Portrait of the girl from Sarnia who became Britain’s first woman diplomat
R. T. ELSON
THE first woman in the British Commonwealth ever to be given full diplomatic status by the British Foreign Office is a minister’s daughter from Sarnia, Ontario.
Fourteen years ago Mary Agnes Craig McGeachy went to Europe intending to stay for a brief period doing postgraduate work. But Europe can do things (or could in those days) for a minister’s daughter.
The other day in Washington, Lord Halifax, the British ambassador, announced that Whitehall—which had long jealously guarded the field of diplomacy as being exclusively man’s domain —had named the same Mary Agnes Craig McGeachy First Secretary of Britain’s most important embassy.
This latest promotion followed a career which started in 1928 with a visit to European Student Relief organizations in France, Austria, Hungary, Czecho-Slovakia and Germany, took the Sarnia girl to a post with the Information Section of the permanent secretariat of the League of Nations in Geneva, then to the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London and, finally, to the embassy in Washington.
Craig McGeachy—her friends call her by her mother’s name—was already one of the bestknown career women in the American capital when she was elevated to the diplomatic service. She didn’t plan to become a diplomat; she hasn’t planned her future now.
“I’ve been lucky,” she insists to her friends, “because I’ve always had interesting work todo.” But you can discount that luck when you count upon the fingers of two hands the women who have won diplomatic status. People who write about her are always tempted to speak of that touch of glamour which she undoubtedly has, but they are inclined to forget that it is as a woman of ideas that Craig McGeachy has won recognition. She has never been afraid to admit it and unlike some career women she hasn’t felt it necessary to be self-assertive about it either.
But certainly luck, ideas, and the fact that she is an attractive woman helped her on the way to Washington. For without all three she might today be interned in a German concentration camp. It happened this way.
She was acting-director of the Information Section of the League of Nations from February to July, 1940. She was then living in a tiny Swiss farmhouse within sight of the German-French lines.
Escape By Bus
IMMEDIATELY after the fall of France, the League had to leave its quarters in Geneva. Craig McGeachy took on the job of evacuating some British and American women who were still on the League’s staff. The French Government had all but abdicated. No trains were running so the League chartered a bus. Permits for her party to cross France had expired but Craig McGeachy had exit-permits and had booked passage on American
ships from Lisbon; so she determined to go through.
The Germans had overrun the armistice line. From one village to the next, as her party passed through a disorganized France, Craig McGeachy could not be sure whether the bus in her charge might not be seized by the Nazis. The American girls might have been all right but the British girls might have been interned.
So they followed one country road after another, jounced and jostled their way into Spain, then on to Lisbon. She remembers being stopped now and then by French officers who looked a little dubiously at the expired permits but always let them go on. She doesn’t admit to a special talent for diplomacy
but she is an attractive and persuasive woman—and there’s proof of it.
Finally all her party were aboard ship at Lisbon. She stood there on the dock with her fully paid-up passage in her handbag. Her friends thought she was crazy, letting the boat pull away without her. With a sigh she went back to her hotel, only to be awakened in the night and told a plane for London was waiting.
She had a war job there.
The war job to which she was flown that night was in the public relations division of the Ministry of Economic Warfare.
They wanted her because as a result of ten years’ work with the League she was an expert on Europe; she knew the Europe not only of the League, the international conferences, but also of the little people down under.
For any number of good reasons Craig McGeachy can’t talk much about her work in Economic Warfare. But it was important. More important than most people realize.
Britain’s armies had been shattered on the Continent but there were two major weapons left—the Navy and economic warfare, which was little understood by the people who didn’t clearly understand the war itself those days.
There were two information problems: one was how to make the people on the Continent, our former Allies, understand why the blockade must apply against them and the other was to explain it to the British people without giving away details of a type of warfare that must operate secretly if it is to be effective.
Via the underground, word came to London—from the people on the Continent who really understood.
“Don’t send us food,” they said, “We understand. It is important to bring us freedom.” So with this background Craig McGeachy was given the assignment of explaining British policy. She doesn’t believe that the real war effort of the people in the occupied countries will ever be appreciated— the privation they have endured and the sacrifices they have had to make and been glad to make for freedom.
At that time she worked days and most of the night—and those were the nights of the blitz on London. One night she slept at her office; next day when she went back to find her house there was no trace of it. A direct hit had levelled a section of the neighborhood.
Helped With Churchill Speech
PERHAPS the most significant and exciting phase of that London period for her and members of the section in which she was working was the formulating of British policy toward occupied Europe. The people in Economic Warfare felt that a positive outlook was needed. The section actually had a hand in preparing a draft of one
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 10
of the most important paragraphs in a Churchill speech. It was his declaration that Britain would feed the occupied countries the moment the Nazis were beaten back.
To her, even more important than the declaration of policy, was the immediate steps that the Britishemdash; who, at that moment were standing alone, on short rations themselves and expecting invasionemdash;took to implement that policy. They started stock-piling food for the Continent.
Some of this food later was shipped to Russia; hut has since been replaced by other shipments. Food for the Continent is available when the Nazis withdraw.
Craig McGeachy decided she could believe in people like that.
The Ministry of Economic Warfare sent her to Washington in Decepifyer, 1940, to be its public relations ¡officeremdash;attached to the British çjrtbassy but without diplomatic status. Her assignment was to answeç questions and make studies on economic warfare. That was a
bad time in Washington. You would have had to have been there to understand how really bad it was.
The Neutrality Act had not been repealed. President Roosevelt had not yet inaugurated lend-lease. The Germans argued that a Nazi victory was inevitable. Any attempt to explain the British position was twisted by the isolationists into propaganda. But Craig McGeachy was able to speak where others couldn’t.
She had many friends in the United States. They wanted to know about Britain and they asked her to talk about the women of Britain. Invitations poured inemdash;from Los Angeles to Boston. Sometimes now she wonders if she didn’t spend most of her time in planes.
Yet daily she continued to make private studies on economic subjects for Economic Warfare at home. Her days and nights were mainly work. American official circles paid her the compliment of commandeering her expert knowledge. Surgeon General Parran asked her to speak with him at the opening of a nutrition conference. With Paul V. McNutt, Federal Security Administrator and now Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, she lectured at an important meeting on agriculture in wartime.
Later when her friends, Mrs. Roosevelt, and Mrs. Henry Morgenthau, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury, were organizing the Office of Civilian Defense in the United States they drew on Miss McGeachy’s knowledge of Britain’s experience. One night she received a personal call from Mrs. Roosevelt asking her to come that night to the White House and speak on civilian defense. She thought it would be a small gathering. When she arrived there were 700 people filling the ballroom.
Work And More Work
BUT her schedule after the appointment as First Secretary is much the same as it was beforeemdash; work and more work. She does most of the jobs she always did with a few more added. Modestly she says: “Yes they were very kind to me in giving me that title, First Secretary ...”
She lives in a little house on Thirty-Second Street in Georgetown, the oldest part of Washington. This section goes back to revolutionary days. It is a curious mixture of smartness and semi-slum. But it is an interesting place to liveemdash;one favored by diplomats, who like a touch of Bohemia. Her house is small and pleasant. Some negro children who live a few doors away were playing in the street in front of her house the day I called. Looking out at them she said:
“You know I like it here. I like it because I like villages and this reminds me of a village.”
But she doesn’t pretend to long for quiet and retirement. She likes the quiet of her own home after work. If she didn’t have her present job she would like to write. After the War she wants to go back to work on relief and rehabilitation in Europe. She has a personal interest in such relief because it was to study European Student Relief that she went
abroad in 1928emdash;for the two months that stretched into a career.
European Student Relief was a plan for the maintenance of hostels for students and teachers whereby learning was kept alive during the years of inflation, revolution and want. She saw what well organized relief could do and she learned what “postwar” meant. This experience, she believes, has enabled her to foresee some of the problems coming up.
These problems she believes can be solved by democracyemdash;by our system, in which Craig McGeachy has a passionate faith.
To her it is a way of life. She rejects the argument that the totalitarian systems command the dynamic forces. She thinks that Hitler’s failure was revealed after the conquest of France, when, instead of being able to offer the people of Europe life, he could offer only a regime of death.
Democracy is life. Britain, she thinks, has the answer. Never has any people been so regimented or controlled as the British under the stress of war. But what has happened is quite marvellous. There has never been a time when such individual initiative and sacrifice has been shown by the people.
She comes by this belief honestly. There are behind her three generations of preachers on her father’s side. Her great-grandfather and her grandfather carried the word of God to the country north of Sudbury in Ontario; worked in Huron and Bruce counties, too. Her maternal grandfather came from Islay in Scotland within sight of Ailsa Craig emdash;and founded the village of Ailsa Craig, in Ontario. He was an engineer, retiring in later years to a farm and there in that village her mother, Anna Jeanette Craig, was born.
Her background, therefore, is like that of so many other Scottish-Canadian familiesemdash;families which have been rooted in the land but counted it an honor to give.at least one son to the church. The pattern has been varied now by the daughter who has become a diplomat.
Although she has lived most of her life abroad, Craig McGeachy’s roots are still deep in Sarnia where she was born on November 7, 1904. Her father, Reverend Donald McGeachy, and her mother still live in Sarnia. She has a brother, now a lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Engineers overseas, and two sistersemdash;Jessie (Dr. Jessie McGeachy) and Donalda, a nurse, both in Toronto.
Took Top Honors
HER SARNIA childhood was not much different from that of any Canadian girl, or any Canadian minister’s daughter. It was pleasant, with emphasis on the right things. She didn’t see a movie until after she had started to university; books were a more than satisfactory substituteemdash;and still are. At the Sarnia Collegiate she took top honors because, she says, Sarnia had good teachers. She recalls that the school was always producing scholarship winners and champion football teams. Craig McGeachy won the Ontario Scholarship and for this she credits exceptional teachers, particularly the
late D. M. Grant in classics and the late Miss Gladys Storey in history.
Miss McGeachy went up to Toronto University at the age of sixteen with the choice of taking her scholarship in either history or biology, and she maintains that the combination isn’t so odd at that. But her plans were already made before enrolling at Toronto, plans for becoming a teacher; so she switched to history and philosophy. She graduated in 1924, then studied at the Ontario College of Education for another year.
In 1926 and 1927 she served on the teaching staff of one of the high schools in Hamilton and it was from that position that she decided, in June, 1928, to go to Europe for further study.
When her postgraduate assignment to the European Student Relief expired she learned that a Dominion’s post in the League was open. She stood for it and won a place on the permanent secretariat. Her appointment dated from July, 1930—lasted until July, 1940. She was in charge of contacts with Canada in the information section, during which she used to travel three months every year in the Dominion; later she represented the Secretary-General of the League at many international conferences. From February until July in that critical year 1940 she was acting director of the information section.
In Geneva she lived not among the foreign colony but as a Swiss, among the people. She had a little place on the Bourg de Four and later a little farmhouse at Valana, just outside the city. She had there a collection of Canadian paintings, notably of the Group of Seven and so far as she knows they are still there.
Paintings aren’t the only things Miss McGeachy has collected. Her Swiss home was also filled with antique French furniture. Now, in Washington, she is responding to the collector’s urge by gathering quite an interesting assortment of rare china and pottery.
She has no hobbies in the strict sense of the word—no side line on which she pretends to be an authority. Her interest in most things is keen, but she refuses to have it centred in any one pursuit.
She plays an excellent game of tennis, swims and rides when she can get the chance, and is a good skier. Her love of skiing was indulged to the full during the years she spent in Switzerland,
Looking back on the League, which she knew so intimately she feels that it did not fail. The machinery of the League she insists is still a good pattern. But it is not enough to set up machinery for a better world. If we are going to make a decent way of life we shall have to work at it. She feels that we didn’t work hard enough at it last time.
Her idealism is one of her dominating characteristics. Her friends recall that she once wanted to have seven children. Now she feels that perhaps she can do something for the children of the world.
She means it. She is that kind of a person.