Dr. Geidel spends a chapter on the role of women in the early days of the agency, i.e., the ’60s. In particular she singles out associate director and also deputy director of the agency, Warren Wiggins, author (with Bill Josephson) “A Towering Task,” quoting from his speeches and from his staff meetings. She picks up lines given in talk, and comments made by men around the senior staff meetings to make her point that the Peace Corps was sexist back in the ’60s.
Geidel has done her homework. She has gone to the files stored in boxes at the Kennedy Library in Boston and those old files at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. She cannot be faulted for her research. However, it the way she spins, edited, and presents her findings that I find fault with.
Having been around in the ’60s, having served with women in Ethiopia, having worked with women at Peace Corps HQ in Washington in 1964-66, I did not experience or hear comments from RPCVs women or women staff that support her distilling of the historical documents of the agency. Clearly she has an attitude that she brings to her evaluation of who we were and what we did in the Peace Corps, both staff and Volunteers.
Also, she has a tendency to mix the narrative of early novels about the Peace Corps, books like Peace Corps Nurse, one of the YA books written by Kathy Martin and published in 1965, with the actual Peace Corps experience of women, missing the truth of the situations. It was my sense in Ethiopia that what went on in country between the “boys and girls” (as Molly might call them) was more like a big family, full of the dramatics that take place between brothers and sisters around the dining-room table on any given night back home.
But back to Warren Wiggins. Here is one conclusion she has about Warren. In October 1964, he gave a recruiting speech at the all-female Douglass College titled, ‘Who Are We,’ which Warren identified as “the first speech delivered by a senior staff officer just about women in the Peace Corps.”
Quoting excerpts from the speech, Dr. Geidel comes away with the conclusion from Wiggins talk that “the Peace Corps does not imagine its women volunteers as ‘women’ seems as odds with Wiggins’s emphasis on the women’s valiant maintenance of femininity ‘under the most trying of circumstances,’ and in fact contradicts the agency’s hiring policies, reflected in both the lack of women in staff positions and the gender-specific nature of many of the volunteer positions they sought to fill.”
She writes, “Wiggins attempts to outline the status of women in the Peace Corps, interspersing an argument about equality-in difference with expressions of titillation at the spectacle of women volunteers.” Hello?
There is no doubt that the US society suffered from its attitude towards women which were outlined by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in ’63, but the ‘separation’ of sexes based on gender was less overseas than it was in Peace Corps/Washington.
Yes, the PCV women in Ethiopia, for example, were kept out of ‘remote locations’ at teachers when we arrived in 1962, but this was the Ethiopian ministry’s decision, and it was overturned quickly by the Peace Corps staff, responding to the female PCVs saying they should (and would) be assigned anywhere in-country.
In a footnote Geidel adds the point that “The Peace Corps was quite reluctant to hire women in higher-level staff positions, despite urging from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt.” Yes, there were fewer women around the conference table in the early days than there are today (where 64% of the PCVs are women) but this was true for the times in all office, government or otherwise, not just the Peace Corps. As I have called the early staff in a series of blogs “Mad Men of the Peace Corps” nevertheless, women like Sally Bowles, Betty Harris, Nancy Gore, Nan McEvoy, Jane Campbell, Mitzi Mallina, and Maryann Orlando (especially Maryann Orlando, Shriver’s secretary and right hand ) had an impact on the agency, and had Shriver’s ear.)
Let me just say we are all limited by our experience, and unfortunately Dr. Geidel is limited by not having lived the life of the Peace Corps back in the 1960s, or for that matter, today. Her book is well research, but unfortunately she is looking back at a time in American (and the world) where sexism was rampant.However, based on what I experienced in Ethiopia, what I saw in-country, PCV women did not take a back seat to any male Volunteer. In fact, in most cases, they drove the Land Rover.