For nearly 25 years Joanne Vaughn ran errands, led VIP tours, baked cookies, joined American community clubs, helped out local charities, sat on reviewing stands, filled in at dinner parties, entertained the natives and, generally, in the name of the United States of America, flew the flag throughout Latin America and Africa.
She got a "report card" for her performance and her husband, rising steadily through the Foreign Service to the rank of ambassador, got the paychecks, the promotions and the pension.
"I thought my job was sustaining his and that together we were working for a common cause," she says.
Then 10 years ago all that ended when Joanne Vaughn's husband, former Peace Corps director Jack Hood Vaughn, told her he wanted a divorce. Suddenly at age 48 Joanne Vaughn was on her own. She had two college-age daughters, some alimony and Hodgkin's dieases.
Like a growing number of Foreign Service wives over age 40 whose marriages, after 20 or 30 years, end in divorce, she had to her credit countless hours of volunteer and representational work abroad but no paid job history.
Unlike women whose husbands were in non-diplomatic fields, Foreign Service wives were not permitted to pursue careers or have jobs during overseas assignments with their husbands. Like it or not, their husbands' careers were their careers. They and, indeed, the entire family were "goodwill ambassadors" expected by the State Department to devote time, talent and, as sometimes was the case, no' few tears in the name of God, country and patriotism.
Joanne Vaughn and several other ex-Foreign Service wives talked about it to reporters the other day. They stories of failed marriages and uncertain futures drew attention to the Foreign Service Act (HR 6790) coming to the floor of the House tomorrow after 15 months and dozens of hours of hearings and negotiations.
Called jointly by the Association of American Foreign Service Women, Women's Action Organization, Womens's Equity Action League, Federally Employed Women and United Methodists, the session included the support of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who is sponsoring the bill, Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).
Schroeder said that although Social Security was amended in 1965 to provide benefits to divorced spouses, federal retirement plans have not been updated. Moreover, Foreign Service spouses are not entitled to the basic protections of Social Security.
The bill, offering what Schroeder calls "a reasonable solution to the problem," would entitle Foreign Service spouses married at least 10 years to a share of the retirement and survivors annuities, based on the number of years of marriage during the entire career. Divorce courts could adjust or reject the formula on the individual merits of each case. Divorced spouses, however, would be entitled to a share of survivor benefits according to years of marriage.
Schroeder, Spellman and Leach opposed an amendment offered by Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) as "a weakening" effort that would "simply permit the courts to divide both the retirement and survivors benefits without any federal guidance."
Schroeder said recent cases of nofault divorces indicate inadequate protection for homemakers. "Although there are at least 100 divorced Foreign Service spouses," the congresswoman continued, "only one has been awarded a portion of the retirement benefits by the courts."
For Joanne Vaughn, working up any "economic viability" was impossible as the Vaughns moved between such countries as Chile, Colombia, Senegal and Panama. An Elizabethan literature major, she had married Vaughn right out of the University of Michigan. She had spent most of her life at U.S. missions overseas where she was expected to "volunteer" her services -- but never get paid for them. "You were indoctrinated as a team, a kind of plantation philosophy, and it was considered very bad form not to enter in," she says.
When her marriage ended in 1970, she had little prospect of getting a job. The work she and other wives performed was "so specialized, so unique" that it has been difficult for some to translate it into today's terms.
"There isn't much an ambassador's wife can do," she says.
In her day, at least, Foreign Service was a career "where you had to have a wife -- she was the enabler, the supporter, did all the representation. It was marriage in a service that isn't very good for women, a gender-based caste system in which there was a phenomenon of power that had to do with artificial power but which became very material eventually."
The Foreign Service expected a lot from these wives, she says. "and when we were divorced, the Foreign Service just dusted off its hands."
Shortly after her divorce she suffered another attack of Hodgkin's (lymphatic cancer). Now in reission, her condition is monitored regularly by doctors at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she lives. She has been advised against full-time work but recently she got a job as a library security guard earning $3.50 an hour.
Sitting at a table in an almost empty congressional committee room, Joanne Vaughn projects an unmistakable feeling of irony. In an old newspaper clipping she is pictured in white gloves, pearls and an elaborate coiffure, but it bears little resemblance to the Joanne Vaughn of 1980. Her still-youthful face is framed by newly tight curls (her first paycheck as security guard went for a new hairdo, her second will go for eyeglasses, her third for the dentist). Her ample figure is draped in shapeless cotton print. t
She wears a faint smile thinking back to how it had never occurred to her in 1970 to demand her share of Jack Vaughn's government pension or survivor benefits. Nobody thought about such things then. Besides, being what she calls "the traditional wife," she would never have thought to challenge her husband's proprietorship. "It was his -- he earned it," she says.
For her, she says, "divorce was a radicalizing experience. I just never thought about those issues then."
Almost apologetic that it may sound too "sentimental" today, Joanne Vaughn says she and Jack Vaughn and others like them were "idealistic, committed and concerned" as they went about their work in developing parts of the world. She was "thrilled" that her husband wanted to be in the Foreign Service.
"This was not the era of the '60s but of the '40s," she says. "We were not critical of our country -- rather, there was a sense of urgency, a sense of hope. My feeling was that I was supporting this endeavor and I was very glad to be a part of it."
There were, of course, those "report cards," the comments she received from wives of her husband's superiors about whether she was a good Foreign Service wife. (In 1972, the State Department did away with the efficiency rating of families and no longer required spouses to donate free labor.) She says she never once felt resentful over the fact that she wasn't allowed to work.
"I thought I was working," she says.
When Vice President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson visited Dakar, Joanne Vaughn remembers thinking how proud she was over what the U.S. mission had accomplished in the short time since Senegal had become an independent nation -- "community outreach programs and community development programs. And I was assisting other Americans in getting settled, helping the wife of the new Sendegalese president with her charities -- that was my work."
Then in 1970 Vaughn, a former assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, whom Richard Nixon named ambassador to Colombia, asked her for a divorce. "I thought, frankly, that I would have Hodgkin's and die. Well, I had Hodgkin's but I rallied."
Calling herself "a drop-out in society," Joanne Vaughn claims that she likes her life today because it makes her feel "contemporary." She remembers that "reentry" was difficult because there was no orientation course offered by the State Department for divorced spouses -- although it does provide retiring Foreign Service officers and their families with training opportunities in new job skills and makes a job bank available to them.
"Women like me are discarded and junked by the Department, thrown on a scrap heap of obsolescence even though we were professional wives for the service," she says.
Looking back, she sees now that in the Foreign Service "one deals with certain special groups only and this doesn't teach you anything that has to do with real life." And in her more contemporary view of things now, "real life," for instance, is expressing annoyance "with my government because the pension annuity and medical benefits go to the new wife."
At one point during the press conference, she interrupted another speaker to offer a mild rebuke to all of the wives for not placing more emphasis on what each of them had contributed to the equity of their husbands' retirement incomes. And while Joanne Vaughn will gain nothing form her exhusband's retirement benefits since the bill provides no retroactivity, she and the others would be entitled to pro-rata shares of survivor annuities.
Meanwhile, she says, "It seems unfair that my work, which was Foreign Service too, is for nothing."