# 16 Mad Woman At The Peace Corps: Elizabeth Forsling Harris (Washington, D.C.)
Reading the Eyes Only memo from the Medical Division to Sarge in her recently commandeered fifth-floor office, Betty Harris went ballistic and charged into Shriver’s office.
“The memo raised the question: What if a married Volunteer got pregnant by her own husband? Oh, no!,” said Betty, What if one of our precious, upper-middle-class American flowers got pregnant in one of those dirty, backwater countries? Surely, the Peace Corps would bring the couple home. A nice American couple couldn’t risk having a baby in a country where women squat to deliver a child.
“I went in screaming over this one. I screamed to everyone, even Sarge, saying that the one thing that all women in all countries have in common was childbirth, and if we really want to insult countries to say, in effect, that your country’s so dirty that this healthy, nutritional American woman cannot bear a child therefore if you really want to insult them, fellas, this is the way to do it.”
In the Great Liberal Peace Corps Washington, the men turned against Betty Harris, calling her “that idiot woman” and “that meddler” and words that only the vice president might say in the Oval Office today.
Harris would write two memos that became known as the MOM and POP memos: Memo on Marriage and Policy on Pregnancy. She put Shriver on the spot by forcing the issue of whether married Volunteers could give birth while serving overseas.
Shriver shared the view, as did most men in Peace Corps HQ, that the United States and Switzerland were the only safe places to have babies.
Shriver had been overseas within the last few months and had seen the conditions that existed in many developing countries. He was acutely aware of the health risks in some place. In Nigeria, he had seen a young American couple who had come over on their own to teach at a boarding school. They were gaunt and covered with mosquito bites; their baby was sickly and feverish. Shriver was appalled and right then and there he vowed to assign a Public Health doctor to every Peace Corps program.
Now Betty Harris, chic and sophisticated Elizabeth Forsling Harris, wanted Peace Corps women to have their babies in the bush. While Betty pushed her position in the MOM and POP memos, the Medical Division, all those doctors in the Peace Corps, wanted Shriver to cable Sites overseas and say that Peace Corps ‘girls’ must return to the U.S. and the sanctity of their allegedly sterile American hospitals to have their babies. A policy that meant the couple was out of the Peace Corps.
Remember this was in ’61, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique wasn’t published until 1963. Also, these were the first days of The Pill. Betty Harris was a women’s libber before the term came into use.
Meanwhile, the Medical Division sent Shriver another Eyes Only memo lobbying that the Peace Corps had to “bring all married Peace Corps girls home if they became pregnant.” The memo called Harris irresponsible and dangerous.
Betty, of course, ‘intercepted a copy’ and became “utterly, positively livid.”
Yet she kept her cool and lobbied Shriver one last time in a reasonable tone and with persuasive rhetoric.
It was the last of her MOM and POP memos, briefer than the Medical Division. And unlike theirs, she provided copies to the entire staff. She was going for broke. “It’s all there,” she said, “I rest my case.”
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One of the major problems that Peace Corps nurses faced in the Peace Corps was to be assigned to a hospital that did not have the infrastructure to insure sterile conditions, mainly to make sure that the instruments, including needles, were sterile. Many hospitals and clinics did not have autoclaves or sometimes even a consistent adequate supply of energy.
Sometimes the staff were not adequately trained in sterile procedures. See: Letters from Peace Corps Nurses:
Conditions varied tremendously in host countries. I was scheduled for a routine operation in a HC university hospital during service. During the night, a Peace Corps nurse woke me up and begged me not to have the surgery. She said that the post-
operative infection rate was 80% and she feared for my life. I did not have the operation.
I have no doubt that Betty Harris did great things for women in the Peace Corps. But this was not necessarily one of them.
The Public Health Doctor (usually a resident) should check out the facilities in the specific HC and decide if it were safe for mother and child. In northern South America, Volunteers needing surgery were usually sent to Panama and the military hospital. there.
One thing that seems to be overlooked, is that volunteers were expected to relate to their peers. And those peers rarely were politicians, and never primitive or uneducated. Most that I remember were keenly aware of shortcomings of local health care, and when health concerns arose, usually anxious to confer with volunteers. I was a geologist, but even so, frequently asked things like how “European” women were not getting pregnant, and if there was a pill that they had. I remember one popular belief that “European” women didn’t experience pain in childbirth, and their babies might arrive in glass eggs. Poof ! Being out in the bush talking to ordinary villagers, they frequently expressed the belief that “Europeans” had all of this figured out, and sometimes more confidence than was warranted. I found this, to some extent, on both sides of the African continent. Although some African politicians would take umbrage at suggestions of inadequate hospitals (Ms Harris’ thesis, above), others, like Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, and Julius Nyrere in TangaNyika (soon to be Tanzania) were very quick to acknowledge shortcomings, and what could be done. Usually Africans I remember saw a role for BOTH traditional healing and western medicine. I think a lot of the early requests for PC Volunteers, and for technical school construction were exactly for the purpose of providing improved health care practices, amongst other things. Learning and understanding these things is what the PC Second Goal was all about, and what distinguished volunteers from State Dept people.
I could not agree with you, more. I found that the indigenous midwives with whom I worked were very knowledgable about many things. There were practices that I was instructed to discourage, such as total breast feeding for six months, that are now seen as the most healthy of all ways to nurture infants. But there were also practices that were not safe. We worked with a Peace Corps nurse, a Colombian nurse, in a UNICEF program to educate midwives. The midwives received a kit that allowed them to sterilize equipment used to cut the cord of the newborn. This simple technique protected the new born form tetanus, which was a leading cause of early infant mortality.
One of the other growing problems was the introduction of “technology” without the proper infrastructure. For example,
injections of various, sometimes dangerous, chemicals were beginning to be sold in the market place with sometimes fatal results.
This brings back a lot of memories. I remember one time my field crew and I arrived at a village (this was in newly independent Malawi), going about our prospecting business, and met a health crew there giving injections of some sort (vaccinations, GG, or whatever). I was appalled to see a single syringe for the entire village, a pan of boiling water, and between patients, the health technician would “sterilize” the syringe by sucking in some boiling water, and squirting it out. Then the next injection. Coming from Zomba, my field crew and I were perceived as knowledgeable, and although a PCV’s job isn’t to tell host country people how to run their business, in this case I felt I should say something. I asked my field assistant, a young “O-Level graduate, to quietly speak to the African girl who was the technician, and tell her THREE squirt-squirts with the syringe. The best I could do under the circumstances. Seemed to work.
When arriving at these remote villages, our presence, with half a dozen eligible young men, always attracted attention of widows and unmarried young women. Ours was a “Man’s World”, and a lot of joshing across cultural lines. I think my crew knew I was “on their side”, and that made all the difference. I would advise my crew to remember they were “Gentlemen”, and if they spoke to the young ladies in that manner, it would melt their hearts. More meddling in host country values. Regardless, when we left, there were a lot of young ladies beaming, seeing us off to Zomba, with hopes of seeing us again. And a platoon of little faces from the bush elementary school, whom we had befriended. What memories ! !
i can only imagine the horrors at Peace Corps Washington, if they ever knew of all the deculturation going on. Not likely, as the Country staff was almost as out-of-touch as Washington was.
Over lunch my crew and I would often discuss lots of things. Most people in Malawi had a smattering of Christian thinking, there being a big missionary effort during Colonial times. One time I reminded them of what Chaucer (whoever he was) had said, from the Christian Bible. “Ye shall learn the truth, and the truth shall set ye free !” I think it really hit them, and clicked. They wanted to KNOW what was what. What was TRUE. I remember one of my crew, a laborer, was listening, and added, in the Chewa language “Free and proper health”. What memories ! !