Mad Woman At The Peace Corps: Elizabeth Forsling Harris, Part Five

Betty had put Shriver on the spot by forcing the issue of whether married Volunteers could give birth while serving overseas. She did it with this, the last of her MOM and POP memos:

“Look Sarge. The Peace Corps is probably the most progressive organization in America. It’s what America claims to be all about: equality. In the Peace Corps, blacks have equality. Women have equality. Our female Volunteers are paid the same living allowances as the male Volunteers. They have the same responsibilities, the same physical hardships. We have said, in effect, that the rules are no different in the Peace Corps; the same goes for both sexes. So to suddenly say that a female Peace Corps Volunteer is too fragile, too fine, and too clean to have a baby in the Third World country, especially if she is game to do this, is to go back on our word–is to reverse policy. The exercise gets to be something of a sham. The women are insulted and the countries are insulted. And don’t think they won’t catch on. The couple ought to have a choice, at least. Stay or go. My bet is 99 percent of them will choose to stay.”

Three days after Shriver got Betty’s memo, at a Senior Staff meeting, Shriver said to the assembled Mad Men: “I’m going to Hyannis Port for the weekend. I have two memos here on the same subject, but with totally opposite viewpoints. The subject is pregnancy and childbirth. I will take this memo from the Medical Division and I will take this memo from Betty Harris. And when I come back on Monday, I’ll have an answer.”

Betty was sure of a defeat. The Medical Division was sure of a victory. And on that following Monday morning, they got their answer. 

[End of Part Five]

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  • John, I am losing track of what the issues are, here. Are they discrimination, safety of the Volunteers, or a personal agenda?

    In the 1960s, there were all kinds of rules and laws about the employment of pregnant women. For example, many companies made women quit when the pregnancy began to “show.” Teachers who were pregnant were not allowed to teach, etc. These practices were discriminatory. If Harris was fighting this kind of potential policy, then she was right. If however, she was insisting that female Volunteers deliver in unsafe hospital environments to prove they were “tough,” then she was crazy.

    Volunteers who were hospitalized in host countries were supposed to be in “safe”: hospitals. In Colombia, Volunteers with serious conditions requiring hospitalization usually were airlifted to Panama; sometimes they were sent back to the States. Many returned to service when they were discharged.

    I was scheduled for a minor surgical procedure in a University affliated Colombian hospital. The Peace Corps nurse working there woke me up the night before and begged me not to let them operate. She said that the post-surgical infection rate in that hospital was 80%. I was successful in persuading the Public Health/PC doctor to cancel the procedure. Months later, he told me that he felt that the Colombian doctor was exaggerating the problem in order to collect fees. That was my personal experience in an “approved” hospital.

    Closer to my site, we worked with the local hospital and were very much aware of the problems there, although there were great medical personnel and a PC nurse in a teaching position. It was not authorized for Volunteer hospitalization.

    This is a complicated medical issue. Safety of the mother and child should have been the deciding factor; not what Harris thought would “look good.”

  • During my time in the Philippines we had several babies born in local hospitals to PCVs and at least one to a staff member. I don’t recall any fuss being made one way or the other.

    However, there was a difference, except in one case, in that one of the parents (usually the wife) was a Filipina. So, giving birth locally was not unusual. The one all-American couple who had a child locally were treated as heroes by their neighbors. There was no greater compliment they could have paid the Filipinos than choosing to give birth locally. The baby’s baptism was akin to a barrio fiesta!

    On the other hand I do remember trying to smile reassuringly as a PCV was wheeled into the operating room of a rural hospital for an emergency apendectomy. That hospital was hardly state-of-the-art and we all knew it. But, all went well. The body is an amazingly adaptive piece of work!

    Without trying to make too much of the point I do think that the Peace Corps of the sixties was behind the curve when it came to understanding what was happening in the American culture at large. All those ‘mad men’ were creatures of the 40s and 50s, a period not noted for progressive change, and it showed.

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