THE PHYLLIS OAKLEY ADDRESS AT THE
PRINCETON '52 WIVE'S LUNCHEON

Princeton '52 Wives' Luncheon


Phyllis "Oakley addresses the Ladies luncheon at Reunions

Thank you very much. What a pleasure to be part of this wonderful, celebratory reunion! I suspect WE all deserve it.

As Elizabeth Taylor said to her husbands, I will not keep you long….

I am sure that THEY, the gentlemen of 1952, are sharing many tales of life as they review these past fifty years. They have had notable achievements and have made remarkable contributions, but you can bet your burqa that the changes they discuss cannot hold a candle to the changes we have seen in women's lives over the past half-century.

I will abstain from throwing a barrage of facts and figures at you about women in America. I was interested yesterday when I heard someone say, "Did you know that most of the accountants in the United States now are women?" That this is something that so many of them can do at home. What I thought I would do is to bring the story of change down to manageable size and talk about what has happened to women in American diplomacy, with a few examples from my own career as a Foreign Service Officer.

Nearly half of all new Foreign Service Officers entering the State Department today are women. I was one of a class of 30 in 1957, about average for that time. There were no role models then: senior women very, very few and far between. The proportion of women Foreign Service generalists has gone up from less than a quarter in 1990 to about a third in 2000. Women constituted only 4.8 percent of U.S. Foreign Service officers in 1970. Look at the change in just 30 years.

Today 37 Ambassadors are women, both career and political appointees, out of 164 now in place. Two of four serving senior officers who have achieved the personal rank of Career Ambassador are women, and two of six undersecretaries are women. And we currently have the first female National Security Advisor to the President, Condoleezza Rice; we have had our first woman as Secretary of State, Madeline Albright.

I say wow to this, when one considers the slow and difficult beginnings.

Women served in various capacities, mainly clerical as you would expect, at the State Department from the foundation of the country, but it was not until 1922 that Lucille Atcherson became the first career woman in the Foreign Service - what we call the American diplomatic service, entered by competitive exam.

Progress was slow, to say the least:

Only six women were in the classes admitted to the vastly expanding U.S. Foreign Service in 1945.

President Harry Truman appointed Eugenie Anderson U.S. Ambassador to Denmark in 1949, but she was not a career appointee. And of course he did make Perle Mesta, of "Call Me Madame" fame, Ambassador to Luxembourg.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower named State's first woman career foreign service officer, Frances Willis, as Ambassador to Switzerland. She had started her career on the US/Mexican border as a vice counsel, visiting jails in the 1930s, in what I heard she later described as a true test of character-giving her the worst jobs to see if she could take it.

Allow me to give you my personal history. I joined the State Department in 1957, fresh out of Northwestern University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. As I noted, I was the only woman in my class. Everyone said, "Oh, she will just get married to another Foreign Service Officer-two for the price of one. Ha, ha." And to my chagrin, that is exactly what I did. I should note that any woman upon marrying anybody would have had to resign-it was not just for those marrying another Foreign Service Officer. You do understand about keeping our minds on our jobs and all that in the 1950s.

I did resign, prepared the trousseau, and flew off to Cairo to meet Bob, coming from Khartoum, and we were married there in both a religious and civil ceremony, without dowry, and spent a two-year honeymoon in the Sudan.

What I find unbelievable is that I did not object! You can see where my consciousness was…..

Happily, the United States and the world began to change. Women had choices-some decided not to work and to continue their home and community efforts which enriched all our lives, some went into other fields, but the State Department's new regulations enabled me to rejoin the Foreign Service in 1974 after two children, a 16 year hiatus, six foreign assignments, and two part-time jobs. I was the oldest living junior officer!

Subsequently, I found it an asset to be a woman and, I think, considered competent. It was a wonderfully diverse career with lots of assignments that you have heard about. I would like to put in a plug here for all the '52 classmates who helped make it so-Hal Saunders, Don Oberdorfer, Frank Carlucci, Steve Rogers, and many others.

I would like to pay a special tribute to George Shultz. He saw me do a McNeil-Lehrer news broadcast in 1986 on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and he called me up to say what a good job I had done. When they needed a new spokesman, he remembered me and asked me to take that job. Years later, Don Oberdorfer continues to tell the story that he said-and I'm very flattered when he does-represents the best comment ever from that podium: when I was asked about the tiger tattoo on George Shultz's behind, I replied, "I am not in a position to comment."

Let me make three more points:

--Most of the changes for women at State would not have come about without lawsuits and a fair amount of pushing.
An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint was filed early on and a class action lawsuit was initiated in the mid-1970s by female State Department employees alleging discrimination on assignments, promotions, and awards. This in itself brought many changes. In l987, after a laborious process, the U.S. District court for the District of Columbia found in the women's favor.

--Secondly, culture counts. Young women at State today are different from my day: they are confident, assertive, and do not hold back. I have seen the same traits with the members of the Class of 2002 when we have met with them.

Remember when we all were taught that nice girls didn't push too hard. I think back to the time when I went bowling on a double date at Northwestern. I was taking it for my gym requirement and got pretty good. I was also pinned to a football player who brought along the captain of the team. I outscored them. My sorority sister whispered in my ear that shouldn't I hold back a bit so as not to embarrass the football players! Would that happen today at Princeton with the prowess of the female athletes?

I also recall with amusement several incidents when I was working early Sunday mornings at the State Department as the first woman staff assistant on the seventh floor in those hallowed, masculine halls in the late 70s, preparing papers for the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. An Assistant Secretary of State came in and threw his arms around me in a wild "embracio." I was so flustered and upset that I might have done something wrong (it had to be our fault)-and muttered something about did he know my husband!

Or when the legendary Phil Habib, that Under Secretary for whom I worked and a good friend to both of us, looked up when I brought him the morning traffic and yelled, "Why aren't you home cooking breakfast for your husband?"

I cannot imagine something like that happening today, and that really is a change for men as well as women.

--My last point is that the "mommy track" is still there. I imagine that most of you have read about the decision of Karen Hughes to leave her post at the White House next to the president's ear and return to Texas for her family. I also imagine that most of you have read of the decision of our Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, to curtail her assignment to that demanding and exciting post because she is a single mother and her two teenage girls were forced to evacuate-twice.

Wendy is a very close friend and colleague and I know how hard this decision is for her, and yet I think it is the right one. No matter what, if you are a working mother, there are still very hard choices that have to be made. Wendy said there are lots of people who can be Ambassador to Pakistan but only one person who can be the mother of my daughters.

I do not have a better answer; I suspect many of our daughters have faced similar problems. Oddly enough, because I was out those 16 years, this was never an acute problem for me.

Is the glass ceiling broken at the State Department? Certainly it has been breached, but in my view there are many shards, pretty sharp, around the edges. But look at the military-think of what still has to happen at the Pentagon.

I have been talking of my own experience within the realm of changes in women's lives in our lifetimes. Each of you has your own story. Over the next five years, the class wants to make a major effort to capture those stories. Your mailman may face another BIG BOOK!

I have been asked to call your attention to a paper in your reunion packet titled "To the Ladies of "52." Please take some time when you go home to write a thoughtful response. Then there will be some conversation about how to capture these responses as part of the history of 1952. I know there is special interest in your current activities and how you got there-that element of change once again.

I have taken much enjoyment and some inspiration from a book I recently read by Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time-Life After Sixty. Maybe you know it as well. She writes about passing the big six zero and the joy and contentment it has brought her, of her "mellow relationship" with her husband of many years, and her pleasure with conversations with her adult children. " I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth or to the years of being constantly needed both at home and at work. I entered into a period of freedom, and only past sixty learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment…."

I share much of her enjoyment and am very thankful for a rich and rewarding life, now filled with teaching. I have four grandsons and one granddaughter-she likes pink, music, and dancing. I hope for all of them in this great country that the sky's the limit and that they can do whatever they choose. I certainly hope that for some of them that will mean a Princeton experience.

Thank you very much.