Phyllis Oakley: A trailblazer for women in diplomacy

Phyllis Oakley standing outside residential doorway (© Paul Hosefros/The New York Times/Redux)
Phyllis Oakley outside her home in Washington in 1999, the year she retired from the State Department (© Paul Hosefros/The New York Times/Redux)

This piece was written by Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter.

I have a critical and meaningful job. As the Department of State’s Principal Deputy Spokesperson, I explain America’s foreign policy to members of the domestic and foreign press for both American and global audiences.

The work is important and exciting, and I love it. But I might never have had the opportunity to make this contribution if it weren’t for Phyllis Oakley, who joined the foreign service before I was born. Today, women have served as Secretary of State and in many senior roles throughout the Department. We all owe seeds of gratitude to Phyllis Oakley for her early visibility and impact as a high-profile woman leader at the Department.

Phyllis Oakley joined the foreign service in 1957 and was awaiting her first overseas assignment when she met her future husband, Robert Oakley. During her era of service, there was an unwritten rule that female foreign service officers (FSOs) would leave the service if they married. That was the accepted culture back then, Oakley said. “We accepted that discrimination without batting an eyelash.”

Although she was no longer an FSO, for 16 years, Oakley accompanied her husband to posts including Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, and France. In addition to the work of raising two children and navigating moves to unfamiliar places, Oakley helped organize her husband’s diplomatic events. The expectation of the time was that a married foreign service officer was “two for the price of one.”

Seated man, woman shaking his hand (Courtesy of Jalina Porter)
George Schultz and Jalina Porter (Courtesy of Jalina Porter)

Soon the American cultural landscape was starting to change. In 1971, the State Department dropped its marriage ban for women FSOs. Oakley officially rejoined the foreign service in 1974, taking up duties in Washington and then in Kinshasa as part of a tandem couple while her husband was the U.S. ambassador to Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In 1986, Secretary of State George P. Shultz appointed her Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department, making her the first woman to hold the job I do today.

Thirty-five years later I was appointed by President Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the first African-American woman to hold the role of Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the Department, thereby blazing my own very important trail.

Prior to my appointment, Secretary Schultz was the only Secretary of State I had the honor of engaging with from my time as a national security fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. This engagement reaffirmed what I knew the very first time I met FSOs while serving in the Peace Corps in Cambodia: I needed to represent my country by working for the Department of State. My time at the Department has also reaffirmed my conviction that all women have the power to empower other women and girls around them, no matter what role they may be in.

From my State Department colleagues, I’ve learned that Oakley was excellent at her job. While many things have changed between the time she was in this role until now, each day she would have rigorously prepared to face pressing questions from our diplomatic press corps, consulted with Assistant Secretaries and press teams of our regional and functional bureaus, and worked closely with our interagency colleagues. Fortunately for her, there was no such thing as Twitter, and breaking news came at a predictable hour each day.

After her time as Deputy Spokesperson, Oakley would go on to serve at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Pakistan while her husband served as ambassador there at the same time. Back in Washington, she worked in refugee affairs and rose through the ranks, serving twice as an Assistant Secretary.

Phyllis Oakley opened a door of opportunity for many other women at the Department, including me. Department Spokesperson Ned Price called her legacy “doing what was long overdue: ensuring that … married women had the same rights as their male counterparts.”

We all know that diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility makes our foreign policy stronger, smarter, more creative, and more innovative. We yield the best talent and contributions when we welcome and embrace all people regardless of their gender, race, age, or because of who they love. As women who are afforded the opportunity to represent the Department of State, we also have an obligation to strive to make our world a better place, which starts at home with our workforce. When we champion gender equity and equality, we also champion fairness and human rights and ultimately advance peace and security for all.

To all the women in the Department who serve with a spirit of grace, inclusion, excellence, and intention, I thank you for your work and for inspiring yet another generation of courageous women.