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Trinity Magazine 2007 | A Life of Travel for Marjorie Marilley Ransom ’59

A Life of Travel for Marjorie Marilley Ransom ’59

By Judy Cabassa Tart ’78

Marjorie Marilley Ransom, a history major, graduated from Trinity in May of 1959, and earned both a master’s degree in history and a certificate in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University. She then took an intensive Arabic language class at Princeton University, where she first met her husband David, a fellow Arabic student. Upon graduation, Marjorie served with the United States Information Agency, posted to Bombay and Delhi for two and a half years. She kept in touch with David, who was serving with the Marine Corps in Okinawa. He visited her in India for a few weeks, and they decided to marry. On a blustery March afternoon in Washington, Marjorie Ransom gave me a glimpse of her 30 year career in foreign service and her life.

Ahead of Her Time

In 1965 I was dismissed (from the foreign service) because I was getting married. I couldn’t work as an officer ‘ times have changed! In 1972 they changed the rules. By then I had three children under the age of 5. I called up and asked to come back part-time and they said, ‘Oh no, the life of a diplomat is full time!’ Typical male reaction. So I went back in 1974. In looking back through the regulations there never were any written rules about it. I was told that was just the way it was. Later women in the Department of State sued, and were compensated, but I worked for USIA, and I guess they didn’t sue until later. I wrote a letter describing the number of ways in which I had been discriminated against, not just having to resign. I was taken in at a grade lower than equally qualified men; because they were married and had a family they got a higher grade. I had to go in for an oral interview, and the man who was interviewing me really was a sad character, close to retirement, and he asked me if I could take shorthand. I told him, ‘You really don’t want to ask me that question, because it doesn’t have much to do with my qualifications.’ It’s easy to forget where we were.

I recall that my cousin Jane Marilley (Class of 1944) lived in Washington and was a very successful businesswoman. When she later came to visit me overseas she confided that when she graduated she had wanted to go into the foreign service, but her dad was against it. He gave her flying lessons instead! Now when I went to Columbia (to study Arabic), my dad thought I was doing French until well into my second semester! He saw me reading a book in French at Christmas time, but it was a history of Turkey that we had to read in French. He hit the roof. It was fine to study French, teach French, get married and settle down. My first post with USIA after graduation was Jordan, and my parents came to see me off, so by then he couldn’t have been too opposed. There were some other women in other jobs, but as far as I know I was the first public affairs officer to serve in an Arab country. I never, in my whole career, ever worked for a woman. I supervised women, but that was the next generation.

My husband and I were the first tandem couple ‘ two officers ‘ both serving on the Ambassador’s team, but as heads of different agencies. David was number two to the Ambassador, sort of like the vice president, running the whole embassy. I was in charge of culture, education and press. It took the lawyers four months to decide that the only thing that would hinge on nepotism was the evaluation of my performance (which would fall under David’s jurisdiction). This was in 1975.

After three tours together, we had five years apart. We became too senior to work at the same post. David was in Washington for a year while I was in Cairo, then he served with the Ambassador to Bahrain, and that is when I moved to Syria and was Deputy Chief of Mission for two years. I remember one summer somebody in the State Department decided that no ambassadors in the gulf could take vacations. It was just an arbitrary policy. I had already arranged my home leave. Home leave is something that you get every two or three years, at least 15 work days in the United States, which is a nice chunk of time. We had planned very carefully to take ours together ‘ you have to arrange your time with the Ambassador. I had already lined up someone to cover my job while I was gone. I found out the day I was leaving that my husband wouldn’t be coming, and I had to take mine alone. That’s when I decided that I was going to curtail my tour, that it was really just too much.

We came back to Washington and in 2000 I was nominated by President Clinton to be the Ambassador to Yemen. Senator Jesse Helms was in charge of the formulation committee. He told Clinton he was not going to give him any hearings for career ambassadors because Clinton had made three recess political appointments that August. In September, twenty-six of us (diplomats) were scheduled to have hearings, and we were told ‘no hearings.’ I could have stayed in the State Department and waited to go through the whole process again the following year. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through all that again, and as it turned out it probably was a very good decision. Because of events in Yemen and world events at that time I would have had to live there for one and a half years without my husband, since there was a restriction against any dependents. My husband died in 2003, so that would have been pretty bad.

A Fascination With the Craft

So I retired happily. I did a lot of volunteer work, and in the course of things I went to a Bead Society meeting. The exhibit director was very interested in my collection. I originally had bought silver jewelry pieces to wear, and found out how they melted old silver to make new silver for brides, so the quality and the craftsmanship of the new pieces was not the same as the old.
When we first arrived in Syria we did not have our household effects. We were in an apartment with bare walls, but I always carried the jewelry with me. We had Senator Charles Matthias coming to have lunch at our house. I looked at those bare walls and thought, ‘This won’t do.’ We got the idea to hang the jewelry on the wall, so I went out and found some fabulous dark red velvet, and we covered a board and hung everything on the wall. It was simply remarkable ‘ we learned so much from looking at the pieces and comparing countries. Our Syrian friends loved it, and they were very flattered. They would never do it, but they loved the fact that a foreigner was so interested in this, and appreciated their culture. After that we became more and more addicted. Both my husband and I shared the interest, and some of my really fabulous pieces he had picked up on his trips. It really became a shared passion.

I still go to the Middle East to keep in touch with people who are involved in the craft. I buy from dealers and have been given some pieces as gifts. I very rarely buy from individuals, especially from women. The women who have or wear this jewelry are all women my age, the last ones to have really worn these things. The dealers often have very little to display, but once they know what kind of pieces you are interested in, and once you have developed a relationship with them, then certain pieces start to appear. With the situation now in Iraq, I remember I was in Amman, Jordan, perhaps two years ago, and there was a knock on the back door of the shop and it was a woman from Iraq, trying to sell her jewelry. On my upcoming trip I will meet with one of the last of the traditional silversmiths in Jordan, an expert on Palestinian jewelry. We share information, and we share support for the craft.

Experiencing Another Culture

So much has changed in the time I have been in the Middle East. I was stationed in Cairo from 1992 until 1995, and the city had become much, much more conservative than it had been when I first began. That’s true in Yemen as well. They know that the divorce rate in the United States hovers at about 50 percent, they believe that we have very loose family ties, and that women are very vulnerable. They know that women as single heads of households are one of our largest poverty groups. I find their women’s lives very constrained, restricted. We used to do that, too, we would protect women, prohibiting work in certain so-called dangerous industries. Protection often hinges on exploitation.

I have found in the Arab world that the idea of honor and hospitality is so deeply ingrained in society. If a foreigner moving among them is respectful, but also open and welcoming, you can develop great friendships that last forever. In Yemen, I spent two five-month periods from 2004 to 2006 doing research, talking with silversmiths and dealers whom I would describe as middle class. I could never begin to count the number of times I was fed, welcomed, the many times they were so frank about their families. It was simply amazing. In Washington, it’s very hard to compare because the people coming here are assigned to consulates. Americans are terribly busy, and involved with their own families. We are much slower to invite people into our homes. One of the things you learn working in the Arab world is if you really want to be friends with someone you simply have to break bread with them. I started this before I was married, but you had to be very careful about the signals you sent. Many times we all went out in a group, and it was lovely. There would be perhaps eight, ten, twelve people, a mixed group, not couples ‘ and we would party on the West Bank, or party in Jericho or go to Jerusalem. We were all always together so there was never any gossip or any issue.

We had talked about it a lot, and both my husband and I thought that we had the ideal careers. We were always happy in the work, and indeed, we were paid to go out to get to know people, and to try to bridge gaps, to try to work out compromise and improve understanding between our countries. We did it in different ways, David was doing political work, and I was mostly involved in education and cultural exchange. It was always very exciting to bring culture to those countries, and even more, to send people here to study or to travel, to experience the United States. We raised our daughters to share in our lives when possible.

At USIA we have something we call the International Visitor Program, where we bring professionals, early in their careers but somewhat established, and connect them with professionals across the United States, so that they might establish bonds that will last their entire lives. The program is still very much in effect, but since 9/11 it is more difficult to get visas for people from the Middle East.

I believe very much in international work, and international education. What has amazed me, in my more advanced age, is coming across Arabs who have studied in the United States, and the contribution that they make. It is extraordinary. They understand us, they explain us, they end up defending our policies with which they may agree or not, they buy American, and they send their kids here to study. It’s an investment that pays off in so many ways.

And in Parting

I think the lifestyle was hard for my children because they had to uproot their lives, and their friends. They never complained, but one time when they were perhaps high school age, late teens, we were on a family vacation in Turkey, away from our usual surroundings, and we devoted a family evening to a discussion about this. They thought that the plusses far outweighed the minuses. They felt very strongly about appreciating their own country from the perspective of living outside.

I have always felt it was important to participate in U.S. political life. I never missed an opportunity to vote, for it is too precious a right to be frivolous with.

One of my treasures in my advanced years is the wonderful friends I have made and kept over my career. It takes work and organization to achieve this. Our residences here and abroad were always open to people. We fed hundreds from all walks of life.

It goes without saying that a Trinity graduate will be well grounded in her faith and will live a transparent life with a strong moral compass. I advise young women to take risks when deciding on a career, to be adventurous in life, to strive for things that are hard and challenging.

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