338. Action Memorandum From the Chairman of the Secretary’s Open Forum Panel, Department of State (Thomas) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration (Macomber)1


It has become increasingly clear in the past few years that a reform is urgently needed in the treatment of Foreign Service wives. No question before the Open Forum Panel has been more controversial; none has drawn consistently greater attendance at Panel meetings. Few problems have had a more negative effect on morale. The treatment of wives is repeatedly mentioned by resignees as one cause for leaving the Foreign Service.

The Task Forces, recognizing this problem, recommended that guidelines be established for the role of Foreign Service wives, intending [Page 751] that the issue be given the closest scrutiny, and that a genuine reform be carried out. Management Reform Bulletin #202 is not a satisfactory response to that challenge. That document has been the cause of considerable commentary and controversy, almost all of it negative.

In fairness to the Foreign Service wives who drafted the guidelines, they never intended for them to be used as a Management Reform Bulletin. The guidelines do contain several controversial statements, and thus have served to stimulate discussion of the problem. However, as a statement of official State Department policy, MRB #20 is considered by a great many wives (and their husbands) to be highly objectionable. As a reform bulletin, it is woefully inadequate—it reforms nothing.

The modern Foreign Service wife is increasingly well educated, more inclined to have career interests of her own, and often unwilling to see her fulfillment solely in “wifely” pursuits. Conscious of her changing role in society, and of the progress her fellow women are making toward achieving equality and human dignity, she is unwilling to accept second class status or interference in her private life.

Yet while the world has changed, and while Foreign Service wives have changed, the Foreign Service too often appears wedded to 19th century attitudes towards wives. In too many cases, the Foreign Service wife is subjected to excessive demands on her time and energy; to pressure, bordering on harassment; to involvement in projects not of her own choosing; to unwarranted invasions of her private life; to unnecessary restrictions on her right to pursue her career or academic interests; to fears that the pursuit of her own interests will harm her husband’s career; and perhaps worst of all, to a caste system which grants to wives of senior officers the right to dictate to the wives of employees of lesser rank.

These things do not occur at every post, nor do they affect every wife. On the contrary, most Foreign Service wives enjoy their tours abroad and enjoy taking part in their husbands’ activities. However, the pattern of abuse is widespread enough to demand that vigorous steps be taken to bring these practices to a halt.

There will be those who argue that reforming the role of wives violates Foreign Service traditions. It is important to remember, however, that such a reform would be in keeping with a long-forgotten tradition established by Jefferson and Franklin: that the style of American diplomacy should conform to the ideals of our nation. Certainly our treatment of wives in the Foreign Service no longer conforms to our present concepts of democracy, equity and social justice. In fact, treatment of wives at some posts makes a Foreign Service career appear unattractive, [Page 752] and adversely affects our ability to recruit and hold the most talented personnel.

In the past year, a great deal has been accomplished to improve the lot of women employees of the Department. We firmly believe that at least as great an effort, involving nothing less than your strong personal intervention, is needed to redress the balance and give equal justice to the women who have married into the Foreign Service.

Several steps will be required to bring about these changes. By far the most important requirement is that a message be sent to the field which spells out the Department’s new policy on wives. (A proposed airgram, drafted by Panel members and Foreign Service wives is attached.)3 The message can be so cast that it supersedes MRB #20 without having to repudiate it openly. Such a message would not solve the problem—we have no such illusions. But it would be a signal to all concerned that drastic changes are called for, and that wives are free to lead their own lives without fear that their husband’s careers will suffer. Such a message would be worthless, of course, without a commitment on the part of the Department to ensure that the changes are enforced.

We believe it would be a serious loss if the feelings of common effort and cooperation of our Foreign Service personnel and their wives were somehow lost. There appears little risk that the American traditions of good neighborliness, community spirit and service to their country will be undermined by this message. However, excessive caveats and amendments to a firm policy statement may be misinterpreted as loopholes which justify the continuation of undesirable practices. These practices, which you have characterized as feudal, are a greater threat to the spirit of cooperation than any message forbidding those practices could ever be.

We hope you will sign the attached airgram, and that you would be willing to “follow up” at some appropriate occasion with a few remarks, publicized in the Newsletter, which would emphasize the seriousness with which the Department views this question. We would also urge that changes be made in the Foreign Service regulations, efficiency reports, inspectors’ reports, grievance procedures, protocol guidelines, etc., in order to bring them in line with the new policy. If you would like to discuss this further with us, we would be pleased to meet you at your convenience.


That you approve the attached airgram.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary for Management, Management Reform Task Force Papers: Lot 74 D 394, MR: Special—Policy on Role or Wives. No classification marking. Thomas was a Foreign Service officer who had served in several Latin American countries.
  2. A copy is ibid.
  3. Not attached; see Document 341.