#14 Mad Woman At The Peace Corps: Elizabeth Forsling Harris (Washington, D.C.)

Why didn’t Betty Harris become the head of the first Women’s Division in the Peace Corps?

What Betty found out later was that Paul Geren, Sarge’s vert first (and short-lived) Deputy Director, killed the idea of her being in charge of women Volunteers.

“I knew Paul from Dallas,” Betty recalled in Coates Redmon’s  book. “Sarge told Geren that he was thinking of bringing me up from Texas to deal with women’s issues and Geren replied–or so the story went–‘That’s like putting Marilyn Monroe in charge of the Boy Scouts!’ Apparently, Paul thought I was too wild for his type of southern Baptist upbringing, and his objection had short-circuited my appointment. But I thought the comparison to Marilyn Monroe was the best compliment I’d ever had.”

When Betty did arrive in D.C. she was given a desk and told to read up on early Peace Corps documents until some job was found for her. She was disappointed; her appetite had been whetted to deal with women’s issues in an agency dominated by men who didn’t want to deal with them at all.

Shriver asked Betty to start a newsletter for the PCVs, and with Sally Bowles, they began Peace Corps Volunteer, which soon became a magazine. Betty was glad to do it. After all, she came from the world of journalism, she saw the job as make-work.

Shriver then told her to think of what she might do at the agency, (besides reading year-old memos).  That was the way many things happened in the early days as the Peace Corps evolved: People were given the chance to invent, and implement. Rarely have such exciting opportunities been given to a government staff as were to the founding Peace Corps crew.

Betty rose to the opportunity. She conceived the need for a Volunteer advocacy office that would focus on and fight for the welfare of the PCVs overseas.

Within weeks after Harris’s memo to Shriver, there was the Division of Volunteer Support (DVS) at the agency. Harris pushed for Pat Kennedy as director and Sally Bowles as his deputy. Betty soon became deputy associate director of the Office of Peace Corps Volunteers, which oversaw the divisions of Training and Selection, as well.

But the Peace Corps world was still not right with Betty Harris. She was given a small office, a cubbyhole, she called it, on the eighth floor of the building. To Betty, it meant like being in Siberia, far from the fifth floor where the executive offices were located.

While many early staffers wanted to be on the top floors, (or bottom floors,) well away from Shriver and his “incessant ideas, whims, demands, and sudden appearances” Betty said, “I refused to settle in there [eighth floor]. I meant to get back to the fifth floor. I had that much sense. In three or four weeks after my arrival, I had maneuvered my way back.”

When a top male official on the fifth floor went off on vacation Betty moved into his office. She just sat down and went to work. Did it cause a row? I asked Betty.

“Certainly,” she said smiling, fondly remembering the day. “But I made my point. I had come to do serious work. Quite simply, I wanted some power. Coming out of Texas politics, what else would I want? Certainly not some nicey-nicey lady’s job. No. I wanted to make policy, or at the very least influence policy. You can’t do that from a cubbyhole.”

It didn’t take long for Betty to get her demands, and for Sarge to see why he needed Harris in the Peace Corps building. A Crisis Overseas! An unmarried PCV had gotten pregnant and the Mad Men of the Peace Corps had no idea of what to do. An emergency meeting was called for on Saturday morning with the Senior Staff. Betty was the only women Shriver asked to attend.

“A ‘ludicrous conversation’ ensured,” Betty Harris said many years later when she recalled the meeting of  Mad Men (plus one Mad Women) that took place on the fifth floor of the first Peace Corps Headquarters.

In the next blog item, we’ll find out what happens in Washington with an unmarried PCV woman gets pregnant!


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  • Cliff-hanger and a “wait of it” development. No dust on these editors’ chairs. Up, down, side to side. Speeding it up keeping the eyes on the ball, feet on the ground but marching. Little bits of levitation here and there in this sweet playbook.

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