Irreplaceable Lesley Dorman, by Mette Beecroft

Lesley Dorman was an ardent and faithful member of the AAFSW (Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide) for almost fifty years. From 1976 to 1981, she served as AAFSW’s President. Her record of service has never been equaled. She died at Sibley Memorial Hospital on August 19, 2016, not long before her 96th birthday.

Biographic Information: Lesley was born on November 17, 1920 in the town of Chalfont St. Giles in the county of Buckinghamshire, a beautiful and historic area near London. Her childhood was a happy one, even if she entered boarding school at the age of ten and a half. She adored her mother, a suffragette who raced automobiles as a hobby. Her mother served as role model for Lesley, showing her daughter that if groups of women worked together, they could accomplish a great deal. Her parents frequently received distinguished guests, with the result that Lesley learned early on to converse with well informed people older than she about a variety of topics. If she was unfamiliar with the subject, she learned how to engage by asking questions. These childhood experiences gave her strong confidence in her own abilities, which at a much later date served her well in her interactions with senior management at the Department of State and elected representatives on the Hill.

Lesley was extremely proud of her service as a “WREN” — the popular and official name for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the women’s branch of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. The “WRENs” were first created in 1917 in connection with Britain’s effort in World War I. They were disbanded in 1919, then reconstituted in 1939 as part of Britain’s effort in World War II. It was at this point that Lesley joined the WRNS. As a “WREN,” she was stationed at Hyde Park in London, where she served as part of an anti-aircraft group whose task it was to shoot down German warplanes.

In 1950, Lesley married Philip Francis Dorman, an American Foreign Service Officer serving at Embassy London, where they remained for four years. Some of their early postings were in Africa, where Lesley took an active interest in the local community, either by becoming involved in existing projects or creating new ones herself. In fact, a cooperative which she organized and developed to encourage the production of local handicrafts in Lusaka, Zambia continued to function many years after Lesley departed.

Beginnings of Engagement at the Department of State: After Lesley and Philip returned to Washington in 1971, it soon became clear that she would not be content to sit back and observe the Foreign Service community from a distance. She always retained a sense of outrage and justice, and did not like to see people treated unfairly. Nor did she stand quietly by when a bureaucratic process did not function as it should. She was courageous, brave, and unafraid to speak out, even if she knew that her point of view would disturb some people. She also understood that sometimes one had to be both patient and tenacious, because challenging situations often required sustained effort if they were to be changed or rectified.

Lesley’s understanding of how bureaucracies function (including the Department of State) was well in advance of her time. She realized that a struggle would be necessary if family members were to be considered as individuals with particular needs, not as inanimate objects. A positive person by nature, she strove to ensure that the bureaucracy used its power to make things happen, not prevent things from happening. She understood that bureaucracies tend to be inflexible unless individuals apply pressure for positive change. Finally (and this was very important in the development of the FLO), she understood that the AAFSW’s goal should be to insert a non-bureaucratic office in a bureaucratic structure. As we used to say, “The FLO is IN the bureaucracy but not OF the bureaucracy.”

Given Lesley’s leadership qualities and concern for the Foreign Service Community, it was not a surprise when she was elected AAFSW President in 1976, a job which she performed with great distinction for a record five years. Those years were enormously intense historically and very productive for the AAFSW.

An Era of Change: Historically, it was a period when the expectations of many women were changing dramatically. In the Foreign Service, the so-called “ ‘72 Directive” stated for the first time that a wife overseas was a private individual who could not be directed to attend representational functions or prepare refreshments in support of such occasions. Nor could she be mentioned or evaluated as part of her husband’s Efficiency Report. (Previously, wives had been evaluated in the infamous Part B of the efficiency report, which neither the employee nor the wife were allowed to see.) This new independence of Foreign Service wives, who began to be referred to as spouses, provided the impetus for the first expression of many concerns and complaints about the Foreign Service.

Election to the Presidency of AAFSW; the FORUM: In this supercharged atmosphere, Lesley was elected the President of the AAFSW in 1976. One of her first acts was to take the lead in creating the AAFSW FORUM, which became the Association’s “think tank.” She later co-authored a short history of the AAFSW (1960 to 1990) with a colleague, in which they wrote: “Arguably, the most important of AAFSW contributions to the Foreign Service community may well be the founding of the FORUM in 1976.” This new branch of the AAFSW sought to identify the major concerns that people had begun to express about life in the Foreign Service. For the first time, clusters of issues were identified: (1) family life, including education of children and medical care; (2) the modern Foreign Service wife, including spousal employment, the formation of a skills bank, and the representational function; (3) orientation, including training for spouses; (4) re-entry issues; and (5) women in transition, through retirement, the death of a spouse, or divorce.

Recommendation to Establish the Family Liaison Office: Still in 1976, the FORUM, under Lesley’s tutelage, sent out 9,000 questionnaires, asking people overseas to assess the impact of the Foreign Service on family members in the five clusters of concern mentioned above. Based on the replies, members of the FORUM, chaired by Lesley, wrote the “Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families,” which was presented to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in March of 1977. The Report contained eleven recommendations, the second of which was to establish the Family Liaison Office (FLO). Secretary of State Vance responded personally to the recommendations. Addressing the FLO proposal, he wrote, “The concept is a good one and I support it… I believe that we should establish FLO or its equivalent with all deliberate speed.” Subsequently, Lesley engaged in numerous conversations with the Secretary of State, the Under Secretary for Management, the Director General of the Foreign Service, and the Directors of USAID and USIA to ensure that their agencies’ concerns were taken into consideration. Once more, Lesley showed her understanding of State Department bureaucratic realities when she insisted that the new Family Liaison Office be administratively placed directly under the Under Secretary for Management, rather than at a lower level.

“Mother FLO”: From the outset, and to the surprise of some inside the Department of State, the FLO was a resounding success. Today, people comment that the FLO changed the face of the Foreign Service. Until very recently, Lesley continued her active support of the FLO. To many veterans, she was known as “Mother FLO,” in tribute to her consummate skill in managing the complex creation process before the FLO opened in March of 1978.

Other Involvement – the OBC: Lesley’s engagement did not stop with her involvement in setting up the Family Liaison Office. While AAFSW President, she also supported the creation of the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC), to provide a source of information that employees and families could consult on posts overseas before they completed their bid lists and before actually arriving at post.

Family Finances: In 1979, under Lesley’s tutelage, the FORUM contributed two more special reports. Information collected by FORUM members indicated that many women had no concept of their family’s financial situation and no knowledge of the realities of credit, property rights, and USG red tape that they would encounter if they became widowed or divorced. In response, in 1979 the FORUM published “Legal and Economic Implications of USFS Life for Wives” – the first such document ever produced.

Spouse Employment: When it came to employment for spouses, Lesley was years ahead of her time. In March 1979, she wrote to the Secretary of State: “Because of the high priority of the employment issue, we wish to submit this [FORUM] report separately…” In April, Secretary Vance replied: “I agree that this is an area where we must improve our record if we are to be able to recruit and hold the best men and women in the Service.” The report confirms how early the FORUM (and the FLO) understood the extreme importance of spouse employment. It also reminds us of how difficult it has been to make progress in this area.

Foreign Service Act of 1980: The year 1980 brought more challenges. At the end of the 1970s, the Administration undertook to revise the Foreign Service Act for the first time since 1946. In order to enable the AAFSW to participate in the deliberations and ensure that the interests of Foreign Service spouses and families were considered, the Board of the AAFSW registered as a bona fide lobbying group. Consequently, Lesley and others were able to accept invitations of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to testify on the Hill. She also presented testimony at the 1979 White House Conference on Families. Divorce was becoming more common. Foreign Service spouses found themselves deprived of adequate funds to live, and some even faced poverty in their old age. Through networking and testimony, the AAFSW was able to get a clause inserted in the Foreign Service Act of 1980 that stipulated that the”… Foreign Service pension be equally divided by spouses upon divorce unless an agreement or court order existed to the contrary.”

International Crises: During the last two years of Lesley’s presidency of the AAFSW, a new area of concern appeared. The Iran hostage crisis lasted from 1979 to 1981. It quickly became obvious that the USG needed to establish better support for diplomatic families in times of international emergency. The FORUM started work on a report entitled “Families in Situations of International Crisis.” In addition, with Lesley’s encouragement, the FORUM established fruitful cooperation with the Overseas Briefing Center (OBC) that produced “What do I Do Now? A Sourcebook on Regulations, Allowances and Finances” — a volume still in use today.

The Dorman Award: Lesley remained deeply loyal to the AAFSW. To reflect this, in 1993, the Association created the Dorman Award in her honor, to recognize AAFSW volunteers who had given exceptional sustained support to the AAFSW in all its endeavors. In addition to serving as President for five years, she also served as the AAFSW Program Chair, the Housing Office Chair and the Public Relations Chair. Even when it became difficult for her to move about, she insisted on remaining engaged and often attended AAFSW Board meetings.

In Appreciation: Lesley will always be remembered with admiration and affection. Even when she was involved in thorny discussions, she was not “all work and no play.” She loved tennis, both as player and spectator—especially the matches at Wimbledon. From time to time, she would say: “We need a good giggle!” This would mean no shop talk and going out for lunch — or even on one memorable occasion for high tea, when two of us were invited to join her at the Mayflower Hotel. She will be deeply missed as an unfailingly loyal and fascinating friend with a wonderful sense of humor. But she will also be missed as an irreplaceable driving force who, through the AAFSW, did an enormous amount to improve the quality of life of Foreign Service spouses and families. Her legacy is an inspiration to all of us.

Lesley is survived by her husband of 65 years, Philip Dorman, and her sons Mark (Susan Boren) and Tim (Suzanne Ricklin).

Mette Beecroft
September 2016