A Legacy of Service: Sylvia Blake
My father had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service and instilled in me a respect for public service and an interest in foreign affairs. Whatever good habits I have acquired as a diplomat can largely be ascribed to his and my mother’s good genes and example.”
HerDiplomacy at NMAD
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. women gaining the right to vote after decades of struggle, protest, and lobbying of state and federal governments. The right to vote was a vital step forward for women’s fuller participation in government and civil society. This participation also paved the way for increasing numbers of American women to serve their country in diplomatic capacities, representing their country at home and abroad.
With the #HerDiplomacy campaign, the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) is celebrating women in diplomacy — women who have blazed trails, negotiated peace, served alongside their partners, strengthened diplomatic relations, survived dangers, and opened doors for sharing of cultures and ideas. They have made vital contributions to our nation, but their stories remain largely unknown. Discover some of these dedicated women during Women’s History Month and throughout the year.
–Robert O. Blake, Jr., at his Senate confirmation hearing for the U.S. ambassadorship to Indonesia, September 2013
As a young girl, Sylvia Blake set sail with her parents and brothers in 1930 to Guatemala when her father, Sheldon Whitehouse, was assigned there as the U.S. Envoy. Sheldon Whitehouse served as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) for nearly 30 years around the world, including London, Caracas, Paris, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Guatemala, and Colombia. He instilled a tradition of public service in his family, even in far-flung places of hardship, for generations to come.
Sylvia’s brother Charles Whitehouse joined the Foreign Service after serving in the Navy and the Marine Corps. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Laos (1973-1975) and to Thailand (1975-1978). Prior to these assignments, he served two tours in Vietnam, first leading the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support program (CORDS) in South Vietnam in 1969, and later as the deputy to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon in 1972.
In 1990, Sylvia and Charles established the Sheldon Whitehouse Memorial Financial Aid Scholarship with the American Foreign Service Association in honor of their father. The scholarship aids children of Foreign Service families to attend college.
My wife was happy to stay in the Foreign Service. She loved it. Of course, I did, too.”
–Robert O. Blake, Sr.
Sylvia married FSO Robert Blake. A Navy veteran, Robert served in the Foreign Service from 1947 until 1977. As a Foreign Service spouse, Sylvia served alongside her husband and supported his and the entire embassy’s efforts to promote U.S. national interests abroad. Robert’s career took them to many places including Tunisia, Paris, and Leopoldville (Kinshasa), Congo, during a very tumultuous time. Robert later served as U.S. Ambassador to Mali (1971-1973).
The AID mission was actually located in Senegal. It was a difficult post for my wife and children. There was no American school there. My wife had to teach the children.”
–Robert Blake, Sr.
Spouses of FSOs are integral members of the diplomatic team abroad. Sylvia and her husband served during the era when the wife of a FSO was expected to fully support her husband in his official duties. This included frequent entertaining in her home which required great attention to detail and protocol, hosting visiting delegations, and managing the household and children while her husband worked long hours or was traveling on official business. An FSO’s wife also was expected to participate in social clubs and charity events with the other embassy wives.
Until 1972, the spouses (normally wives) of FSOs were considered government employees – though unpaid – and were therefore included in the performance evaluations of their husbands. A wife’s ability to support her husband, entertain, and maintain order at home was a determining factor in the success of her husband’s career. Though Foreign Service spouses are no longer rated on their partner’s job performance evaluation, oftentimes the expectation remains – especially if the officer is high ranking – for a spouse to actively participate in the carrying out of official duties.
He’s third generation in the Foreign Service and it’s fun for all of us because of that. I wish his grandfather had had a chance to see him in this job.”
–Robert Blake, Sr.
Sylvia’s son Robert Jr. continued the family legacy of a Foreign Service career. He served as a diplomat for over 30 years including U.S. Ambassador to Maldives and Sri Lanka (2006-2009), Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs (2009-2013), and U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia (2013-2016). Ambassador Blake also served as Deputy Chief of Mission in India, as well as other postings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and the State Department.
The Foreign Service is more than a job – it is a way of life. All members of the diplomatic family can contribute in some way to the U.S. mission abroad. Sylvia Blake carried out her role as a diplomat’s wife with expertise and grace. Her dedicated efforts, alongside her husband, built and strengthened important relationships in every country they served.