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

At the emergency, Saturday morning meeting to determine the fate of this pregnant unmarried PCV, Betty Harris, for the first time, realized there was a problem with the Mad Men of the Peace Corps.

“….The thought began to occur to these grown men that possibly the pregnant Volunteer had got herself in the ‘family way’ by means of intimate contact with a national,” Betty recalled. “Oh. God! Well, the guys were just falling apart. A Peace Corps woman is pregnant and she’s not married to anybody! And who’s the father? And what happens now? Do we bring her home? Do we inform her parents? Do we throw her out of the Peace Corps? One fool present at this meeting actually suggested that we ‘can’ women Volunteers altogether. No one ever suggested that our male Volunteers might be shacking up with female ‘nationals,’ getting them pregnant, or what the implications of that might be in the host country. Oh no, it’s the women.

“People ask me, how did I get involved in the women’s movement [Betty Harris was one of the founders of Ms. Magazine.] I tell them: at the Peace Corps. For the first time, I had come to realize fully the very discriminatory nature of men’s attitudes toward women.”

Betty, along with Dorothy Jacobsen, Ruth Olson, and the Peace Corps doctor, Leo Gehrig, M.D. arranged with the Florence Crittenden home for unwed mothers in Washington to take care of any pregnant Peace Corps Volunteers. If a Volunteer got pregnant overseas, wanted to have the child, and was interested in putting the child up for adoption, the Crittenden people handled it. And Coates Redmon in her book on the early days of the agency mentioned that “some of the most prominent obstetricians in Washington worked with the Crittenden people on such matters regularly.”

What Betty Harris wanted to do was ‘clean up’ the girls’ record. No Peace Corps Volunteer in such a situation was going to look ‘bad’-not if she could help it. “I was determined that they could return to Peace Corps service if they wished. And out of the thousands of women, we sent overseas in the early 1960s, there was only ten or twelve  who came home for reason of out-of-wedlock pregnancy.”

Shortly after ‘solving’ this female fertility situation, Betty Harris was involved with a larger issue involving women. This time, she got hold of a secret memo sent to Shriver–with no copy to her–from the Medical Division.

And after reading this Confidential Memo, Betty Harris went ballistic.


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