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

In Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story,Coates Redmon tells how Shriver came back from Hyannis Port that following Monday morning and charged into the Conference Room  “waving the two memos” and declared, “I have talked to my wife, Eunice. I have talked to my sister-in-law, Ethel. And I have talked to General Maxwell Taylor. They all believe that married Peace Corps Volunteers should be able to have their babies overseas.”

The Mad Men of the Senior Staff sat stunned and silent. The Medical Division stared at Sarge in disbelief. Betty Harris tried hard not to look smug. What had really transpired in the mythical Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port?

Betty Harris would reach this conclusion: “What Sarge was revealing in all innocent candor was that the Kennedy family felt fully  empowered to influence Peace Corps policy on matters of family. The Kennedy family would proclaim and decree at this level. Of course. Who else? The family, that is, and whatever hotshot celebrity was visiting them for the weekend in Hyannis Port. In this case, it was General Maxwell Taylor. He was there, and to the Kennedys, his rank gave him the privilege of pronouncing on anything. And Lord know, the Kennedy women do know a thing or two about childbearing.”

At the Senior Staff conference table that morning, Betty leaned forward and picked up a cigarette off the highly waxed surface,inserted the cigarette carefully into her jeweled holder, flipped the lid of her lighter, and  lit up another Camel. She was wearing a pink suit that Monday morning, and the cigarette holder matched her outfit. Betty was famous for having cigarette holders that were color coordinated to her wardrobe. 

She had with Shriver’s decision and declaration won the battle for women in the Peace Corps, pregnant, married or unmarried, and  in doing so she left more than a few (male) bodies in her wake, and they, of course, would never forget.

[End of Part Six]

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  • Ah, yes, the good old days when decisions were made as described in this great story! Fast forward to 1992, when I’m a PC Country Director, and a young married couple, good Volunteers, come in to tell me that they are pregnant. Remembering the policy of the 60’s about delivering babies overseas (the first PC baby was born in the Philippines, by the way), I get quite excited that we could have a Peace Corps baby in our midst. These two Volunteers were near an excellent hospital with first-class care, they both taught, and there were plenty of nannies available. What could go wrong? Well, I was quickly called by the Director of Medical Services and called on the carpet for encouraging the birth overseas. I pointed out that the PeaceCorps Manual, which I had checked, allowed for the possibility, and was told about OMS Technical Guidlines (at that time distributed only to medical personnel), which made it very, very difficult, and essentially impossible. The couple went home and we lost two great teachers and the joy of a baby to spoil. How badly the Sarge Shrivers and Betty Harrises are missed!

  • Maureen, I have a report from Fort Collins that a couple there say their child, born in Pakistan, was the first Peace Corps baby. Time to check some dates.

  • Good Heavens. It never entered my head in 1973 to see if ‘big daddy’ in PC/W allowed PCVs or staff to deliver babies incountry! We let nature take its course.

  • The Friends of Colombia page on Peace Corps Connect has a note from a Peace Corps couple whose baby was born in Bogota in 1965. They believe that they were the first Peace Corps parents in Colombia.

    Fort Collins has a long relationship with Peace Corps. Pakistan I was one of the first groups and others followed to that country. So maybe this is the first baby.

  • Maureen,
    Was there any real reason given for the difficulty to get an okay for Peace Corps babies to be delivered in the Phillippines? It would seem to me that maternity care should have been subject to exactly the same standards as any other medical/hospital/surgical procedure. Wouldn’t anything else be discriminatory? Would the developing awareness of HIV/AIDS have been a factor?

    Dave,
    It had already been established that babies could be born overseas, when you were employed. I presume that “Big Daddy” DC paid the medical bills or were pregnant Volunteers supposed to pay for such medical services themselves?

  • CORRECTION
    Maureen, I read your post wrong. I somehow got the idea that you were PC Director in the Phillippines. You don’t say that, at all.

  • At the time I had no idea about whether or not having babies was permitted in country because I didn’t ask. There was, however, in the early seventies a still heavy dose of the earlier ‘in loco parentis’ attitude when it came to setting rules for volunteers. I remember once being expected by the staff (both US and HCN) to intervene when a volunteer announced his engagement to a Filipina some considered unsuitable. I said ‘not on your life!’ (The marriage went well until the fellow died in an industrial accident back home.)

    I was also never comfortable with the expectation that I would accept and enforce rules covering dress, approved vacation destinations, wearing helmets on motorcycles, housing arrangements (other than to ensure adequacy), and a bunch of other things I considered should be decided by the adults involved. (Remember this was a time when many of the volunteers’ former classmates were leading troops into battle. How could the Peace Corps continue to treat them as ‘college kids?’)

    Not too long after I arrived in the Philippines my life on these issues was made much easier by a headquarters memo headed “Untying Some Apron Strings.’ In it Joe Blatchford, in effect, said volunteers are adults; we will treat them as such.

    Sounded right to me!

  • Hey, the first Peace Corps baby was born in Zamboanga, Philippines in 1963 to Lila and Dirk Ballendoef., a girl. Lila was back teaching school three days after the birth oif their daughter. Their daugher – the last I heard – headed up United Way in Hawaii in the ’90s.- she is nearly fifty years old now.
    Tempus fugit ot something!

  • Heidi Ballendorf was born to Dirk and Lila Ballendorf in 1963
    while they were PC volunteers living about five miles from
    Zamboanga.
    I should know, because I was a PC Volunteer Leader living
    in Ayala and for several weeks before the birth, the jeep
    that was assigned to me was nightly parked outside their
    small nipa thatched residence.
    Heidi presently live on the island of Guam working for a government
    agency. Dirk was a professor at the University of Guam for about
    twenty years. He is presently retired, but still doing research

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