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In their swearing in, you see the spouses holding the book; when they retire and if they get lucky, the spouses may get a special mention at the ceremony. It does not seem to matter whether it’s the Foreign Service or the FCO. Most days, the spouse is just a spouse, doing all things unofficially, that is.
In 1971, when the Foreign Service issued a directive saying that “participation by a Foreign Service wife in the work of a post is a voluntary act of a private person, not a legal obligation which can be imposed by any Foreign Service official or his wife,” it also said: “We believe it would be a serious loss if the feelings of common effort and cooperation of our Foreign Service personnel and their wives were somehow lost.”
‘Frankly, if a wife chooses to be involved in the embassy work, it’s an unpaid benefit for us.’ That’s from the FCO spokesman in 1986.
They were no longer obligated to do anything for the mission, but that did not mean the end of such things. The British Ambassadors in their valedictories recognized that when they pay tribute to their wives (with names never mentioned) even as one puts it, an “empty gesture through it is.”
Sir David Gore-Booth, the British Ambassador to India (Valedictory Despatch: Delhi, 1999) writes:
“So how does the “blustering buffoon” of Francis Wheen’s imagination sign off for the last time? Not without thanking my wives: the first for giving up under the strain after only a few years; the second for making the last 21 years a joy above and below deck. And scores of colleagues, whether UK based or locally engaged, who have helped keep this particular show on the road. I have hugely enjoyed a career that has always been colorful and times controversial. But now it is time to go home.”
Sir Michael Weir, the British Ambassador to Egypt (Valedictory Despatch: Cairo, 1985) writes:
“I must end with the customary tribute to spouse and Service, empty gesture through it is to include a sentence or two of compliments in a dispatch which will be read mainly by colleagues. In my case, I have two wives to thank both of whom have been a great support but the first of whom decided that diplomatic life was crippling to the spirit. The second had joined the Service before we met, and has no excuse. I am therefore not taking my leave the same way as other valedictorians, and look forward to several further years service below stairs while my wife pursues her career.”
“I pay tribute, as I have done in some of my speeches, to the incalculable contribution made to our efforts by a good many of our wives, unpaid but often making all the difference between success and failure. And in this, my last dispatch, I should like to say thank you to my own wife. For thirty five years, at home and in eight countries overseas, we have done everything together. Mine has been an easier job than hers. But her contribution has been enormous. Doing it all together has made it fun. Indeed to have done it without her would have been inconceivable.”
And that’s that. The Foreign Service, of course, does not have the tradition of the valedictories. Occasionally, you hear the tribute to the wife in the public sphere like this one below from Craig Stapleton, former US Ambassador to France and the Czech Republic. His wife, Dorothy Walker Stapleton, is a first cousin of George H.W. Bush.
“Having served for seven years in a U.S. Embassy, I must say it would be impossible for an Ambassador to fill all the demands of the job, including managing and running the residence staff and events without a wife. Nancy Brinker, an Ambassador to Hungary, often told Debbie and me, “I need a wife.” Luckily, Debbie was a willing partner, who made the visit of all who came warm and special. The spouse of an Ambassador has no direct staff, is unpaid, yet the success of the Mission in improving the relations between our respective countries falls equally on the couple.”