‘The special virtues of women’, declared the MP and diplomat Harold Nicolson in a speech to the House of Commons in 1943, were intuition and sympathy, qualities that were ‘fatal in diplomacy’. They led, he said, to a disastrous tendency to jump to conclusions and to identify with causes and people, thereby threatening ‘that very balanced attitude which it is the business of the Diplomatic Service to preserve’. Most senior Foreign Office figures agreed: an embassy was no place for a female diplomat. The campaign to get women into the foreign service, already simmering since the 19th century, still had, as Helen McCarthy writes, several years to run. Of all the bastions of male privilege, the Foreign Office turns out to have been one of the hardest to assail.
Male British diplomats of an earlier age, dispatched abroad to courts and seats of government, were expected to occupy a similar social rank as those with whom they dealt. They also needed to be rich: for the most part unpaid, their jobs demanded carriages, sumptuous clothes and many servants. Those