Phyllis Oakley, Female Pioneer at State Department, Dies at 87

Phyllis Oakley, whose 25-year career as a diplomat in the State Department almost went astray because of the unwritten law that forbids female diplomatic officers from marrying, died on Jan. hospital in Washington. She was 87 years old.

Her son, Thomas Oakley, confirmed the death. He said she was in good health but “her heart stopped beating.”

In the late 1980s, as the Cold War waned, the outspoken, outspoken Mrs. Oakley, who often laughed loudly to signal her presence, came to public attention as deputy deputy. spokesman (the term was then in use) for the Department of State under his authority. President Ronald Reagan. She later became assistant secretary for refugees and assistant secretary of intelligence and research under President Bill Clinton.

She started her career in 1957. But when she got married in 1958, the US State Department stipulated that she had to quit.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, as women began to break down barriers in other professions, a small number of female officers in the diplomatic service challenge this and other ancient notions discriminate against them. The ministry abandoned the ban on informal marriage in 1974, allowing women to marry and offering to reinstate those who had been previously raped.

By then, very few of those who had left wanted to return. But Miss Oakley did. She spent 16 years intervening as the wife of a foreign service officer, Robert B. Oakley, which carries out the multitude of social, diplomatic and administrative duties that the department expects of wives under the motto “two for one price”. She also raised their two children.

After her reinstatement, she and her husband became one of the foreign service’s earliest so-called twin couples, camping and foresting around the world – sometimes together, sometimes not. .

Phyllis Elsa Elliott was born on November 23, 1934 in Omaha. Her mother, Elsa (Kerkow) Elliott, taught high school math and chemistry. Her father, Thomas M. Elliott, was a salesman for the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company; His promotion brought the family to Columbus, Ohio and St. Louis.

Phyllis has always been interested in public affairs; She received documents from the State Department about job opportunities when she was 12 years old. During World War II, she closely followed the battles, enamored with history and geography.

At Northwestern University, she majored in political science and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1956. She received her master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1957 and later entered the diplomatic profession.

She was completing her French training and awaiting her first assignment abroad when she met Bob Oakley, another young officer in training. They decide to get married, knowing full well that her career will be over before it even begins.

“We accept that discrimination without cutting our eyelashes,” she said in oral history in 2000 give Diplomatic Training and Research Association.

Mr. Oakley was sent to Sudan in May 1958. The young couple were married at a registry office in Cairo in June, and then began living together in Khartoum.

His next position is Ivory Coast. He was then sent to Vietnam, where his family was not allowed to follow him. Oakley and her children spent that time in Shreveport, La., where her husband’s family lives, and she teaches American history at Centenary College. She later attributed her desire to rejoin the foreign service in part to the joy she found in teaching.

“It was nice to find out that I still had a brain that I could use,” she said in the oral history.

After Mr. Oakley left Vietnam in 1967, the family reunited and moved to Paris; then New York, where he worked at the United Nations; then Beirut, where they lived until 1974.

That was the year the State Department lifted the ban on married women and Oakley was reinstated in Washington. Her specialties include Arab-Israeli relations and the Treaty of the Panama Canal.

When her husband was first appointed ambassador to Zaire in 1979, Oakley accompanied him, but as an employee of the United States Information Agency and not under its direct supervision. grandfather. It marked the first time a wife did her husband’s duties.

Next, he went to Somalia in 1982. Instead of joining him there, Ms. Oakley returned to Washington and took a mid-level job at an Afghan desk. Foreign Minister George P. Shultz discovered her talking about Afghanistan on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” one night and was so impressed that at the opening he named her deputy spokesperson for the department. She was the first woman to do the job and became a well-known figure giving televised briefings.

She held this job from 1986 to 1989, when her husband was appointed ambassador to Pakistan. They didn’t want to be separated again, so she took a job in Islamabad at the US Agency for International Development, which ruffled the hair a bit.

“I think everyone admits that I probably knew more about Afghan politics than anyone else on the mission,” she said in the oral history, “but there is a feeling that as the wife of ambassadors, I have been supporting them.”

After leaving the State Department in 1999, she taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, at Mount Holyoke College, and at Northwestern.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Oakley is survived by her daughter, Mary Kress, and five grandchildren. Her husband passed away in 2014.

At the end of her oral history, Mrs. Oakley considers what might have happened if she hadn’t been fired in the 1950s, or if she hadn’t been married.

“I thought I was going to have a good career,” she said, “but I didn’t think it would be so enriching and rewarding.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/29/us/politics/phyllis-oakley-dead.html Phyllis Oakley, Female Pioneer at State Department, Dies at 87

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