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

Reading the Eyes Only memo from the Medical Division to Sarge in her recently commandeered fifth floor office, Betty Harris went ballistic and then she 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, remember. ” 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. I could scream to, including Sarge, saying that the one thing that all women in all countries have in common was childbirth, and if we really want to insult these countries-to say, in effect, that your country’s so dirty that this healthy, nutritional American woman cannot bear a child there-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 women” and “that meddler” and words that only the vice president might say in the Oval Office today.

Harris would then write two memos that became known as the MOM and POP memos-Memo on Marriage and Policy on Pregnancy. She also 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 an 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 her MOM and POP memos, the Medical Division, all those doctors Shriver wanted with the PCVs were cabling Washington to 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, and 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.”

But 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.”

[End of Part Four]

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  • Betty Harris was really “mad.” I don’t know the rest of this story. But hospitals in the third world were where people literally went to die, because hospitals lacked an consistent energy source to sterilize equipment and maintain a relatively safe environment. Patients died, not from their original illness, but from infection. The concern expressed by Shriver,, was legitimate.

    This is a crazy statement: ” the sanctity of their allegedly sterile American hospitals”. American hospitals were sterile and safe and women in the campo and bush would have given anything to have had their babies in “clean, well lighted places.” Babies died in the “bush” and the “campo” from tetnus because the tools/instruments used to cut the imbeligo cords were not sterile. Women were left sterile from post partum infections.

    HIV/AIDS was transmtted all over the developing world, not by sex alone, but by the use of dirty needles in hospitals and clinics and places where women went to give birth……and in market places where “injections” were given for all kinds of reasons……and in commercial places where men received hair cuts or shaves and women had manicures or any other procedures using tools which were not sterile.

    The use of dirty needles to eradicate small pox and lay the fire for the explosion of blood bourn diseases is one of the real untold stories of Peace Corps, and our piece-meal cross-cultural introduction of technology and the great law of unintended consequences.

    The latter was ignored by those “wild and crazy guys and gals” back at PC/W because they did not know “from a hole in the ground.” They were ignorant and prejudiced and besotted with their own glamour. This “creation myth” of the Peace Corps and its perpetuation through time and space crippled the agency.

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