Bloomsbury, £25. Order at £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop; Bloomsbury, £25. Order at £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat by Helen McCarthy; Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes, book reviews

 

"The foreign office is not like opening a box of chocolates and you just pick what you fancy." So said an unnamed government minister to the Daily Mail in 1995, commenting on Pauline Neville-Jones's resignation from the service.

In a blaze of attention, Neville-Jones had resigned from the FO after the role she desired – number one at the Paris Embassy – went to a man six years her junior. In the ensuing storm, some newspapers cited sources that she was bossy or choosy, but many drew attention to the small number of women in the top pay grades of one to three – only five. Helen McCarthy takes on the history of women in the diplomatic service – and makes the case that women are still underrepresented in the role of representing Britain overseas.

McCarthy begins her story with the Victorian diplomatic wives, at once "everywhere and nowhere". Women presided over balls and receptions, they held salons where valuable information was exchanged, they accompanied their husbands, ran the households. And yet they were invisible, absent from minutes and accounts of embassy business.

As the service became professionalised in the early 20th century, more women entered it – but as clerks and secretaries.

Despite complaints that they were too emotional to play it cool, women were finally permitted to try for the elite stream in 1947. Unfortunately, they had to agree to resign on marriage and thus many were denied the chance to learn difficult languages such as Chinese, since the prevailing wisdom was that they would soon get engaged. Others were told that few countries respected a woman; Margaret Rothwell was refused a position in Helsinki in 1972 because, the ambassador declared, all the business was conducted by men in saunas.

It was not until 1973 that the marriage ban was overturned – and the first married female ambassador, Veronica Sutherland, was appointed in 1987. Yet still, as McCarthy eloquently argues in this important book full of brilliant vignettes, fighting to the top is usually harder for a woman. Even today, there has never been a female head of mission in Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, Delhi – or indeed Paris.

"In the battle against the world, the men get stronger, stronger in the face of enemies... we sit at home and darn socks." So were the words of Jenny, Karl Marx's wife, in 1878. This was what Marx's cherished youngest daughter, Eleanor, nicknamed Tussy, was determined to escape.

Clever, determined and quick at languages, she might have made rather a good diplomat, but her destiny was to campaign against the state, rather than support it. As a campaigner, lecturer, writer and organiser, she changed political thinking by bringing socialism to bear on feminism and vice versa, encouraging middle-class feminists to embrace the question of exploitation of women – and also children – by the capitalist state and system of the bourgeois family. With her companion, Edward Aveling, she wrote The Woman Question, as well as The Working Class Movement in America. Intellectually, Eleanor and Aveling were aligned. But he was faithless, spendthrift and deceitful. In 1898, when she was 43, she discovered he'd secretly married a young actress rather than her. Soon after, she was discovered poisoned in her bed.

Holmes raises the possibility that Aveling murdered her for her estate, but she eventually plumps for suicide and for her, it all comes back to Marx. In 1895, Engels told Eleanor that Freddy, the son of the family housekeeper, was actually Marx's. This, for Holmes, was enough to send Eleanor into a spiral of despair; a sad end for a woman who was no typical Victorian but addressed the world with typically Victorian industry.

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