This section focuses on changes in the makeup of America’s diplomatic corps. Once predominantly a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant institution, the State Department has, particularly since World War II, gradually opened its doors to the best available talent from within America as a whole.  The civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s added impetus to this trend. However, changes came slowly, prompted not only by internal pressures but by court cases brought by (and won) by women and African Americans.

In the new century, the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative of Secretary of State Colin Powell accelerated the process of recruiting the most diverse Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) in the Department’s history. The new diversity includes not only women in a proportion roughly equal to men but also many more minorities, gays and lesbians, and individuals with physical disabilities. Until relatively recently, the latter two groups would not usually have been considered for Foreign Service careers, with gays and lesbians banned on “security” grounds and those with disabilities often unable to pass the physical exam prior to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

While diversity is very apparent in the lower ranks of the Foreign Service, the more senior positions remain largely in the hands of white males.  In order to speed what may be a temporary condition of underrepresentation of minorities in senior ranks, diversity has been fostered through past use of lateral entry procedures and through Schedule C (i.e., political, non-career) appointments of minorities –- both to positions in the State Department and also at embassies abroad.  For example, there have been considerably more Hispanic non-career ambassadors than career FSOs rising through the ranks to reach such positions.

In 1985, 80% of the Foreign Service “professional staff” (including FSOs and Foreign Service Specialists) was male, and 72.5% was white male.  Among the minorities, 5.4% were African American, 3.4% Hispanic, and 0.7% Asian American.  Twenty years later, in 2005, the male/female ratio was 66/34, and white males constituted 54% of the total.  The African American percentage was up to 6.5%, Hispanics were at 5.2% and Asian Americans were also at 5.2%.  Between 1985 and 2005, the numbers of Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders remained very small, rising from 0.4% to 0.7%.  Racial statistics must be treated with some caution, however, as the Department’s accounting guidelines seem not to have been fully consistent over this 20-year period.  In addition, some individuals may self-identify in different ways in different surveys.  In 2005, 1.7% of Foreign Service professionals identified themselves as belonging to two or more races.

Women have been entering the Foreign Service at a higher rate than men in recent years.  For example, of the 387 new FSOs assigned to the basic A-100 courses held at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) during fiscal year 2006, 215 were women and 172 were men.  Meanwhile, the effort to recruit talented members of minority groups continues.  The numbers are expanding, minorities are serving and competing in every Foreign Service function and they are no longer channeled according to their heritages to particular geographic regions. In addition to efforts to encourage women and minorities to take the Foreign Service exam, special academic scholarship opportunities are offered through such programs as the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships, the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program and the Serrano Scholars Program (aimed mainly at recruiting Hispanics).



“The rapid gains of the past decade contrast sharply with the incremental advances of the previous 70 years, and position women for new breakthroughs in the months and years immediately ahead.”

Ann Wright, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,”
Foreign Service Journal, October 2005

Although they have made significant progress, women have yet to receive fully equal treatment from the Department of State.  For example, women in 2006 held approximately one-third of all ambassadorships, but major ambassadorial assignments (whether career FSO or noncareer) continue to be given almost entirely to males.

In the early years of the American republic, women were prohibited from working on government property and thus could not be hired by the Department of State or other federal agencies.  They did, however, represent their country as wives of Diplomatic and Consular Service personnel serving abroad.  Spouses were expected to socialize with their foreign counterparts, host receptions in their homes, volunteer for various charities and, in the latter part of their diplomat husband’s career, mentor the wives of lower-ranking officers.

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was one of the first spouses to assist her husband in his role as an American diplomat.  She joined him at his post in Paris in 1784.  Following in her footsteps over the next 200 years were thousands of women who braved dangerous journeys, maintained households on Spartan budgets, gave birth to and raised children under conditions of nonexistent or inadequate medical services and otherwise gamely survived in often inhospitable surroundings.  Many diplomatic dependents died in shipwrecks, epidemics and natural disasters.  In the modern era, before their “liberation” in 1972, the performance and personal qualities of Foreign Service wives were a part of both the “revealed” and “confidential” (i.e., not shown to the officer concerned) sections of an FSO’s annual performance evaluation.  

During the 19th century, more and more women were hired as part-time and then regular State Department employees, mainly in clerical jobs.  Though women made periodic attempts to enter the full-time Foreign Service ranks, it was not until 1922 that Lucile Atcherson became the first woman to be accepted.  Atcherson passed the Diplomatic Service examination with the third-highest score that year, and in April 1925 was assigned as Third Secretary to the U.S. Legation in Bern, Switzerland.

Ruth Bryan Owen, former U.S. Representative for the state of Florida and the first woman to serve on a major congressional committee, was the first woman to serve as chief of a U.S. diplomatic mission.  In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed her Minister to Denmark, where she served until 1936.

During World War II, the limited numbers of available men and the increased need for diplomats created unprecedented opportunities for women in all parts of the State Department, including the Foreign Service.  After the end of the war, however, the Service returned to its previous hiring practices of giving overwhelming priority to male aspirants.  Among the small number of women who enjoyed success in diplomatic service was another political appointee to serve in Denmark; Eugenie Moore Anderson, the first woman to hold the title of Ambassador, represented the United States there from 1949 to 1953.

Frances E. Willis (one of the Examples of Excellence on this website) was the third woman to enter the Foreign Service and the first career FSO to become an ambassador.  She served in that capacity first in Switzerland and later in Norway and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  In 1962 she broke through another glass ceiling by reaching the State Department’s most exclusive personal rank, that of Career Ambassador.  In May of 2006 Willis was one of six Distinguished Diplomats to be honored with a postage stamp. 

Despite the progress made by women like Owen and Willis, it was still very difficult in the postwar years for women to be hired by and promoted within the Foreign Service.  From 1961 to 1971, recruitment of women remained at 7% and the rate of promotion was slow.  These inequities spurred women in the State Department to form the Women’s Action Organization (WAO). 

One of the changes the WAO sought was a complete transformation of the State Department’s policy on women officers and marriage.  Working closely with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the group called for the abolishment of the regulation that prevented women who married from entering or remaining in the Foreign Service. In 1972, the State Department overturned its ban on the marriage of female diplomats.  It also took steps to improve inequities in housing allowances and in the recruitment process, and removed wives from their husbands’ performance evaluations.

In 1968, Foreign Service Officer Alison Palmer filed a sex discrimination case that she won three years later.  Her victory resulted in an order from management barring all discrimination in assignments.  In 1975, when Palmer filed a class action suit on behalf of women Foreign Service Officers, WAO became a silent partner in the suit.  The lawsuit dragged on for many years but ultimately achieved success.  Though controversial within the Foreign Service, the Palmer lawsuit helped pave the way for new opportunities and improved conditions for women FSOs.  A similar sex discrimination class action suit, filed by Carolee Brady Hartman in 1977 against the U.S. Information Agency and the Voice of America, resulted in a settlement in 2000 that paid $532,000 to each of the nearly 1,100 women involved in the case.   

In 1973, Carol C. Laise became the first female Assistant Secretary of State, and in 1977 Lucy Wilson Benson became the first female Under Secretary of State.  Rozanne L. Ridgway (one of this website’s Examples of Excellence) became the first woman to head a regional bureau when she was appointed Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs in 1985.  

Beginning in the 1950s when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Claire Booth Luce as ambassador to Italy, several high-profile women from the private sector have served with distinction overseas.  Among them were Anne Armstrong in the United Kingdom, Pamela Harriman in France and Shirley Temple Black in Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

In 1997 Madeleine Albright began her tenure as the first female Secretary of State, and in January 2005 Condoleezza Rice became the first woman of color to hold that position.

For more information on the experiences of women who have served in the Foreign Service, refer to the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training’s oral history project.  Among some 1500 documented oral histories are reflections by Prudence Bushnell, Elinor Constable, Frances Cooke, Sally Grooms Cowal, Constance Harvey, Phyllis Oakley, Marjorie Ransom and Teresita Schaffer. In addition, excellent background material on prominent non-career as well as FSO woman ambassadors — including Claire Booth Luce, Carol Laise, Rozanne Ridgway, Mabel Smythe-Haith, Mari-Luci Jaramillo and Jeane Kirkpatrick — is featured in Morin, Ann Miller.  Her Excellency: An Oral History of American Women Ambassadors. New York: Twayne, 1995.


African Americans

African Americans were not found in the regular career Foreign Service until 1924, when the Rogers Act combined the Consular and Diplomatic Services into a single professional corps.  At that time career consuls James Carter, James Weldon Johnson and William Yerby, who had joined the Department in 1906, entered the newly created U.S. Foreign Service, where they were soon joined by Clifton Wharton (one of the Examples of Excellence on this website), the first African American to enter the Foreign Service through the competitive examination system.  Prior to that time, even in the mid-19th century, a few African Americans served in consular positions in Liberia and the Caribbean.

Although Wharton continued to serve through the war years, no other African American FSOs entered the State Department between the mid-1920s and 1945.  And even with a slightly more liberal policy in the early postwar years, only five African Americans were on the rolls in 1948, including William George, Charles Hanson, Jr., Giles Hubert and Wharton.

In those years, while some exceptionally talented African Americans were working their way slowly up the Civil Service ranks of the State Department, the African American exemplars in diplomacy were essentially only two men: Wharton, whose career had yet to take off, and Ralph Bunche, then working in New York as Under Secretary General of the United Nations (the highest position an American can hold at the U.N.).

Though not a Foreign Service careerist, Bunche, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote peace in the Middle East, was an inspirational figure who encouraged young African Americans (and young people of all races) to consider devoting themselves to international service.  Because of his deep impact on generations of Foreign Service officers, the State Department’s library is named in his honor. Recognition of his remarkable life and personal dedication to the highest ideals of service has come in the form of Ralph Bunche societies and international studies associations on campuses throughout the United States. Through an initiative spearheaded by retired FSO James Dandridge, launched by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and cosponsored by the Phelps Stokes Fund and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST), teaching modules on his life and legacy can be accessed directly at the Ralph Bunche Library.

Edward R. Dudley was the first African-American to hold the rank of ambassador, serving as Ambassador to Liberia from 1948 to 1953.

In the 1950s, the State Department gradually opened its doors to a very few African Americans, and Wharton was rewarded with an appointment as minister to Romania in 1958.  Some of the individuals who entered in those years, like Terence Todman (an Example of Excellence on this website) and Ronald Palmer, braved the indignities of prejudice, both within and outside the State Department, and went on to serve in multiple ambassadorships, helping over time to break through the system of stereotyped assignments that essentially confined African American diplomats to the “Negro circuit” of posts in Africa and the Caribbean.

Perhaps even more sensitive than the State Department to communist propaganda about America’s racial problems, on full view through news footage of ugly scenes from Little Rock and other parts of the south, the United States Information Agency (USIA) began an active recruitment effort aimed at African Americans in the latter part of the 1950s.  Several officers who went on to have distinguished careers –- including O. Rudolph (“Rudy”) Aggrey, Bernard Coleman, Herwald (“Hal”) Morton and John Reinhardt (one of the Examples of Excellence on this website) –- joined USIA in that period.

The 1960s brought greater efforts by the State Department and USIA, including through the Foreign Affairs Scholars Program (FASP), and President Lyndon Johnson made several ambassadorial appointments of African Americans -– for example, sending well-known journalist (and future USIA Director) Carl Rowan to Finland, Patricia Roberts Harris (the first African American woman ambassador) to Luxembourg, Elliott Skinner to Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Hugh Smythe to Syria.  Those who joined the State Department during that decade included future ambassadors Ruth Davis, Richard Fox and Joseph Segars. Davis became the first African American director of the Foreign Service Institute and first woman of color to serve as Director General of the Foreign Service.  In those years, USIA actively recruited both at the entry and the midcareer levels.  Its efforts were so successful that a large proportion of career-service African American ambassadors of the 1970s and 1980s came from USIA, not the State Department.  Their numbers included not only Coleman and Reinhardt, but Beverly Carter, Horace Dawson, Kenton Keith and Arthur Lewis.

The U.S. Agency for International Development and its predecessor organizations were also notable for bringing in African American officers, among them John L. Withers, a distinguished trail-blazer who joined the pre-USAID International Cooperation Agency in 1958.  Edward J. Perkins, the first African American ambassador to South Africa and first African American Director General of the Foreign Service, began his career in USAID.

Great strides were made during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but African Americans also faced continuing problems of marginalization, limited advancement opportunities and other injustices and indignities.  Many of those problems are in the past but cannot be forgotten.  And racism has continued to find its way into the Department in the 21st century.  Still, even though the overall number of African Americans in the Foreign Service remains disproportionately low, the growing numbers of those within the system are pursuing careers free of many of the burdens their predecessors faced.  As the Executive Secretary of the State Department, Ambassador Harry Thomas, put it with some understatement in an article for the February 2006 issue of State Magazine:

“Assignments and promotions in today's Department are based on merit.  All Americans are welcome to join the Civil Service and Foreign Service. The Department's leadership is committed to diversity and excellence, but that was not always the case.”


Hispanic Americans

Hispanics began to come into their own in the Foreign Service with the advent of the Latin America-focused Alliance for Progress started by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.  At that time a search was begun to recruit Hispanics at the entry levels of the Foreign Service, through midcareer appointments and via the assignment of talented non-career ambassadors.

In 1965 Joseph John Jova became the first career FSO Hispanic ambassador, serving initially in Honduras and later as ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and Mexico.  Other notable career ambassadors have included Francis Vincent (“Frank”) Ortiz, Jr. (who served in four countries, including Argentina), Cresencio (“Cris”) Arcos, Diego Asencio (one of the Examples of Excellence on this website), Frank Almaguer (who rose through the ranks of the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development and is one of the Examples of Excellence on this website), and Stanley T. Escudero. 

Despite the high prestige and excellent reputations of these exceptional officers, overall numbers have been small.  In his Foreign Service Journal article of December 1999 called “The Foreign Service Post-Cold War Blues,” Arcos commented that by 1992, only seven career Hispanic FSOs had ever become chiefs of mission, attributing the paucity of Hispanic FSOs in the senior ranks both to the low numbers entering at the bottom and to “subsequent assigning of Hispanics to ‘nonsubstantive’ cones.”  Women Hispanics have done especially poorly.

Despite the low numbers of Hispanic career FSOs moving to the top ranks of the State Department, U.S. diplomacy has been aided over the years by White House appointments of a number of outstanding noncareer Hispanic professionals to ambassadorial assignments.  Among them are Bill Richardson (United Nations), Edward Romero (Spain), Esteban Torres (UNESCO), Ignacio Lozano (El Salvador), Horacio Rivero (Spain), Abelardo L. Valdez (first Hispanic to be appointed U.S. Chief of Protocol and subsequently Assistant Administrator of USAID) and Raul Castro (Argentina, El Salvador).  Mari-Luci Jaramillo, assigned to Honduras (1977-80), was not only the first Hispanic woman ambassador, but the first woman ever sent in that position to a country in the Western hemisphere.


Asian Americans

Though a small minority within the Foreign Service until the latter years of the 20th century, Asian Americans began serving in the Foreign Service soon after the end of World War II.  Among those who entered the State Department or USIA in those early years and went on to full careers were Wever Gim and Toshio George Tsukahira. Frank Baba Henry, “Hank” Gosho, Stanton Jue and Theodore Liu were notable long-serving USIA officers who joined during that period.

Noncareer appointee Julia Chang Bloch became the first Asian American ambassador, serving in Nepal from 1989 to 1993, while William H. (“Will”) Itoh, the first Asian American career FSO ambassador, was appointed to Thailand in 1996.  In addition to Julia Chang Bloch, prominent noncareer Asian American trailblazers who have served in senior State Department diplomatic assignments have included Patsy Takemoto Mink (Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs) and Sichan Siv (served with rank of Ambassador as U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council). 

Despite the small numbers of Asian Americans reaching senior positions in the State Department, that group is easily the fastest-growing minority in the Foreign Service.  Within this FSO subcategory, the annual intake of new officers with South Asian backgrounds has been particularly notable.


Native Americans and Other Ethnic Groups

The State Department has traditionally kept statistics on the very small number of Native Americans (called American Indians in the records), but only recently has attempted to make finer distinctions.  By 2005 it was using two categories: American Indians and Native Alaskans (AIAN) and Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders (or NHOPI).  The statistical breakdown for those two groups within the permanent Foreign Service workforce of 11,224 (including FSOs, Specialists and others) in 2005 indicated there were 28 males and 13 females in the AIAN category and no males and 2 females in the NHOPI category.  Dennis P. Barrett, who rose through USAID’s ranks before becoming U.S. ambassador to Madagascar (1992-95), is one of the few Americans with strong Native American roots to reach that position within the Foreign Service. 

In addition to the various Native American designations, it should be recognized that the Foreign Service is increasingly made up of individuals who do not fall easily within past categorizations — for example, Arab Americans and those from South Asian backgrounds.  Moreover, increasing numbers of FSOs self-identify as having multiple ethnic identities.