes her success to being the person with the expertise needed for progressively responsible positions.
As part of the team that worked out the details on the United Nations after World War II, she was a natural choice to serve in the US delegation to the fledgling government body.
There, she says, she was ''exposed to every part of the world,'' and was able to see ''where I might easily fit in.'' The area she aimed for was the Indian subcontinent. She served there twice as a foreign service officer and wound up serving as the country director for India at the State Department in Washington.
That was during Lyndon Johnson's term, when the President felt there should be more women representing the US abroad. Although Ambassador Laise felt that ''country director is a more responsible job,'' she says, she agreed to do ''whatever the President wanted,'' and found herself serving as US ambassador to Nepal.
The position exposed her to much that was new -- country living, certain economic conditions, and marriage. While there, she married Ambassador-at-large Ellsworth Bunker, who took over as head of the US mission to Vietnam. They set an in-house marriage precedent that has since become ''policy,'' although foreign-service marriages are not common at the present time; in fact, the current ambassador to Nepal is married to the ambassador to Bangladesh.
The question, as in Ambassador Laise's case, of increasing American women's visibility abroad has led some critics to call such appointments ''token jobs.'' Women tend to be given the less crucial positions. There have been no female ambassadors to the Soviet Union or Israel, for example.
Ambassador Nancy Rawls, now serving in the Ivory Coast, explains this as a matter of making the right fit: ''Particular posts are given to particular people according to timing and the needs of the posts,'' she explains in her rich, Southern voice. ''A woman might fit very well, but to me, this kind of selection process -- a man vs. a woman -- is somewhat artificial.''
The scarcity of trained women may be another factor at work here. The State Department instituted two affirmative action programs under the last administration to recruit minorities and women into their ranks, and as this larger number of women rises, the numbers of female ambassadors should go up as well.
Some of these increasing numbers, Ambassador Laise admits, include women who were ''perhaps not as ready for promotion as they could have been.'' But Ambassador Rawls feels the recruitment is more selective now. ''They're coming in with more ingredients,'' she says. ''They're coming in with master's degrees, for instance. There's an element of quality there which is very encouraging.''
What Ambassador Laise hopes to see out of this effort is more ''first deputies and top policy officers, in addition to more female ambassadors,'' she says. The first deputy, she feels, will continue to be a male bastion for cultural reasons. She says that person tends to be the one in the embassy to ''take the heat, and in our culture, most men feel uncomfortable about putting women in that position.''
But the numbers of women desk officers do seem to be rising, at least in the African sector. ''In the part of the African Bureau where I hang my hat,'' says Ambassador Rawls, ''right now, half of the officers are women, including the country director.''
Working in the field is the real benefit of foreign service life, says Ambassador Rawls. She started as a clerk typist in Vienna in 1948, and has worked in a half-dozen countries on two continents ever since.
She climbed oil rigs in Germany and learned to tap rubber trees in the Ivory Coast, she says, citing her wide range of experiences. ''And as you're exposed to these operations,'' says the ambassador, ''your understanding and appreciation of other categories of people in this world grows.''
''It's definitely a service,'' says Ambassador Laise. ''You cannot survive in this job simply by asking what it can do for you. You have to want to serve your country.''
It's a service for which women are particularly well-suited, both ambassadors feel. Interpersonal skills -- those calling for compromise, negotiation, soothing tempers, and nurturing relationships -- are the very skills for which women receive training in our society, says Ambassador Laise, and it makes many women effective diplomats.
Other cultures may be coming to the same conclusions about women as diplomats. Both ambassadors say that they have known several women in the foreign services of other nations. Ambassador Laise has noticed this particularly among the third-world nations ''where the extended family still operates. It's not uncommon for such women to place their children with a sister or a grandmother for five or 10 years while they pursue their career,'' she says. ''It's much easier for them than American women.''
Both American women rose to the top of male-dominated careers with help from their male colleagues, they say. Neither of them feels that she asked for or received particular support from fellow women officers, but both say that the increasing emphasis on women in our society created an updraft that helped them rise.
Ambassador Laise speaks briefly about being outside of the ''old boy network'' that existed within the foreign service: ''They would play tennis or golf together, and do things that made them more comfortable with each other,'' she reports. ''With women, the relationship was always a little more formal.''
Some women react to this syndrome by trying to break into the network, or by forming one of their own. But Ambassador Laise lifted the approach above establishing a male-vs.-female domain. ''When you go to a foreign country, you all go in there together and create a community,'' she says.
''Isn't that what this is all about,'' she asks, '' -- creating a sense of community?''