Authored by Brooke Leonard
Barbara Mae Watson was the first woman, and the first African American Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. She was first appointed on July 31, 1968, where she served until 1974, and was appointed again on April 7, 1977 (Office of the Historian, n.d.). She served under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
Throughout her time in service, Watson’s job included monitoring the implementation of laws and policies related to visas, passports, and nationality status. She also oversaw the protection of United States citizens who lived and worked abroad. One of Watson’s accomplishments in this department included authorizing post offices to accept passport applications, which saved applicants time and frustration, without any increased risk in fraud (Smith 1992).
On September 4, 1974, the Washington Star-News published an article detailing a political move to have Watson removed from her position. This ousting came originally from the Nixon administration, who desired to replace Watson, a democrat, with a republican appointee (New York Times 1983). However, according to memos exchanged between William E. Timmons and President Gerald Ford, supporters of feminists, liberals, and the African American community were outraged, as they believed she was fired on unjust grounds (Timmons 1974).
The Nixon administration succeeded in ousting Watson from her position on December 31, 1974. This followed months of controversy, which pushed her final days into Ford’s presidency. However, despite the protests surrounding the injustice of her dismissal, Watson did not resist, but remained stoic in her principles and true to her work. She continued to faithfully perform her job duties while she waited for the White House to demand her resignation.
Following her release, Watson fell back on her legal roots and practiced law while also giving lectures for International Women’s Year (Trescott 1977). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter rehired Watson as the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, where she served until September of 1980, when she left to become an ambassador for Malaysia.
According to Smith (1992, 692), during Watson’s time in public service, she was asked why she accepted such a position. Watson replied, “Because I viewed it as a challenge, not only for me personally, but for my race and my sex. I’m only a symbol of what can be accomplished. Now we move on to greater things.”
New York Times. 1983. “Barbara M. Watson Is Dead; Former U.S. Diplomat Was 64.” February 18, 1983. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/18/obituaries/barbara-m-watson-is-dead-former-us-diplomat-was-64.html.
Office of the Historian. n.d. “Barbara Mae Watson (1918-1983).” Accessed February 28, 2021. https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/watson-barbara-mae.
Smith, Jessie Carney. 1992. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit: Gale Research.
Trescott, Jacqueline. 1977. “The Watsons: A Family of Firsts.” The Washington Post, November 27, 1977. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1977/11/29/the-watsons-a-family-of-firsts/4ddb2fc6-3a0a-4052-b3f2-d8e00b61da46/.
William E. Timmons to President Gerald Ford, memorandum, 10 September 1974, box C3, The Presidential Handwriting File, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0047/phw19740910-07.pdf.