Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Elizabeth Cox, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Barbara Angus was one of New Zealand’s earliest woman diplomats, and its first female ambassador to head a bilateral post. Initially working as an historian, Angus joined the Department of External Affairs as a researcher at a time when few women held positions of influence or authority in the organisation. She gradually worked her way up the ladder, and was appointed ambassador to the Philippines in 1978.
Barbara Angus was born in Woodville on 15 January 1924, the second of three children of Cora Florence Webber and her husband, bank manager Archibald Douglas Angus. Archibald was frequently posted to different parts of the country, and Angus attended several South Island primary schools and later South Otago High School in Balclutha. She then attended the University of Otago, completing a Master of Arts in history in 1945, and the following year undertook a postgraduate teaching course at Auckland Teachers’ Training College.
In 1947 Angus returned to Dunedin and was involved with writing a centennial history of Otago. The following year she moved to Wellington, and from 1948 until 1950 she was a research assistant in the War History Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs. During that time she wrote a number of ‘civilian narratives’ about the social history of New Zealand during the Second World War, particularly on different aspects of women’s experience.
Department of External Affairs
In 1950 Angus was appointed to a research position in the Department of External Affairs (later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Despite their university degrees, she and most other women in the department remained employed in the administrative section; it was not until the 1970s that women were recruited into the diplomatic service on the same terms as men. She later said that until she was around 40 she made virtually no progress up the ranks of the organisation, lagging about 15 years behind men who joined the department at the same time as her. Even when posted to her first position overseas, as an information officer at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC (1954–57), she did not have diplomatic status. One of her functions there was to write a monthly newsletter for New Zealanders living in the United States and Canada, giving them news from home.
Angus entered the diplomatic stream in 1958, when she was appointed Third Secretary; at that point there were only five women diplomats compared to 59 men. From there she served in increasingly senior posts in New Zealand’s embassies and consulates in Singapore (1962–64), Sydney (1964–68) and Kuala Lumpur (1972–75), interspersed with home postings to Wellington. The Sydney posting was particularly important as she was appointed to set up and head New Zealand’s new consular office there. Being in charge of her own office gave her confidence to further advance her career.
In 1976 she was appointed Minister in New Zealand’s Washington DC embassy, meaning she was second in charge; she had previously served in the embassy’s most junior post, and had never thought she would return in such a senior position.
During these postings she represented New Zealand at a number of important international events, sometimes as the country’s sole representative. She was the only woman diplomat present at celebrations to mark the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, and she was New Zealand’s representative at the 1965 United Nations Seminar on the Participation of Women in Public Life in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
In 1978 Angus became New Zealand’s first woman ambassador when she was appointed to head New Zealand’s embassy in the Philippines (1978–81). At that time the Philippines was New Zealand’s third largest Asian trading partner, and New Zealand’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which the Philippines was an important member, was growing in importance. Her appointment was welcomed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Brian Talboys, who described her as one of New Zealand’s ‘most able and experienced professional diplomats’.1 She was hailed as a ‘trail blazer for women’ by New Zealand media.2
Ambassadors of this period usually had a spouse to assist them, but Barbara never married and managed her duties alone. Women in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were on a more equal footing with men by this time, but marriage remained a significant barrier to advancement for female diplomats.
Angus returned to Wellington in 1981 to head the Ministry’s protocol division, working with embassies and diplomats to ensure that New Zealand laws were observed; she later became the first woman Chief of Protocol.
Required to retire when she turned 60 in 1984, Angus nevertheless stayed in close contact with what became the Ministry of External Relations and Trade, chairing its grievance committee from 1988 to 1991. She also served on the Public Service Appeal Board in 1986. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade published its 50-year history in 1993, she wrote the chapter about women in the ministry. She reflected on the ‘haphazard and discriminatory’ recruitment system that saw women qualified for diplomatic service ranked as research assistants.3
In retirement, Angus returned to her historical interests. She was a member of the Wellington branch committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (1984–86), and a board member of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society while it restored and opened the author’s home to the public in 1988. She wrote ‘A Guide to Katherine Mansfield's Wellington’ in 1985, and biographical entries on Mansfield’s schoolfriend Maata (Martha) Mahupuku and her diplomatic predecessor Jean McKenzie for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Barbara Angus was made a CMG in 1988 for her services as a diplomat and to the community. She remained modest about her achievements. Soon after her retirement she said that although she was the first in many diplomatic service positions, by nature she was not a pioneer: ‘I’m not one of the people who lead movements. I think I’m one who benefits more by the struggles of other women’.4 She suffered from dementia in later life, and died in Waikanae on 4 February 2005, aged 81.