Opening the Doors of Diplomacy

The Foreign Office was long a bastion of male chauvinism. Only during the Second World War did women diplomats begin to make their mark.

Locked out: a Punch cartoon of 1936 reflects on the barriers to female diplomats.In her interwar classic, Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf imagined the following scene. The daughter of an educated man, in the course of conversation with a brother or male acquaintance, raises the possibility that newly enfranchised women should now be admitted to all professions, including those still reserved for men:  

We on our side of the table become aware at once of some ‘strong emotion’ on your side ‘arising from some motive below the level of conscious thought’... The physical symptoms are unmistakable. Nerves erect themselves; fingers automatically tighten upon spoon or cigarette; a glance at the private psychometer shows that the emotional temperature has risen from ten to twenty degrees above normal. 

Woolf was not present at the proceedings of the departmental committee convened by the British Foreign Office in 1934 to consider women’s suitability for diplomatic careers. Had she been, she would have felt little need to reconsider her analysis of the masculine instinct to preserve its professional privileges. Feminist efforts to unlock the doors of the Foreign Office were met with fierce resistance from its long-time incumbents, who were profoundly disturbed by the prospect of a feminine invasion of their club-like world. Only the large-scale mobilisation of women on the home and fighting fronts during the Second World War was sufficient to force a change to the masculine status quo. In 1946 women finally became eligible for posts in the British Diplomatic Service.

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