Friday, March 25, 2011

Suing Henry Kissinger – and winning!

By guest blogger and NWPC board member, Marguerite Cooper
It was not done lightly and it took many years of persistence and patience.
Right out of college in 1956, I went into the U.S. Foreign Service, after passing rigorous written and oral exams. At the time, only 4.6% of US career diplomats were women.
There was systematic and systemic discrimination against women at the time, although it took me almost 10 years to realize this. My first day on the job I learned that women, as a condition of employment, could not be married. They did not volunteer this information, but I learned it when all newcomers were asked what their assignment preferences were. I said “Moscow, Prague or Warsaw” as my undergraduate specialty had been Eastern Europe and Communism within USC’s School of International Relations.
Nope. We don’t send single officers behind the Iron Curtain, I was told, and should I marry, I would have to resign from the Service. It turns out that the Personnel Office required its employees to be available for worldwide service and women’s residences were presumed to be where ever their husbands were. Less concrete but just as chilling was Personnel’s assumption that should the Soviets attempt blackmail by arranging for the seduction of American diplomats, women would be more likely than men to betray their country over their Communist lovers! So, I had to choose another geographical specialty and abandon my university background. I chose India and South Asia.
Over the years I was told that I would not be assigned to Middle Eastern countries, as they looked down on women, nor trained in Arabic or Japanese language, for the same reason. I could be a consular officer, issuing visas and passports, but not a political one, analyzing events and trends and recommending policy. 
So, we organized: women officers, secretaries and wives; in the Department of State, US Information Service and the Agency for International Development. Women officers found that they were placed in occupational specialties that had low career ceilings: librarians, deputies, consular officers, budget and fiscal officers. The officers getting the promotions and top jobs were in the political and economic sections. Women were also having difficulty being assigned to many areas of the world – the Middle East, Latin America and Asia – even Europe --where women were seen as subordinate.
So, through brown-bag lunches and evening meetings we began collecting evidence and confronting management with the results. And, the doors began to open. President Nixon, in 1970, signed an Executive Order extending Title VI (banning discrimination) to the federal work force. The Department began the slow process of re-orienting its personnel policies and re-writing its regulations. 
Even five years later, women were still at a serious disadvantage in passing the written exam, in their promotions and getting career-enhancing assignments.The Department’s head of Personnel told us that women were not perceived as “leaders” after we complained that there were too few women ambassadors and office directors. 
My colleague filed a class action lawsuit charging sex discrimination against the Secretary of State, after she was refused assignments to Africa, as “too dangerous” for a woman.  My organization, the Women’s Action Organization of State, USIA and AID, joined the suit in 1976. As the WAO president, I was a named plaintiff.
A great deal of our evidence was statistical. “Disparate impact” – the sheer number of women at the lower levels and fewer promotions told the story. We lost in the lower court in 1986, but won on appeal. And, so Henry Kissinger and later Secretaries of State had to work to understand what were the barriers to women’s employment and advancement and try to remove them.
Now, when I hear on the radio that Ambassador Anne Patterson in Islamabad accompanied Secretary of Defense Gates in his call on the Pakistani President, I am proud that the women of the Department fought and won that battle. Today, women make up over 36% of the career diplomats, and there are many more women in leadership positions in the career Service. Do I have to tell you that, after Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright have been appointed Secretary of State by the President.
But, there are only cracks in the highest glass ceiling, the US Presidency, and we are losing ground in both the number of women elected to the House of Representatives and in state legislatures across the country. We desperately need to encourage women to run for local office, for school and college boards, for city councils, in order to fill the political pipeline so that we will have good candidates to run when Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein step down. 
Women legislators and government executives make a difference in passage of legislation that is friendlier to families and children, more effective in their enforcement. This is the reason why I continue my commitment to work toward equality for women through the National Women’s Political Caucus, at the National, state and local levels.