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Diplomatic Wives: The Politics of Domesticity and the “Social
Game” in the U.S. Foreign Service, 1905-1941
Wood, Molly M.
Journal of Women’s History, Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 2005,
pp. 142-165 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/jowh.2005.0025
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Michigan State University (15 May 2013 21:41 GMT)
The Politics of Domesticity and the “Social Game” in the
U.S. Foreign Service, 1905–1941
Molly M. Wood
In the first half of the twentieth century, U.S. Foreign Service officers
and State Department officials understood that marriage generally enhanced an officer’s career and served American foreign policy needs. At
the same time, many American Foreign Service wives also spoke explicitly about their “careers” in the Foreign Service, understanding that
their work as wives, mothers, hostesses, homemakers, and role models
gave them considerable influence as informal representatives of the U.S.
government. By looking specifically at the domestic presence of American Foreign Service wives overseas we can see the ways in which gender
helped to define the conduct of American diplomacy at a time when the
United States’s interests were expanding rapidly around the globe. By
managing an American officer’s home, family, and social responsibilities, the wife played a crucial role in presenting, and representing, the
United States to the rest of the world.
n the first half of the twentieth century, U.S. Foreign Service officers understood that marriage enhanced their diplomatic careers and generally
considered their wives to be partners in the Service. In 1914, U.S. consul
Francis Keene wrote to his wife Florence, “You and I, as a team, are, I am
confidant, unexcelled in the Service.”1 Career diplomat Earl Packer explained that “the wives carry a terrific burden” in the Foreign Service, while
another longtime diplomat, Willard Beaulac, declared, “I know of no field
in which a wife can be more helpful.”2 Meanwhile, an outside observer of
the U.S. Foreign Service in the 1930s explained that “the wife may serve as
a go-between for her husband” by taking part in social interactions with
other diplomats and representatives from the host country.3 At the same
time, many American Foreign Service wives also spoke explicitly about
their “careers” in the Foreign Service, and the U.S. State Department initiated changes that reflected the Department’s dependence on “the tradition
of husband and wife teams and of wives’ participation in the representational activities of a post.”4 Specifically, the 1924 Rogers Act, which was
intended to reform and professionalize the Foreign Service, resulted in
administrative changes, such as allowances for rent and entertaining, that
directly reflected the growing reliance on the presence of American wives
overseas. Furthermore, the new Foreign Service Personnel Board, formed
by the Rogers Act to evaluate each Foreign Service officer’s eligibility for
promotion, explicitly discussed wives’ strengths and weaknesses when
assessing each officer’s merits, noting in particular the success of officers
who were “ably seconded” or “ably assisted” by their wives.5
At the turn of the twentieth century, many government officials, including President Theodore Roosevelt, concluded that most diplomats
were “amateurs” who were more interested in pursuing a “genteel and
leisurely life” of “elegance and sophistication” in some foreign capital than
in representing growing American interests abroad. In 1905, Roosevelt
signed an Executive Order establishing, for the first time, an examination
system for lower level prospective diplomatic secretaries, but these reforms were haphazard and only partially successful.6 Almost twenty years
later, State Department officials still lamented, behind closed doors, the
poor quality of some of their candidates for overseas posts, including one
in 1924 who was “qualified by birth, antecedents and personality” but
“greatly hampered by stupidity.”7 Happily, most applicants were more
competent, dedicated, and service-oriented than the stereotype suggested,
but the fear that inexperienced and incompetent diplomats were jeopardizing efforts to establish American power and influence around the world
still worried officials. Calls for reform and modernization finally resulted
in the 1924 Rogers Act, which reorganized the Foreign Service and initiated a comprehensive merit promotion system, opening the Service to men
of lesser financial means. The reforms initiated by the Rogers Act continued to evolve along the same lines until 1941, when American entry into
World War II changed the Foreign Service dramatically in size, purpose,
and personnel. The period between 1905 and 1941 therefore provides a
finite period of study during which the Foreign Service self-consciously
modernized itself in order to better serve the United States’s expanding
role in the wider world. Through this period, however, the Foreign Service remained relatively small and almost exclusively male. In the wake
of the 1920 suffrage victory less than a dozen women moved into professional positions in the Foreign Service before World War II, yet hundreds
of married women accompanied their Foreign Service husbands to diplomatic and consular posts all over the world during the same period.
This article challenges the assumption that because wives held no
formal positions in the Foreign Service they played no significant role in
the conduct of American diplomacy. In fact, a Foreign Service wife wielded
considerable authority and influence as wife, mother, homemaker, hostess, and role model. By operating within conventional gender roles that
emphasized domesticity, Foreign Service wives resembled both the wives
of British officials in India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who, as historian Mary Procida has shown, served as “active agents
in imperial politics,” and the American military wives of the post-World
War II era who, as historian Donna Alvah has explained, “actively contribute to [Cold War American] military objectives and American foreign
relations.”8 A study of American Foreign Service wives in the first half of
the twentieth century suggests ways in which gender helped to create
and maintain a positive American presence all over the world, and helped
to define the conduct of American diplomacy. An examination of the role
of gender in the politics of diplomatic representation will contribute to
the growing body of literature on gender and U.S. foreign relations. In the
1980s, a small number of historians, determined to add women to the field
of U.S. diplomatic history, produced works on individuals, such as Eleanor
Roosevelt and Jeannette Rankin, and groups of women, such as missionaries and peace activists, who clearly influenced U.S. foreign policy.9 Worried that studies such as these only emphasized the “outsider” status of
women in foreign policy, and influenced by groundbreaking theoretical
work on gender as an essential category of historical analysis, scholars
such as Cynthia Enloe, Emily Rosenberg, Andrew Rotter, and Frank
Costigliola, among others, have found gender to be embedded in both the
language and conduct of twentieth century U.S. foreign relations.10 Others, including Margaret Strobel, Ann Stoler, Antoinette Burton, and Laura
Wexler, have written convincingly about the ways in which gender has
served to legitimize colonial and imperial relationships between nations.11
In the Foreign Service, wives managed, without pay, the domestic
duties and social obligations that ensured the smooth operation of American missions. They also helped establish a powerful American presence in
countries all over the world. Their visibility overseas enhanced American
prestige and reflected the very best of the American way of life to other
cultures. In order to conduct foreign relations, especially in the pre-World
War II years, diplomats spent a great deal of time establishing and maintaining personal relationships with local officials and dignitaries in order
to gather information, to report accurately on local conditions, and to represent American positions to their hosts effectively.12 The political relationships they created were therefore also, by definition, social relationships. As Beaulac has explained, “the social contacts” initiated by diplomats
“supplemented our official conversations and helped us to interpret [those
conversations].”13 The Foreign Service establishment understood that formal diplomatic negotiations between officials were complemented by what
one observer called the “secret methods of diplomacy” and another Foreign Service officer described as “the process of friendly informed negotiation.”14 Many of these relationships were cultivated outside of the office and at all hours of the day and night, blurring the distinction between
private life and public work. Hilary Callen has already described the “dif-
fuseness of the diplomat’s role” and noted “the lack of sharp definition of
‘public’ and ‘private’ identities” that inevitably “spills over onto his wife.”15
By organizing and managing highly visible social functions, many of which
took place in their own homes, Foreign Service wives helped facilitate the
exchange of information and messages, official and unofficial, overt and
subtle, that defined the conduct of early-twentieth-century diplomacy.16
The success of these social occasions and the efficient conduct of diplomacy therefore depended largely on wives’ domestic and social skills, as
well as their more intangible function as representatives of the American
way of life.
Because the duties and responsibilities of Foreign Service wives reinforced conventional gender roles, scholars are only beginning to recognize the inherently political nature of the work they performed.17 Maureen
Flanagan has urged scholars to avoid choosing between interpreting
“women’s activities as socially directed” or as explicitly political, just as
Alvah has observed that military wives’ “domestic activities and political
participation were seen as intertwined.” In the context of the early federal
period in Washington DC, Catherine Allgor has demonstrated that women
“appear as political actors in their own right” by “using social events and
the ‘private sphere’ to establish the national capital and build the
extraofficial structures so sorely needed in the infant federal republic.”18
American Foreign Service wives used the social arena to create and maintain political relationships, and to send and receive political messages in
American missions overseas. More subtly, their domestic presence, in roles
as wife, mother, hostess, and homemaker, helped to create an island of
American domesticity in a decidedly foreign setting. Diplomatic wives
therefore served the same purpose as the wives of colonial administrators
in British imperial settings; they were the women who, as Burton has explained, “by virtue of their caretaking functions and their role as transmitters of culture,” helped to legitimize the imperial mission as a civilizing mission.19
Yet the State Department made little effort to explicitly define and
codify the roles they believed wives should play, and indeed made few
efforts to define the work of representation in the pre-World War II era
beyond the assumption that the American “style of diplomacy must be
representative of our way of life,” and that American envoys overseas
must work at “creating understanding” and “correcting misunderstanding” about the United States. Yet wives recognized their responsibility to
“set an example” abroad.20 One Foreign Service wife in the mid-1930s
showed great awareness that she “became a public person or public property” when she married a Foreign Service officer. “Whatever I did,” she
explained, “was always regarded as not only personal or our own, but as
an American also, or wife of a diplomat, also. So how I or the other wives
entertained, how we took part in charities, or culture, art, literature, sport
[or] fashion, was [all a] part of representation.”21 Wives were also well
aware by this time that State Department officials were evaluating them
on their ability to create and maintain these kinds of political relationships both within and outside of the embassy. As Lucy Briggs remembered, “In those days, when a man’s record was written up, his wife was
also commented on. And if she added to his social position in a pleasant
way, or if she was helpful in other ways, that was always put down. Or if
she was something of a handicap that was put down too.”22 Wives understood that everything they did reflected on their husbands and their country. This work was particularly important as the United States looked to
expand its economic and political interests abroad and sought to be perceived widely as a non-imperial power. In the absence of formal colonial
or military missions, U.S. Foreign Service wives served as the only significant numbers of American women in quasi-official positions living abroad.
The State Department hoped that these wives would serve as exemplars
who would, through their domestic presence overseas, introduce the most
cultivated Americans to the rest of the world and help project a message
of overall goodwill.23
Yet Foreign Service wives are still largely ignored as serious subjects
of study. Some feminist scholars undoubtedly have been irritated by the
way Foreign Service wives universally identified themselves as the “wife
of” an American diplomat, or by the apparent concessions these women
made to their husbands’ careers. Most of the women who became Foreign
Service wives between 1905 and 1941 were well educated (many of them
college educated), reflecting the benefits of their class status, but only a
few had embarked on careers before marrying, which was not surprising
considering the era. Fewer still openly identified themselves as feminists,
or had engaged in any kind of traditional political activism. Foreign Service wives in this time period instead appear to have embraced their identity as the “wife of” a diplomat in order to also embrace the opportunities
that came with the position. Former Foreign Service wives who were interviewed in the 1980s were therefore perplexed by the desire of a new
generation of wives for “careers of their own, outside the Foreign Service.” Dorothy Emmerson, who started in the Foreign Service in the 1930s,
was frustrated whenever someone asked her if she regretted not pursuing
a career, because she assumed that she already did have a career as a Foreign Service wife. Similarly, Naomi Matthews was “a little impatient with
women who . . . don’t want to be associated with their husbands.”24 Foreign Service wives in the early twentieth century describe themselves not
as “helpmates” to their husbands, but as highly visible associates or part-
ners who “joined,” rather than “married into,” the Foreign Service and
who felt a “strong sense of responsibility” and duty to the Foreign Service, just as, for example, the wives of British colonial administrators personally identified themselves with the official British Imperial presence
throughout the Empire.25 American Foreign Service wives recognized that
American diplomatic practice depended on them, but they also realized
that they benefited in many ways from their status as diplomatic wives.
Before she married Bert Matthews, for instance, Naomi Meffert “loved
the thought of life in the Foreign Service” and was “delighted” about Bert’s
career plans. Reflecting on her life in the Foreign Service many years later,
she appreciated the fact that her husband “always said ‘we’” when he
referred to their life and work in the Foreign Service.26 Other wives have
described their lives in the Foreign Service, and their relationship with
their husbands, in very similar ways, reflecting an unconscious illustration of what Hanna Papanek has called the “two person single career.” As
Eliza Pavalko and Glen Elder explain, some wives are “so highly involved
in their husbands’ careers” that they believe their work is “a true partnership.”27 This theory, which seems to describe the experiences of many
Foreign Service wives, defines the work a wife performs to further her
husband’s career as something that will also significantly benefit her, both
because of the status she gains with her husband’s promotions and because of the potential for her own personal fulfillment. Wives in the early
twentieth century did not advocate for formal recognition of their roles in
the Service, or for freedom from their diplomatic duties in order to pursue
other vocations, because they believed they already had important and
fulfilling careers in the Service. It was only because a later generation of
wives, mostly in the 1960s, advocated for formal changes in the Foreign
Service that the State Department issued the 1972 Directive that recognized wives as independent individuals with no formal responsibility to
the Foreign Service.
Wives most clearly “assisted” their husbands in the social arena. One
wife remembered that her “entire life” in the Foreign Service in the 1930s
“was to be devoted to being the best possible hostess.”28 Other wives explained how they “entered into the picture in public relations and making
friends,” arguing that “one of the best ways to get to know people is to
relax over a pleasant meal, and usually a great deal of business was conducted at the same time.” Enloe has observed that, given the family backgrounds of most Foreign Service wives, “hostessing was what they had
been raised to do.”29 We might misinterpret Enloe’s statement as an indictment of Foreign Service wives and their seemingly frivolous lives until reading further about the ways in which, as Enloe explains, “hostessing”
should be taken seriously as work, and especially as an integral part of
diplomatic activity. As John Foster wrote about the Foreign Service in 1906,
“Personal acquaintance with influential people in governmental and political life is often helpful in advancing the business of the legation.”30 It
was at the social occasions so crucial to the conduct of diplomacy, where
representatives from the host country, the other members of the diplomatic corps, and local dignitaries and visitors mixed and mingled, that
these kinds of acquaintances were nurtured. As a gendered responsibility,
hostessing reflected common assumptions about women’s supposed natural abilities at making people feel comfortable, but the role of “official hostess” was also considered to be a great honor at diplomatic affairs.31 In
order to ensure that the very best women filled this role in the wake of
President Roosevelt’s 1905 effort to professionalize the service, officials in
Washington noted each officer’s marital status and assessed whether “the
members of his family contribute to his standing and reputation in the
community.”32 After the 1924 Rogers Act, the State Department evaluation process became more systematic, as members of the new Foreign Service Personnel Board explicitly discussed the expectations that wives
would cultivate a “host of friends” and entertain “with a kindly and likeable disposition.”33
Yet For …
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