WIFE AND BAGGAGE TO FOLLOW.
By Rachel Miller with Diana Hall.
Halstead Press. 240 pp. $29.99.
The notorious telegram saying ''wife and baggage to follow'' has long since vanished from the files of the Department of Foreign Affairs. DFAT's best raconteur, Richard Woolcott, claims the cable was sent to Max Loveday, whose marriage to Cynthia Nelson ended the career of one of Australia's most promising woman diplomats. Indeed, any of Australia's few diplomats could have received such instructions, with as little notice, and as little thought for their wives.
Helen and Patrick Shaw were interned in Tokyo after war broke out, then evacuated and transferred to Wellington with two small children. They had been there a little more than 12 months when External Affairs sent Pat the ''wife and baggage'' cable, ordering him immediately to Chungking, then to Nanking, the temporary capitals of Nationalist China, where Helen eventually persuaded the department to let her join him. As for the baggage, comprising all of the Shaws' possessions, that was destroyed on the wharf in Shanghai. A year later, Patrick Shaw returned to Canberra with his pregnant wife, and after three weeks the department sent him back to Japan. Both Helen and the baby were ill and needed several weeks in hospital, but after that, she and the children went too. Lady Shaw later declared, ''The wives are lucky these days.'' Sir Patrick, who eventually became ambassador in Washington, replied, ''They should be too, it should improve.''
Australia has had a diplomatic service for 70 years. So the 30-odd years covered by Rachel Miller's interviews were surely long enough for the department to have modernised its attitude towards women. In fact, real improvement took much longer.
Canberra was born in the Depression, when public servants took cuts in salary and rode bikes to work. Edna ''Digger'' Thompson, who joined External Affairs in 1949, tells the author that petrol was rationed and Colonel Hodgson, the first secretary of the department, rode a horse to West Block, and would loudly interrogate young cadets in the lift about the ABC morning news. None of them could afford a radio. It was worse for the three women in the first intake of cadets: not only were they paid less than the men, but as single women they were not allowed to rent or buy government houses, and all lost their jobs after they married.
Mean-minded penny-pinching was ingrained in External Affairs' early culture. Several of the diplomatic wives whom Miller interviewed tell of real poverty. In 1945, Helen and Pat Shaw had to live on £20 a week for themselves and two children in Wellington, of which £13 went on rent. Francis and Guinevere Stuart had to pay for their children's travel to Paris out of their luggage allowance, which included the heavy cypher books. In the weeks they spent walking around Paris looking for premises for the embassy, they spent all their savings on a hotel. In 1947, Judith Dexter arrived in Lebanon having gone without meals for several days, her travellers' cheques being payable only in Syria. Her new husband Barrie, as an Arabic student, hadn't been told she was coming, nor had he been paid for six months because neither Canberra nor London wanted to own him.
The small allowances paid to women who worked as secretaries were based on an assumption that ''the girls'' were invited out to dinner every night. ''Couldn't afford anything,'' said Marjorie Tange, who recalled renting an apartment 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Australia's UN office in New York's Empire State building.
After Sir Arthur became Secretary, Lady Tange persuaded her ''always dominant'' husband to let her compile a how-to manual for diplomatic wives, which eventually became Notes for Wives of Officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs (1971). The mirthful scorn that greeted it in the press appealed to the popular Australian belief that diplomats lived lives of luxury beyond the dreams of avarice.
Hastened by a dire shortage of stenographers more than by egalitarian principle, the marriage bar fell in 1966, after it had punished some of the department's best women, including Cynthia Loveday and Tonia Moffat. Like many Australian female diplomats, they were sent to the UN, to demonstrate that the government supported International Human Rights and didn't discriminate against women. Moffat took four short postings before she married Ric Shand in 1963, resigned, and continued work as a ''temp'' without promotion. She resigned again to have a baby and after a year returned, still a ''temp'', still at the base level, still working in ''safe'', uncontentious areas, and paying more than she earned to someone to care for her daughter. This continued until 1973 when she was posted and promoted, eventually becoming high commissioner in Sri Lanka.
Moffat had written in protest to Prime Minister Robert Menzies and to Bill Hayden, MP for Ipswich, without success. The department's attitude was summed up by Nick Parkinson, who in 1963 supported an infamous memorandum about the unsuitability of women as trade commissioners. Parkinson noted that in spite of more women than men applying for the foreign service, only one woman was appointed for about 12 men. (In 1963, that was me).
''They have to be trained for 18 months before going on their first post. The average marries within five years. It is a very expensive process, but External Affairs lack courage to slam the door because of parliamentary opinion, pressure groups and so on.'' Miller reproduces his comment in an appendix.
Women public servants had to wait until 1973 to get equal pay, under the Whitlam government. Australia urgently needed more diplomats to implement his expanded foreign policy, and as always, the pool of available women was tapped to provide them. When Alan Renouf came in as Secretary, he was aware that a ''wives' revolt'' was brewing in Anglophone foreign services, set off by the Women's Liberation movement, and by US president Richard Nixon who, seeking to compliment US diplomats, said they gave him ''two for the price of one''. Renouf picked up the issue, and proposed to the Foreign Affairs Women's Association (FAWA) that it was essential to ''get away from the concept of a wife in the Public Service as an appendage; the idea that when you employ the husband, you also employ the wife''. Quoting the ''wife and baggage'' cable, he said any lingering confusion about women's priority in the Australian foreign service would cease forthwith.
Wives of Australian diplomats, who had begun complaining about disruption of their own careers, would be allowed to take paid work of their own overseas, wherever it was lawful, and they would no longer be evaluated in their husbands' assessment reports, nor be subjected to the authority of senior officers' wives.
Miller's objective, even-handed record could have included many more DFAT women's stories, and she and her early collaborator, Diana Hall, had difficulty deciding whose to include. She ends in 1974, with the calm observation that ''life of a diplomatic spouse is not easy''.
But discrimination against women continued. Mutterings were heard from conventional ''wives who want to support their husbands'', from those defending the voluntary work wives did at posts and from head-of-mission wives who had been through a lot and now felt cheated and undermined.
After the Liberals returned to power in 1975, Peter Henderson as Secretary made it clear that young Foreign Affairs people, who had been marrying since the fall of the marriage bar, would not be posted together. Nor would women diplomats whose husbands were ambassadors be allowed to work in the same post, due to what the department claimed would be a ''conflict of interest''. This was seen by those it affected as a pincer movement from above and below to nip in the bud the pernicious notion that Australian women diplomats were entitled to the same career expectations as men.
The department informed women diplomats (including me) that when their husbands became ambassadors their first responsibility was to be ''seen to be a wife'', even though ambassadors without wives appeared to need no such ornament.
Notwithstanding FAWA's admirable efforts to support women and families, friends fell out over these debates and marriages collapsed. A sense of sisterhood was strong, but not universal. I was informed in 1977 by an Australian woman diplomat, senior to me, who had just arrived in the embassy where I had been working since 1975, that I had no right to be there. Why? Because, she said, I had a husband and children.
Of course, times have changed since then. We now have more women recruits to the foreign service than men. We have always had gay diplomats: now they are posted with their partners. We now have female ambassadors whose husbands and partners do what wives used to do, or not, as they decide. A couple of years ago I had dinner with our ambassador in Lisbon, who hosted a group of visiting Australian academics in a tasteful restaurant, mentioning that with small children, there was no way his wife could entertain at the residence. In October this year, our first female ambassador in Beijing, a Mandarin speaker whose husband and four children are with her, was hosting our first female governor-general. What we don't yet have is an ambassador with a spouse on the staff of an Australian post, even though other countries do, and even though Gareth Evans approved it in principle in the mid-1980s. We will know that Australian ideas of diplomacy have really changed when we see women as Secretary of DFAT and head of ONA. Or will that mean that men have found more attractive options elsewhere?
Perhaps the most fundamental change we have seen around the world is not in gender roles but in the practice of diplomacy itself, whose inherited tradition of ostentation and keeping up appearances, once supplemented by the inherited fortunes of diplomats, is unsustainable and irrelevant to the modern world. Even in 1947, trying to match Kremlin hospitality while having to forage for potatoes in the Russian countryside seemed absurd to Mildred Watt. In 1989, when the cook in Tokyo had a nervous breakdown just as the ambassador was entertaining 30 Japanese men, the absurdity of pretending nothing had happened was not lost on Ross Dalrymple and her daughter as they scrambled to produce dinner. Many foreign services now use social media to make contacts and promote their countries, relying more on public diplomacy than lavish entertainment, and engaging a wider range of people. The department is still starved of funds, as always, but Australian diplomacy has changed in ways that can't be reversed. Dennis Richardson demonstrated this by finding funds to support the publication of Miller's book, and his successor as Secretary, Peter Varghese, confirmed it with a rousing launch in Canberra in October.
Dr Alison Broinowski was a wife and a diplomat.