Margaret Anstee Obituary

Dame Margaret Joan Anstee, UN official, born 26 June 1926; died 25 August 2016

The following text is adapted from the Obituary by Edward Mortimer CMC, Distinguished Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford. Originally published in the Newnham College Roll Letter 2017.

Dame Margaret Anstee was one of the most colourful figures in the history of the United Nations, proving over and over again that a woman can succeed in a man’s world without sacrificing her principles, her sense of humour, or her femininity. She had a whole string of “firsts” to her name, of which the most often cited perhaps does her least justice, because it is the most bureaucratic: she was the first female staff member to reach the rank of Undersecretary-General, which she did in 1987 when she became head of the UN’s “third headquarters”, the office in Vienna. 

She is still remembered in that city with great affection, but her most spectacular exploits occurred in other places and countries. First hired as a local staff member in Manila in 1952, she went on to serve in several countries in Latin America, but also in Ethiopia, Morocco and finally Angola where, as head of an understaffed and underfunded UN peacekeeping mission, she oversaw the 1992 elections and tried desperately, but in the end unsuccessfully, to prevent the country sliding back into civil war.

In between, she held important posts in Geneva and New York, as well as Vienna, struggling to introduce greater coherence and rationality into the UN’s rambling technical assistance machinery, but always happier when working in the field to help the world’s poorest and most suffering peoples. Her competence and calmness under fire (both literal and metaphorical), her willingness to live, work and travel in the most uncomfortable circumstances, and her ability to make friends wherever she went, were grudgingly but increasingly recognised by her superiors. Successive Secretaries-General turned to her for the most arduous trouble-shooting missions.

Earlier she had had a brief career in the British Foreign Office; in 1955 she was shortlisted to succeed Denis Healey as international secretary of the Labour Party; and in 1967-8 she served as deputy (and briefly successor) to Thomas Balogh when he headed Harold Wilson’s personal “think tank” in Number Ten.

Margaret Joan Anstee was born in 1926 in the Essex village of Writtle, near Chelmsford, where her father worked for a local printer. Her mother had been in domestic service in Herefordshire before she married. Both parents, having had to leave school at 14 and 12 respectively, “deeply resented the lack of further education” and “determined to have only one child, and to ensure it the best education they could manage”.

They succeeded. Despite a horrific series of illnesses, and the conviction of the village school headmistress “that country children were not as intelligent as our town counterparts, and that those of us who had the misfortune to be female were even less so”, Margaret progressed to Chelmsford County High School for Girls and eventually, after learning Spanish in three months at the age of 17 in defiance of the school authorities, to read Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she got a First, but also displayed the social and technical skills that were to stand her in good stead in her future career. Invited to an Oxford commem ball, in the days of post-war clothes rationing, she kitted herself out in a dress “made from a surplus military parachute of white nylon, then a totally new fabric”. 

After a year lecturing in Spanish at Queen’s University, Belfast, she joined the Foreign Office, which had just been opened to women, in 1948. To her delight she was assigned to the South American Department, only to find “that it was Foreign Office policy never to send a woman diplomat to Latin America, for fear she would succumb to the wiles of “some passionate Latino”. 

A similar logic (or lack of it) required women diplomats to resign if they got married. Anstee’s brief and unhappy marriage to a Foreign Office colleague thus brought her own career as a British diplomat to a premature end, but also accidentally launched her UN career, since she found herself in the Philippines with time on her hands, and needing money to pay her fare home. 

This led eventually to a series of postings as UN representative – in Colombia (1956-7), Uruguay and Argentina (1957-9), Bolivia (1960-5), Ethiopia (1965-7), Morocco (1969-72) and most traumatically Chile (1972-4), where she witnessed the coup against Allende. Many people she had worked with were killed or tortured, and she found herself engaged in a desperate battle to rescue members of her own staff, as well as foreigners who had taken refuge in Chile from authoritarian regimes elsewhere.

In all these countries she became a trusted adviser to the government on economic policy, devising and implementing many development projects, but was also a shrewd observer of the foibles and eccentricities both of local officials and of her UN colleagues and bosses. In 1968-70, working with Robert Jackson (“Jacko”) – who became her life partner until his death in 1991 – she produced perhaps the best argued most comprehensive plan for rationalising and streamlining the UN’s development work that there has ever been. Alas, like so many UN reform plans before and since, its implementation was largely blocked by a coalition of vested interests in the Secretariat and in national governments.

After retirement in 1993, Anstee divided her time between her beloved Bolivia, where she built herself a house on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and her mother’s home county of Herefordshire, where she shared a beautiful house and garden on the Welsh border with her aunt Christina, who died in 2000.

Both her personality and her achievement are well expressed in the title she chose for her highly entertaining autobiography, “Never Learn to Type”, which should be required reading for all new recruits to the UN, irrespective of gender or nationality. Throughout her life she rebuffed attempts (of which there were many) to confine her to roles considered appropriate and “safe” for a woman to undertake. She knew she had far more to offer than that, and no glass ceiling could long hold her down.