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GCLO at 45: Looking Back at Its History and AAFSW’s Role

This year, the Global Community Liaison Office (GCLO) turned 45. While the office is well-known within the foreign affairs community, many are not aware of its history and the role AAFSW played in its creation. In 2021, we discussed the name change with GCLO. However, we didn’t discuss the office’s creation or AAFSW’s role. To get firsthand information on these topics, we sat down with Mette Beecroft, who, along with a colleague, actually opened the office in March of 1978. 

Setting the Stage

While GCLO was officially formed in 1978, many of the conditions or realities that eventually led to its formation go back as far as 1956, when the few women who were full-fledged FSOs realized that they had little hope of a real career in the Foreign Service as it was then organized. According to Mette, “In that year, only 4.6 % of the FSOs were women and only 1% were in the senior ranks. They were expected to resign when they married and were not accepted if they had children.” In addition to traditional FSOs, there was also the Staff Corps, which was primarily composed of female secretaries. For them, Mette said, “the story was worse: they had to share housing, work unpaid overtime, were often without diplomatic status and were excluded from official functions.”  

Meanwhile, Foreign Service wives were beginning to chafe at the constraints placed upon their activities. Also that year, a book entitled “The Diplomat’s Wife” appeared. It offered the following advice to the wives of FSOs: “One of the wife’s most constant preoccupations should be to assist the wife of her chief at all times and in every way possible. They may ask you to take part in charitable events, amateur dramatics or women’s club work.  You can help your husband tremendously by having a reputation for unfailing helpfulness.” 

This meant that junior spouses were at the beck and call of more senior spouses. Even worse, spouses were included in their husband’s “efficiency report,” which went into their husband’s official file but which they were unable to see. This meant that they were afraid to speak out about their concerns for fear of damaging their husband’s career. 

And so, quite early on, there were a number of women who were dissatisfied with the status quo. However, they saw no way to address their concerns.

An Association Forms

Sometimes in history, the right person comes along at the right time. In this instance, that person was one June Byrne Spencer, a secretary who married her boss, a very senior FSO. For starters, such a marriage was very much frowned upon. In 1960, she proposed the formation of an organization that would represent families of every rank. This was a proposal for the wives of diplomats and staff members to work together. As June wrote: “Jaws dropped, there was silence, this was heretical.” This was the beginning of AAFSW. While the organization was originally called the Association of American Foreign Service Women, the name has been updated to the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, keeping the same acronym. Ultimately, the AAFSW played the leading role in the creation and promotion of the Family Liaison Office — the FLO.

The 1972 Directive

A few years later, in 1963, Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” a revolutionary book that suggested that women could find real satisfaction working outside of the home. It was very widely read and became a sort of manifesto for young women who wished to work. However, many Foreign Service wives remained hesitant to bring up the topic lest it damage their husband’s career.

The younger women who were very dissatisfied with the restrictions placed upon them found an ally in an unexpected place: Under Secretary for Management William Macomber. In that capacity, he set about to make several administrative reforms, one of which became known as “The 1972 Directive.” First, it directed that wives at post could not be told to perform tasks for the U.S. Government, because they were not employees. Second, it directed that wives at post could not be mentioned in their husband’s efficiency report. Macomber also put an end to obliging women to resign from the Foreign Service if they married. 

Thus, “The 72 Directive” gave women the courage to speak up about their concerns, since they could no longer be mentioned in their spouse’s efficiency report. And it also gave them more control over their own time if they wanted to work while at post.

FLO is Born 

While AAFSW concentrated on bringing the needs and wishes of family members to the attention of senior management, in 1976, the AAFSW decided that it had to take more forceful action. This decision resulted in the creation of the “FORUM,” a “think tank” within the ranks of the AAFSW.  This new body functioned with great intensity. One of the first things the FORUM did was to send out a questionnaire worldwide asking people about their concerns. Predictably, these concerns were about employment for spouses, education for children, assistance in the event of personal or political emergencies, and more. Under the leadership of the late Lesley Dorman (then AAFSW President), she and volunteers from the recently created FORUM reviewed all the questionnaires that had been returned and prepared a document titled “Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families,” which was delivered personally by Lesley to the late Cyrus Vance, then Secretary of State, in March of 1977.

One of the major recommendations of this FORUM report was to create the FLO. The Secretary agreed and wrote, “The concept is a good one and I support it. The Office will be an invaluable asset to the Department’s efforts to be responsive to the needs and concerns of FS families.” 

Only one year later, which one local newspaper reporter considered a minor miracle, the Family Liaison Office opened its doors on March 1, 1978.

Gaining Momentum 

Change is always hard and while the FLO was clearly a concept whose time had come, it wasn’t immediately accepted across the board. According to Mette: “Sometimes, people’s attitude simply reflected the times.  By some, we were seen as ‘little ladies’ who wanted to feel important. That is to say, we experienced a certain amount of condescension which was easy to ignore, especially since Janet Lloyd, the FLO Director had an advanced degree in Social Work from Catholic University and I had a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. It was important to be knowledgeable, to write well and to answer all communications promptly, accurately, and completely. Being very well prepared for any meeting was also extremely important. As we adhered to these standards, the tide began to turn. As for being useful to people, every manager wants his post to run smoothly. Thus, when people began to realize what CLOs could contribute to the morale of family members at post, they became more accepting of the entire concept. It almost meant in some cases that the CLO would be able to deal with cases which previously PER would have had to deal with.”

“Interestingly, many people had been told that the only reason the FLO had been opened was because they (mostly HR, Admin and GSO staff) were not doing their job well. This was not true. It meant in the early days of the FLO, we spent a lot of time talking with groups about the conditions that led to the FLO’s creation — an increase in divorces, spouses desiring work, parents knowing more of what they wanted from their children’s school, and an increase in evacuations,” says Mette. “From personal experience, I can say that people appreciated that the FLO was willing to come and talk with them to explain the realities.  These conversations helped to establish our credentials.” 

It also was an office without a precedent. There was no history for including the support of family members in the bureaucratic structure of the State Department, so the FLO staff needed create their own operating procedures, which they did with the help of specialized offices within the Department. They also focused on creating and supporting the overseas CLOs, as well as finding and retaining reference material on divorce, employment, and education. “In other words, we were constantly finding ways to institutionalize practices which we found to be useful and indeed necessary if the material was to be available to others. However, there was no structure when we arrived. We created what we needed as we encountered the need.”

It did not take long for the FLO to establish itself. According to Mette: “We knew that we had arrived when the Under Secretary for Management wrote in a letter to me that the FLO was so well established that it was hard to realize we had been functioning for less than two years.” 

An Indispensable Office   

While the GCLO has grown — what began as an office of three now has a staff of 36, plus all the overseas, post-based CLOs — the principles and responsibilities of the original FLO remain the same: the overseas CLO program, family member employment, education counseling, evacuation assistance, and community outreach. 

GCLO now takes on much more outreach than the original office could do, in addition to providing even more services, including: expeditious naturalization, crisis management and support services, and unaccompanied tour support.

As Mette puts it: “It is enormously gratifying to realize that the Office has reached its 45th birthday and shows no signs of stopping — only of taking on ever more responsibility. Truly, I am in awe of what the Office has become.”