After a childhood spent in France, Senegal, Madagascar and Vietnam, Suzanne Borel earned a degree in philosophy and was studying Chinese at the School of Oriental Languages when her mother sent her a clipping from Le Temps newspaper of 10 February 1928, stating that a decree had just been issued enabling women to sit the recruitment exam (concours) for a diplomatic career.
Suzanne Borel had always said that if she were a man, that was the career she would have chosen. So she quickly made up her mind to apply.
But even before the first woman had walked through the gates of the French Foreign Ministry, women’s career opportunities were severely limited. The decree stated that “under current regulations, any successful female candidates may only work at the central administration.”
But Suzanne Borel was not yet concerned with the details of her future job because she knew that she still had to overcome many obstacles just to pass the exam. Indeed when she arrived at the Ministry to sign up for the exam, an usher tried to prevent her from doing so as she had not done her military service. Then many of her friends tried to discourage her, saying she was bound to fail as she had no support or connections at the Ministry.
It was then that she decided to adopt the motto of William I, Prince of Orange, known as “William the Silent”: “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere”; and perseverance was one quality she would definitely need.
She was unsuccessful in the 1929 Grand concours, but passed the following year. At her initial meeting at the Ministry before her first actual day of work, the personnel director explained to her that she could only ever work in ancillary departments (i.e. press, the League of Nations and the Works Department which dealt with promoting the French language around the world), and that policy directorates were not an option. She was then asked to sign a pre-prepared letter acknowledging that the Ministry had the right to restrict her employment to those departments. Next, she had to face an attempt to annul the decree admitting women to the exam, after the association of Foreign Ministry officials lodged an appeal before the Conseil d’État.
This clearly illustrated the full significance of the words of her professor and friend André Siegfried, one of the few who supported her from the outset. When she went to see him after receiving her good news, he told her: “You’ve gained entry; now you have to gain acceptance”.
Suzanne Borel was assigned to the Works Department, where for nine years she excelled in her various positions, until the outbreak of World War II. She then distinguished herself in the resistance and was asked to join the private office of Foreign Minister Georges Bidault, whom she would marry sometime later.
Despite being France’s first female diplomat, in her autobiography, Par une porte entrebâillée (‘Through the half-open door’), Suzanne Borel did not see herself as a feminist, describing herself as: “Simply a woman with a taste for justice, who believes that women are more capable than conventional wisdom suggests, and that it is only fair to give them an opportunity”.
There was still a long road ahead before a woman would rise to the highest echelons but the movement was underway and more women would follow Suzanne Borel through the “half-open door”.