Diplomatic Ladies

Woods dons a traditional chador to pass muster under Khomeini, in Tehran in 1984.

An affair with H.G. Wells, hidden homosexuality, undercover spies, and coups before teatime, Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys is a page-turning account of what really goes on behind embassy doors. Not just a chronicle of juicy anecdotes, the book details the inherent sacrifices wives and partners make, such as the inability to pursue careers and the demand that they wine and dine as an unpaid part of the job. 
Only a true insider could have known the right questions to ask and author Joanna Woods spares few details in her own chapter “Supping with the Ayatollah.” In addition to accompanying her husband, Richard, to posts in Bahrain, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, the US, and Russia, she’s also a Katherine Mansfield scholar, the author of three other books, and says her love of reading made her enjoy every moment of research. Though she recently resided in Wellington, Woods answered questions from her native U.K.

When did you realise you needed to write this book?
What originally motivated me was a burning desire to write about my own experiences in Iran, where my husband and I spent seven years. It was one of the most extraordinary periods of my life and I have wanted to write about it for over a decade. As I struggled to find the right format, including a crack at a fictionalised version, it occurred to me that many other diplomatic wives must have equally interesting stories to tell and their inclusion would broaden the scope of my book enormously. Once I decided on this, the format fell into place quite naturally and I realised at once that I was on the right track.

I was struck by the amount of drama in these stories – did you have to cull a lot of information to get at these gems?
My eureka moment probably came in late 2008, when I was browsing in the legendary London Library, which I have belonged to for many years, and I came across Katy Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia. Her book is about British diplomatic wives, including some pretty exotic early figures, but I could see at once how some of New Zealand’s early posts in the Pacific could be as “exotic” as 19th century Kashgar, if only I could track down the stories.

What followed was about a year of intensive research. By this time I had decided to take a chronological approach, so that my book would not just be a random collection of stories, but rather a historical account of New Zealand diplomacy told from the wives ‘ perspective. I was also acutely aware that many of these stories would be lost unless someone wrote them down.

Were the women you interviewed eager to talk?
Virtually nobody I approached turned me down. People were equally generous with their letters and photographs and after many of the interviews I felt as if I had made a new friend. One of the things that helped enormously was that, after an interview, I always sent a copy of the transcript and undertook to remove anything that they wished they hadn’t said! This made people feel ‘safe’ and as a result they were far more open and relaxed with me. And virtually no-one changed a word of the transcripts.

I’m impressed by how many of these women were feminists, from the first diplomat’s wife Maud Pember Reeves to Marguerite Scott during the 1970s. In spite of all the spousal duties and decorum, is this a role where a woman can make her beliefs known? 
On the whole, diplomatic wives do not become directly involved in political issues in the countries to which their husbands are posted. Maud Pember Reeves was quite exceptional, but this was largely because she did not regard herself as a foreigner in England. She behaved as if she was a private individual at home. But diplomatic wives can help promote social justice and reforms indirectly, through supporting local charities, for example. They also have unique opportunities to mix socially with powerful figures in the host country and to influence their thinking, but the key to diplomacy is persuasion rather than confrontation. A woman who pushes her own views too hard at the dinner table might not be invited back.

Many of the issues raised in these stories are still issues, as revealed last March when MFAT proposed cuts to diplomats’ positions, pay and allowances, prompting envoys and partners to air grievances about the difficulties of their appointments, including the single salary situation. Did that conflict affect what you wrote? 
The whole sorry situation at MFAT began when I was already well advanced with the book and had no influence on my writing, but it’s made the subject matter far more topical than I had ever imagined and it has also served as a timely reminder of the major contribution that the wives and partners have always made to diplomatic life.

You are quite right that many of the issues that wives faced in the past continue to be problems today. That many of the partners are now male has changed things, however, and wives and partners are now far less engaged in the business of diplomacy. This does not alter the fact that many of them still sacrifice career prospects and financial advantages to accompany their partners overseas. It is also still tough on the children, despite the apparent glamour. Nevertheless a lot of progress has been made since the bad old days when wives were forbidden to work and in most places partners are now able to find some sort of employment, including within the Embassy.

Did you put a career on hold to be a diplomat’s wife? What would you have done if you’d been allowed?
If I had not married a diplomat, I would probably have started writing books 20 years earlier!

Originally published on January 23, 2013 in Capital Times.

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