Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online

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Alison Palmer Papers (Ms.90.6)

Brown University Library

Box A
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Tel: 401-863-2146

Biographical note

Alison “Tally” Palmer was born in Medford, Massachusetts on November 22, 1931. She was the daughter of Lois Mead Patten Palmer and C.B. Palmer. Palmer had two siblings, David and Lois.

Alison Palmer graduated from Brown University in 1953. She went to work for the Christian Science Monitor after graduation, but was dissatisfied with her assignments. She was hired by The New York Times, but as at her previous job, found that she was assigned to cover the women's page rather than the political news she desired. In 1958 she took the exam for the Foreign Service and passed, but was told that it was the year the Service accepted a Black man and she would have to wait until the following year when a woman would be accepted. Palmer entered the Foreign Service in 1959. Her first assignment was in the Gold Coast, followed by assignment as a consul in the Belgian Congo. The Congo, considered a safe post for a woman erupted into violence not long after her arrival in 1960. As consul she handled relations between Americans and the Congolese, an explosive task in revolution. An incident involving a number of high-ranking United States officials, including Frank Carlucci, earned her national notoriety and a stint on the television program, "To Tell the Truth."

Palmer was then sent to another "safe" post -- British Guiana -- which erupted in anti-American violence. The embassy was bombed and a terrorist also tried to bomb Palmer's house while she was sleeping. She returned to the United States to obtain her master's degree in African Affairs from Boston University. American ambassadors in Africa, however, refused to accept a woman political officer. She was finally sent to Ethiopia as a political officer but found herself acting as social secretary to the ambassador's wife.

Unhappy with her work, she volunteered for Vietnam in 1968. As Chief of the Reports Branch for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) in the II Corps Tactical Zone, she compiled reports from reconnaissance missions into and through Vietcong territory for the Pentagon.

After serving with distinction, Palmer returned home to medals and a stalled investigation of her grievance of sex discrimination for her earlier African assignments. She filed the first EEO sex discrimination complaint against the State Department in 1971 and won her case in 1974. Palmer and other State Department colleagues, notably Marguerite Cooper, then filed a class action suit against the department, which the women won in 1987. She had retired in 1981.

This work is, however, only part of her life. Alison Palmer was the thirteenth woman ordained an Episcopal priest in the United States and the first woman priest to celebrate Holy Communion in the Church of England. She had received her vocation in Vietnam and began her training after her return to Washington, D.C. in 1971. She was initiated into the diaconate in 1974 and ordained in 1975. She celebrated Holy Communion in England in 1977, receiving widespread media coverage. More information about her life and work can be learned from Palmer's autobiography titled Diplomat and Priest: One Woman's Challenge to State and Church.

Her mother Lois Patten Palmer graduated from Brown in 1927. She was a kindergarten teacher in Massapequa, NY. At the age of seventy she was involuntarily retired. She filed an age discrimination suit against the school department, which she lost.