A social revolution

NEWSPAPERS in recent days have noted the further efforts of the director general of the United States Foreign Service to find employment overseas for the spouses of our diplomats. These efforts represent more than an attempt to resolve a problem in our diplomatic service. They are symptomatic of the social revolution that has occurred in this country -- and in others -- during the past three decades. Because the Foreign Service has in the past represented a particularly traditional part of our society, the changes seem especially dramatic.

Diplomacy, as with social customs worldwide, has generally become less formal. Gone are the days when the young male Foreign Service officer must outfit himself with several hundred dollars' worth of formal clothes. Gone are the equivalent requirements for his wife to have a wide selection of long dresses.

That was a world in which the wives (male spouses were rare), although holding no official position, had a diplomatic regime of their own. They called on the wives of other diplomats; the ``junior'' ones, by direction, accompanied the wife of the ambassador on her calls. Each call required hats and long gloves. It was assumed that the wives of the officers would be available to assist at embassy functions; to fill in -- often at the last minute -- for gaps in the ambassador's dinner lists; and to stand by during congressional visits to take the visitors shopping.

That was a world, too, in which the woman officer was a new, and sometimes unwanted, phenomenon. The assignment of women to officer positions was often rejected by ambassadors of another generation who felt that ``a woman cannot do that kind of a job.'' Women have since demonstrated, in many difficult and dangerous posts, that that is not true.

The changes began in the early '70s, when the couples and the women who entered the service out of the turbulent '60s had a different view of a woman's relationship to a husband's employment. The married women were no longer prepared to be ``adjuncts'' of their husbands. They were ``persons in their own right.'' This change was formalized in a directive to the service in 1972.

In an age of emphasis on equal opportunity, women sought a greater share of officer positions and important assignments. Together with efforts to improve minority employment, the service gradually changed its previous character of a white-male-dominated organization. The percentage figures are still far from being comparable to the population as a whole, but much progress has been made.

This revolution has happened as changed economic conditions have brought a great increase in the number of working couples. Spouses are not only generally unwilling to play the traditional role as a Foreign Service dependent; they have their own careers to consider.

In an increasing number of instances the husband and wife are both in the Foreign Service. Not only has the service been required to change rules that previously ordered the resignation of married women officers; it has had to seek ways to satisfy the desire of couples to serve together abroad, or at least in neighboring posts.

When the spouse is not in the Foreign Service, the Department of State has sought other ways of meeting the need for overseas employment. Persons within an embassy have been specifically assigned to help dependents obtain employment. Reciprocal agreements have been signed with a number of countries that waive restrictions on the employment of diplomatic spouses. The latest announced efforts concentrate on determining whether there are additional jobs within an embassy, possibly now performed by others, that could be given to spouses.

This social revolution is not one confined to the United States Foreign Service. It has influenced overseas corporate life. It has been felt in the diplomatic services of other countries; some, such as Canada, were ahead of the United States in fostering changes. Some countries now pay their diplomatic spouses for work those ``adjunct'' spouses previously performed free. The United States, in a sense, is catching up.

There will still be those men who, in the quiet corners of their clubs, will grumble about all that has happened. But to many of us, this social revolution was a long-overdue recognition of the talent, courage, and dignity of more than one-half of our population.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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