More on Peace Corps Fantasies–Women in the Agency

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in 1964-66, I did not experience or hear comments from RPCVs women or women staff that support her distilling of the historical documents of the agency.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.

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  • Yes, we were all somewhat sexist in the 1960’s. As a young woman living through that time and even before, I recall thinking nothing wrong with a dorm curfew only for women at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a student. That’s just the way things were. Later, as a public employee in the early 60’s, we women made no protest when only male colleagues were chosen for higher-paid, exciting new jobs at the beginning of the computer revolution. Although I was not a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1960’s, I suspect that there was less sexism within the corps than outside it then and that the Peace Corps offered real opportunities to women volunteers.

  • About a sexist Wiggins, in the mid-1970’s I had a desk at TransCentury, Inc., ten feet from both him and his mighty duel Rolodexes. It was soon clear to me that B.J. Warren was mightier than all.

  • When young my dear departed-now-older-brother David used to charge me with “You’re just a girl!” in exasperation trying to toughen me up. He liked girls. He liked me. But in our youth there was a dichotomy. He and I changed a lot as he softened and I came to terms with myself. We kept on loving each other and each others loved one. Differences narrow, we grow, and even grow together.

    KEEP ON KEEP ON KEEP ON KEEP ON TRUCKIN’
    No matter how canny we are there is something else annoying coming. Just sayin’ as the current phrasing goes. As used to be said and still has a good ring to it: keep on truckin’. (Doesn’t ‘keep’ seem a funny-looking word. One meaning is maybe a dungeon. Or just a place to keep things, even a secret hiding place, an abditory.)
    Keep on anyway. Any way that you can, do it, do it that way or you may rue it. Keep on. © Edward Mycue 19 November 2015

  • John’s statement: “…However, it is the way she spins, edited, and presents her findings that I find fault with” is so right.
    Here is another example, that made me angry.

    Geidel’s analysis of modernization theory claims to promote a promise of brotherhood and “heroic modern male.” Her description is loaded with phallic symbols. Since Peace Corps women don’t fit the pattern, they are not even mentioned until
    Page 55. Then Geidel quotes, not from her extensive research of actual Peace Corps records, but a 1965 LIFE magazine article on the “re-entry crisis”. A Peace Corps nurse, a legend because of her accomplishments in a hospital in Pakistan, was hired at Peace Corps HDQ and wore her Pakistani clothes to work. She received a letter from a high level Peace Corps administrator who told her that her choice of wardrobe was damaging her reputation at Peace Corps and represented “disillusionment with America”. The RPCV nurse immediately went out and bought a $100 silk suit. Guidel opines “relearning the correct identification and consumption patterns that impel her to buy Asian raw materials only after their modification and refinement by Western tastemakers and manufacturers.”

    Neither LIFE magazine nor Guidel focuses on the work
    done by the RPCV nurse. I think that is the real story. Those who worked at PC/HDQ may know more about the incident and the RPCV. But, for me, this demonstrates she was a strong person, able to work well in the culture of a Pakistan hospital as well as the complicated subculture of Peace Corps Washington.

  • I don’t remember a lot of women around the PC/W conference table either, although there were a lot of capable women in critically important mid-level positions in the Africa division of PDO and throughout the agency. Warren Wiggins was an old AID hand, and surrounded himself with a few good ole boys from the old days. As I recall, one of the more senior women at PC headquarters in the 1963/65 period, when I was there, was Gretchen Hadwiger, who I think was Frank Mankiewicz’ deputy in the Latin America division. At the time, there were no female PC country directors in Africa, and I doubt there were many in other regions.

  • My feeling was that Peace Corps was the first equal opportunity adventure ever promoted by the US government. In our group (India, 67-69), it was the guys who got to live in cities and work with Indian fellows with ag degrees. Maggie and I lived in a very rural area with no running water and interesting electricity. Alice and Sharon had water but no electricity. Lynn lived in a city with both, and Gail and Patti lived in a former missionary bungalow (very posh). (The two who were married, lived with their husbands.) The only accommodation for our feminine gender was that we were posted in pairs. A benefit and culturally appropriate. And as the stories from nurses in Afghanistan who tromped all over beyond the beyond vaccinating for smallpox attest, we were everywhere an adventuresome 20 something might want to be.

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