168. Letter From the President of the Association of American Foreign Service Women (Dorman) to the Under Secretary of State for Management (Read)1

Dear Mr. Read:2

Enclosed are the comments which the Association of American Foreign Service Women wishes to make on the proposed Foreign Service Act of 1979. As you will note, we have examined the proposed legislation with the concerns of Foreign Service spouses and families in mind.

We greatly appreciate the opportunity to comment and to contribute to the shaping of this legislation. If there are any questions concerning the views and suggestions in the attached analysis, we will be happy to answer them.


Lesley Dorman


Paper Prepared by the Association of American Foreign Service Women 3


The Association of American Foreign Service Women appreciates having the opportunity to comment on the proposed draft legislation of 1979. We agree that management should try to develop an informed and supportive consensus in the Foreign Service community before [Page 649] taking this bill to the Hill. A thorough review of the principles behind the legislation and a careful explanation of the implementation of structural reforms would be most reassuring.

Foreign Service families can testify to the uniqueness of a life in the Foreign Service. Government service abroad is vastly different from service in the United States. Indeed, the Forum Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families (1977)4 and the continuing dialogue between AAFSW and the Secretary of State bring to light the many human costs that frequently do not appear in a cost-benefit analysis or zero-based budget. We feel that the introduction to a new Foreign Service Act should describe fully these unique sacrifices and adjustments required of Foreign Service families so as to make clear the justification for the Secretary’s authority to assist families in special ways.

Most Foreign Service spouses are women. The Department cannot afford to ignore them because they are the basis of an effective, humanistic representation of American life while abroad. The Foreign Service wife takes an extraordinary interest in the career of her husband, because it affects her so directly. She feels that by accompanying her spouse abroad she is in effect serving as a representative of the United States Government. Regulations circumscribe her daily life.

Her growing concern is that continual international mobility combined with structural barriers to employment opportunities will virtually exclude her from establishing an economic base of her own through a career or even a consistent work record. Cultural adjustments, family responsibilities, and representational activities consume her time and energies. While her role as a support for family and community is essential, particularly in those areas where support systems normal to U.S. life do not exist, her economic dependency is concurrently reinforced. It takes tremendous creativity, initiative, adaptability and courage (sometimes even the willingness to endure family separation) for her to continue her education or to undertake economic independence.

The Foreign Service spouse is not adequately protected by the current or proposed Foreign Service Retirement System. The “traditional” Foreign Service wife finds that the very skills valued in a Foreign Service context are useless in a situation in which she has to support herself economically. A divorced U.S. homemaker is rarely awarded alimony by the courts; child support is awarded in less than half the cases, and a woman may even lose custody of her children if she cannot provide an equal economic base. A widowed spouse is dependent on [Page 650] her husband to provide her with a survivor benefit. The penalties levied on divorced or widowed older homemakers are apparent to us all. The modern Foreign Service wife is beginning to question whether indeed she can afford to continue being a “Dependent”.

The AAFSW feels that independent women are representative of the best in American society. The alternative to independence is, in the long run, more costly and wasteful of human resources. We have sought creative responses from the system to match the creativity of the women who are trying to make that system work. For these reasons we have surveyed the needs of Foreign Service families. We have made recommendations to the Department in order to expand employment and career development opportunities to enable women to establish their own economic base. We have encouraged the expansion of training opportunities, because we feel that the prepared person is the self-reliant person who can more quickly and effectively become a contributing member of the community. We have supported programs to improve community action especially as such action benefits children. We have tried to help the Department understand how the regulations of the personnel system, family life and morale are inextricably interwoven. We are continuing to study the legal rights and limitations on women in the Foreign Service context.

Foreign Service wives in midlife today have already sacrificed the earning potential of their most productive years in cultural adjustments, family support responsibilities and in the creation of a favorable social ambiance for the conduct of American foreign policy. In order to protect these women the Foreign Affairs agencies must recognize earned rights for spouses and former spouses to survivor annuities and shared pensions. The talents of our remarkable group of women can only be utilized in a more flexible system which eliminates the barriers to the workplace. We wish also to protect the homemaker as a vital community resource, while recognizing that she should be able to move in and out of that role in different stages in life without economic penalty.

In the context of the above philosophy we would like to comment specifically on those sections of the proposed Act which we feel directly affect spouses and families.

[Omitted here are the section-by-section recommendations the AAFSW made regarding the draft Foreign Service Act of 1979.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Under Secretary for Management (M), 1978–1979, Box 8, Chron May 8–11, 1979. No classification marking. Typed at the top of the page is this note: “5/9—sent to M/DGP-Barnes for action, prep. of recommendation for M and (?) reply directly on behalf of M. Copies sent to L-Michel, PER/EM-Hull and Mr. Read.”
  2. Dorman crossed out “Mr. Read” and wrote “Ben” above it.
  3. No classification marking.
  4. Not found.