Tibbetts, Margaret Joy (1919—)

views updated

Tibbetts, Margaret Joy (1919—)

American diplomat and ambassador to Norway. Born on August 26, 1919, in Bethel, Maine; daughter of Raymond R. Tibbetts (a physician) and Pearl (Ashby) Tibbetts (a nurse); Wheaton College, B.A., 1941; Bryn Mawr College, M.A., 1942, Ph.D. in history, 1944.

Was a research analyst for Office of Strategic Services (1944–45); was a research analyst with U.S. Department of State, Washington (1945–49); served as attaché to the American Embassy in London (1949–51 and 1951–54); served as officer in charge, U.S. consulate general of the Belgian Congo, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa, Congo, 1954–56); served as special assistant to the director, ICA (1959–61); served as 1st secretary at the American Embassy in Brussels, Belgium (1961–65); served as U.S. ambassador to Norway (1964–69); was deputy assistant secretary, Foreign Service, Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs (c. 1969–71); became a college professor (1970s).

Diplomat, researcher and scholar Margaret Joy Tibbetts served as a career foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to assignments in England, Belgium, and the Belgian Congo, she served as ambassador to Norway from 1964 to 1969. She expressed a preference for political reporting and negotiations work over the social responsibilities attendant to representing the United States abroad, but was highly skilled in all dimensions of international diplomacy.

Tibbetts was born in Bethel, Maine, in 1919, one of three children of a country doctor and a nurse. The family had lived in Maine for 13 generations. A Phi Beta Kappa scholar at Wheaton College, she graduated summa cum laude in history in 1941. She then went to Bryn Mawr for graduate studies, receiving an M.A. (1942) and a Ph.D. in history (1944). Tibbetts' only brother had been killed in World War II, causing her to revise her plan of becoming a university professor upon completion of her Ph.D. Instead, she entered the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) as a research analyst on Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

In London (1949–54), Tibbetts worked under Frances Willis , who in 1962 would become the first woman in the foreign service to be appointed a career ambassador. Highly respected and well connected in diplomatic circles, Willis mentored the younger officer through the initial years of her career. Tibbetts, articulate and unafraid to state her point of view, emerged unscathed in London in April 1952, after Senator Joseph McCarthy's representatives, Roy Cohn and David Schine, made a disruptive visit investigating "communistic tendencies" among foreign service officers. She was next posted to the Belgian Congo, working under a consul general who traveled a great deal. When inspectors came to the embassy and discovered that Tibbetts had been the officer in charge for more than three of the previous eight months, the report

that followed praised her leadership. She later pointed to this incident as having advanced her career; placed in charge by chance, she acquired more experience in political work than most women officers.

In 1964, Tibbetts was promoted from class 2 to class 1 in the foreign service. For a woman to receive such promotion was fairly rare, but also on the same promotional list were fellow foreign service officers Katherine Bracken and Carol Laise . This marked the first time that three women had been promoted simultaneously to class 1 by the Department of State. On April 28, 1964, Tibbetts, Bracken and Laise visited the White House to meet with President Lyndon Johnson, who used the "historically unique" occasion of their promotions to publicize the achievements of women in public service. Shortly thereafter, the president announced Tibbetts' appointment as ambassador to Norway. (Two other women, Florence Harriman and Frances Willis, had previously served in that position.) During her first year as ambassador, Tibbetts escorted Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King to the award ceremony in Oslo at which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Tibbetts became fluent in Norwegian, putting herself in great demand when translation of sensitive documents was required. To avoid potential political problems with such translations all coming from one person, she also brought in Roz Ridgway to assist her. Norwegian antipathy to American involvement in Vietnam was high during Tibbetts' tenure as ambassador, but her diplomatic strategy remained simple and straightforward; her own advice to foreign service officers and potential ambassadors was to remember that they were in someone else's country, and to avoid being overly aggressive.

Tibbetts described herself as a good executive but not an administrator, and somewhat less than enamored with the socializing that high diplomatic posts require. She once noted, "The question of a woman ambassador is not, 'Is she a good woman ambassador?' but, 'Is she a good ambassador?' And that's the only point that matters." Throughout her career, Tibbetts resisted the notion that women should be confined to particular assignments. When it was suggested in the State Department that certain diplomatic posts should be reserved for women, she reacted strongly, saying that such ideas were potentially damaging both for women per se and in the larger political sense. Although she did not identify herself as a feminist, she advocated for women's rights by example. In the mid-1990s, she said of the erstwhile Federal Woman's Award, "I always felt that was an insult. You shouldn't nominate someone for being a good woman; you should nominate someone for being a good officer. The terrible thing is that most of the women who won the Federal Woman's Award were outstanding. They shouldn't have been given the Woman's Award; they should have been given the Medal of Freedom." She went on to note that the government "discontinued it about six or seven years ago because it is not consistent with the pattern of the times."

Following her term as ambassador to Norway, Tibbetts became the first woman assigned to the post of deputy assistant secretary in the Department of State, serving in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs beginning in 1969. Only two years later, at age 52, she offered her resignation in order to care for her ailing mother in Maine. At a time when male officers would have been offered a leave of absence without pay, female officers' only option was outright resignation. Tibbetts became a college professor after the death of her mother, and in 1973 began serving as the president of the historical society of her hometown of Bethel, Maine.


Morin, Ann Miller. Her Excellency: An Oral History of American Women Ambassadors. NY: Twayne, 1995.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.

About this article

Tibbetts, Margaret Joy (1919—)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article