Politics Today

Phyllis Oakley, Feminine Pioneer on the State Division, Dies at 87

Phyllis Oakley, whose 25-year diplomatic profession within the State Division virtually didn’t occur due to an unwritten rule that forbade feminine international service officers from marrying, died on Jan. 22 at a hospital in Washington. She was 87.

Her son, Thomas Oakley, confirmed the dying. He stated that she had been in good well being however “her coronary heart simply stopped.”

Within the late Eighties, because the Chilly Conflict waned, the straight-talking, forthright Ms. Oakley, whose boisterous snicker typically signaled her presence, was a lot within the public eye as deputy spokesman (the time period then in use) for the State Division beneath President Ronald Reagan. She later grew to become assistant secretary for refugees and assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis beneath President Invoice Clinton.

She had begun her profession in 1957. However when she married in 1958, State Division customized dictated that she stop.

Within the late Nineteen Sixties and early ’70s, as girls began breaking down limitations in different professions, the handful of feminine officers within the international service challenged this and other antiquated notions that discriminated towards them. The division gave manner on the unofficial marriage ban in 1974, permitting girls to marry and providing to reinstate those that had been pressured out earlier.

By then, few of those that had left wished to return. However Ms. Oakley did. She had spent the intervening 16 years because the spouse of a international service officer, Robert B. Oakley, finishing up the myriad social, diplomatic and managerial duties that the division anticipated of wives beneath its “two for the worth of 1” motto. She additionally raised their two kids.

As soon as she was reinstated, she and her husband grew to become one of many international service’s earliest so-called tandem {couples}, tenting and decamping all around the world — typically with one another, typically with out.

Phyllis Elsa Elliott was born on Nov. 23, 1934, in Omaha. Her mom, Elsa (Kerkow) Elliott, taught highschool math and chemistry. Her father, Thomas M. Elliott, was a salesman for the Rawlings Sporting Items Firm; his promotions took the household to Columbus, Ohio, and to St. Louis.

Phyllis was at all times involved in public affairs; she obtained materials from the State Division about job alternatives when she was 12. Throughout World Conflict II, she adopted the battles carefully, enthralled with historical past and geography.

At Northwestern College, she majored in political science and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1956. She obtained her grasp’s diploma from the Fletcher College of Regulation and Diplomacy at Tufts College in 1957 after which joined the international service.

She was finishing her French language coaching and ready for her first abroad project when she met Bob Oakley, one other younger officer in coaching. They determined to marry, realizing full nicely that her profession can be over earlier than it started.

“We accepted that discrimination with out batting an eyelash,” she said in a 2000 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Mr. Oakley was despatched to Sudan in Could 1958. The younger couple have been married in a registrar’s workplace in Cairo in June, then started their lives collectively in Khartoum.

His subsequent posting was the Ivory Coast. Then he was despatched to Vietnam, the place households weren’t allowed to comply with. Ms. Oakley and the kids spent that point in Shreveport, La., the place her husband’s household lived, and she or he taught American historical past at Centenary Faculty. She later attributed her need to rejoin the international service partly to the enjoyment she had present in instructing.

“It was good to find I nonetheless had a mind that I may use,” she stated within the oral historical past.

After Mr. Oakley left Vietnam in 1967, the household reunited and moved to Paris; then New York, the place he labored on the United Nations; then Beirut, the place they lived till 1974.

That was the 12 months the State Division dropped its ban on married girls, and Ms. Oakley was reinstated, in Washington. Her specialties included Arab-Israeli relations and the Panama Canal Treaty.

When her husband obtained his first appointment as ambassador, to Zaire in 1979, Ms. Oakley went with him, however as an worker of the US Data Company and never beneath his direct purview. It marked the primary time a spouse had labored in her husband’s mission.

He subsequent went to Somalia in 1982. As an alternative of becoming a member of him there, Ms. Oakley returned to Washington and rose to a midlevel job on the Afghan desk. Secretary of State George P. Shultz noticed her speaking about Afghanistan on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” one night time and was so impressed that when a gap arose, he named her the division’s deputy spokesperson. She was the primary lady within the job and have become a extensively recognizable determine delivering televised briefings.

She held the job from 1986 till 1989, when her husband was appointed ambassador to Pakistan. They didn’t need to be separated once more, so she took a job in Islamabad at the US Company for Worldwide Improvement, which ruffled some feathers.

“I feel everybody acknowledged that I would know extra about Afghan politics than anybody else within the mission,” she stated within the oral historical past, “however there was the sensation that because the ambassador’s spouse, I used to be being foisted on them.”

After she retired from the State Division in 1999, she taught on the Johns Hopkins College of Superior Worldwide Research, at Mount Holyoke Faculty and at Northwestern.

Along with her son, Ms. Oakley is survived by her daughter, Mary Kress, and 5 grandchildren. Her husband died in 2014.

On the finish of her oral historical past, Ms. Oakley thought of what may need occurred if she had not been sidelined within the Nineteen Fifties, or if she hadn’t married.

“I feel I might have had an excellent profession,” she stated, “however I don’t suppose it might have been as wealthy and rewarding.”

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