Women of the World by Helen McCarthy

Reviewed by Victoria Best

women of the worldWhen I was sitting my A levels back in 1987, my school thought itself very advanced because it gave us all a careers questionnaire to fill in. Due to the fact I was studying French and German and carrying on with them at university, my top suggestion was the Diplomatic Service. I considered it seriously for about five minutes. I imagined first some glorious posting in Paris or Vienna, grand social occasions in Rococo palaces, international negotiations at important summit meetings. And then I calculated how much more likely it was that I would find myself sweating it out in a mud hut in Botswana, and made other plans. I had no idea how very recently, in the grand scheme of things, women had been fully embraced by the Foreign Office, or how recently they had been allowed to stay there once they married. I had no idea how long the excuse of unsympathetic climates or cultures had kept women out of positions that would allow them to participate in global politics. Helen McCarthy’s fascinating book was quite the eye opener on a career I almost once wanted. I might have fought harder for it, had I known how hard women had been fighting across the decades of the twentieth century for their right to represent their nation abroad.

Nineteenth century diplomacy was an aristocratic gentleman’s game. It required a top notch education via Eton and Oxbridge, time spent abroad learning the requisite languages and socialising in the right circles, and all this could only be done when you had the right kind of blood in your veins and serious money in your family. It was pretty much the definition of a closed club, and the only place for women was as wives and daughters of ambassadors. Even so, there were some extraordinarily proactive and pioneering women accompanying their menfolk abroad and taking on greater challenges than the usual relentless round of dinners and tea parties. The Vicereine of India, Lady Dufferin, founded the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India in 1885, establishing standards of training for nurses and midwives and improving conditions in hospitals, whilst Lilian Rennell Rodd in Rome set her sculptural ambitions aside to stage manage some of the most outrageous parties the ambassadors had seen, including in 1913 a historic ball featuring a ‘pageant of ages’. When the First World War sent diplomatic services into overdrive (in the Foreign Office in Whitehall alone, every telegram had to be copied 16 times for distribution, and they poured in, demanding 24-hour shifts from the overworked clerks), the wives and daughters stepped up a gear, too, establishing military hospitals, translating missives, providing entertainment.

But the First World War began to bring other women into the picture, as well, notably those with academic knowledge or significant organisational skills. A tiny handful found work with the Intelligence services, whilst large numbers took on administrative, farming or medical work. And every once in a while an anomaly like Gertrude Bell came along, whose comprehensive knowledge of the Middle East and unusual leadership skills brought her actual power in the political shenanigans of conflict, and afterwards, when Mesopotamian leaders turned to her to help them establish a new kind of state. Once the war was over, women were loath to give up the work they had been doing and the responsibility and respect it commanded. It was, men realised, the thin end of the wedge, and as feminists mobilised to ask for a place in international politics, so the old school moved just as fast and with greater ferocity, to prevent them from having it.

This is a particularly high point in a well-organised and beautifully argued book.  The First World War was over, but the battle between the sexes for the Foreign Office had only just begun. Under-Secretary Charles Howard Smith was asked to canvass responses to the question of whether ‘a woman could as efficiently perform the details of a diplomatic or consular officer’ and whether, more crucially, she ‘would be treated with the same respect and attention.’ The replies were bruquely discouraging and often downright rude. There were problems which would rise up time and again in this conflict – the resistence to women supervising men, the conviction that they could not deal with ‘sailors who are not always quite sober’, and the offensive idea of diplomatic husbands, useless men who would have to be trailed ‘from post to post.’ The fact that women had already proved themselves more than capable – even if they had not been numerous – was as nothing against these entrenched attitudes.

As determined women continued to insinuate themselves in more and more countries around the globe and in ever greater numbers, they ran up against another form of sexism – the insistence that they could only handle certain topics deemed more feminine than others. Delegate to the League of Nations Helena Swanwick declared that: ‘A woman it appeared, was assumed to be well-informed about Opium, Refugees, Protection of Children, Relief after Earthquakes, Prison Reform, Municipal Co-Operation, Alcoholism and Traffic in Women.’ They were steered well away from policy making and anything that smacked of international negotiation. The stubborn exclusion of women was a towering wall of opposition that only a few men like Sir Warren Fisher breached. He put his finger on it when he said in 1929:

‘There is still a good deal of prejudice and that prejudice is based on fear… it is quite premature yet for anybody to try to prophesy or put any limit on what women may do in the future… If I had to hazard a guess, I should say that, when they have got the experience in a generation or so, they would give the men a jolly good run for their money.’

The story of how they gave men that run for their money is told in wonderful detail by Helen McCarthy, mostly through short biographical portraits of pioneers, adventurers and some seriously clever women. A longer section on Middle East expert and renowned author, Freya Stark, is particularly fascinating. This is such a full and rewarding book, telling a story that is hardly known and yet crystallises all the central issues in the battle for gender equality. The only problem I had with it was its generous richness; with about three important or interesting pieces of information in every sentence, I could only read 50 pages at a time if I hoped to retain any details. But it’s worth it to watch how women, once again, had to find a way to do everything consistently better than men, and backwards and in heels, in order to prise open those fearsomely closed doors to power.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Helen McCarthy, Women of the World; The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, May 2014) 978-1408840054, 416 pages, hardback.

5 Comments

  1. Jean

    Me too, me too – thank you! Women on the international stage is still such a mixed, complicated and often dispiriting picture.

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