Review of From Southern Belle to Global Rebel: Memoirs of an Anthropologist and Activist

From Southern Belle to Global Rebel: Memoirs of an Anthropologist and Activist
by Mary Lindsay Elmendorf (PC Trainer/Consultant – Puerto Rico 1962–63)
Sharon Fitzpatrick Publications
342 pages

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

PEOPLE LIKE MARY LINDSAY ELMENDORF SHOULD ALWAYS write memoirs because, though we may know them for years, we don’t know everything about them. Reading about Mary’s life is like accompanying her on a long and fascinating journey. Mary’s personal life is a story of challenges and joyful adventures, while her professional life reflects over seventy years of international history and global issues. Mary’s memoir is replete with photos that show her as a charming child, as a long-legged, lovely woman, and a mature, gracious lady. Her smile is always there, genuine, exuding a joie de vivre that marks her life.

Mary was born in 1917 and raised in North Carolina in the bosom of a happy family. In 1937 she married John Elmendorf, a classmate at the University of North Carolina. John was a conscientious objector who went in the army as a 4F/AO. His Honorable Discharge noted that he received the European Service Medal, the American Theatre of Operations Ribbon, three Battle Stars, a Bronze Star and a Victory Medal. At the time of his discharge he was a master sergeant in the Office of Military Government for Germany, assigned to the Educational and Religious Affairs Section. He declined the status of officer because he refused to give orders to others which he refused to do.

Nearly a year after Mary started working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in war-torn Europe, John joined her in Paris, where she worked in prisons, and designed and ran the Program for Spanish refugees in southern France. Mary worked with CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) as a Friend in Germany and Paris right after World War II, and shared the pride of all Friends when AFSC won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

In 1952 Mary became the first woman Director of CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) in Mexico to demonstrate that a woman could be a country director and introduced technical equipment instead of food packages. During her eight years as Director, Mary launched 114 village self-help well-drilling projects that included women for the first time, a program that was depicted in the documentary, World Our Hands Can Make, which won the Cannes Film Festival Award in 1960.

In 1942, while taking a group of students from the Putney School in Vermont to San Miguel de Allende, Mary had bought a small house, the second American after her friend, Stirling Dickinson, to buy property there. Over the years she and her family fixed it up, added more land, shared it with friends and rented it during the academic year.

In 1950 John Elmendorf became Director of the Mexican American Cultural Institute ,and then Academic Dean of Mexico City College. He was the Vice President of Brown University from 1960 to 1964 and became the second President of New College in Sarasota from 1964–1972.

Mary trained the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers going to Dominican Republic, and led a course on community development for the first Peace Corps Volunteers going to Latin America in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, coordinated by the University of Florida. She also created internships for New College and Brown students with Peace Corps and CARE.

Their liberal international involvements made the Elmendorfs targets of the McCarthy hearings. Anxiety and resentment plagued them, just as it did most people who were accused of un-American activities during that vicious era, but they survived with reputations intact.

Mary later served on the steering committee of the League of Women Voters’ Overseas Education Fund, and the Board of Trustees of the Lincoln Quaker School. She was invited to the Dominican Republic for the inauguration of President Ballaguer, who nominated women as governors of all the country’s provinces, requesting Mary’s assistance in cultivating women leaders.

In 1975, Mary was hired by the World Bank to demonstrate what anthropologists could do to make the Bank’s projects better by adding the human dimension. She created the first Women in Development post at the World Bank, but instead a accepting a staff position she continued as a consultant with the Division of Water and Sanitation, bringing women into all levels of planning, construction and operation. She attended the first UN Conference on Water in Argentina, and the UN Women Conferences in Mexico City and Beijing, as well as the World Conference of the UN Decade of Women, in Copenhagen. She also appraised Maternal/Child Health/Family Planning Programs in Mexico for the World Bank, and served as a Consultant at the Research Institute for the Study of Man, the Mexican Institute for the Advancement of Science, and the Mexican National Institute for Anthropology and History.

As her fame spread, one opportunity after another arose for Mary. The Ford Foundation’s First Task Force on Women enlisted her. She wrote on the Health Needs of the World’s Poor Women, and made presentations at the International Research Center in Amsterdam, the International Development Research Centre in Canada, the World Health Organization in Geneva, and USAID, Washington, D.C., as well as serving as a Consultant for the UNDP/World Bank Water and Sanitation Programs. She also participated in the International Conference on Professional Midwives and Self-Regulation in Mexico, and she received the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropologists Association.

No wonder Mary Lindsay Elmendorf was Listed in Great Minds of the 21st Century, published by the American Biographical Institute, 2006-2007 edition!

After 43 years of “shared living, loving and working,” John Elmendorf died suddenly of a heart attack in 1980, leaving her and their children in shock and grief. “Much to her surprise,” Mary fell in love again in 1981 and married Dr. John Landgraf, an anthropologist who, like John Elmendorf, was “extremely bright” and “handsome.” They traveled the world together, attending professional and political events, both lauded in their circles for their achievements, and always having a lot of fun together.

John L probably said it best when he wrote in 2007, on the occasion of Mary’s PLACA Lifetime Achievement award in recognition of the CARE/AFSC pilot well-drilling project that she designed in 1957:

Over the years [Mary] has redefined women’s roles and
helped develop techniques and strategies for involving
communities. This sustainable model for community-
managed rural drinking water is still used by CARE,
as well as the World Bank …
It was a great honor to be remembered for
something done 50 years ago.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Mary, along with Peg Snyder, together founded UNIFEM, originally called the UN Voluntary Fund for Women. She was also a founding member of the US National Committee for UNIFEM, Gulf Coast Chapter, and has been a devoted participant for many years.

When John Landgraf died in 2010, Mary retired to her apartment at Plymouth Harbor to “watch the sun rise and set, and quietly remember the 29 years that John L and [she] had enjoyed life together.” But the world would not forget her. She became involved with 50th anniversary celebrations of New College, started planning her 95th birthday party, and received the Bertha Palmer Lifetime Achievement Award “for seven decades of global leadership on behalf of women.”

Publishing her memoir was a major project for Mary, and we are grateful to receive such an amazing gift from one of the brightest stars in our community and in the world at large.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, ( and is working on a memoir of Haiti.

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