Our Best Diplomats: Women in the Peace Corps

March 19, 2012TIME | By Elaine Chao

Fifty years ago, 65 percent of the people volunteering to join the Peace Corps were men and 35 percent were women. Today, those numbers have flipped, with 66 percent of volunteers during the 2000s women and 34 percent men. This change, gradual over the five decades, represents women’s commitment to and confidence in international work and a steadiness of America’s spirit to volunteer, born three centuries ago. Of the over 4,000 women currently serving as volunteers, about 250 are over 50 years old, blogging and uploading photos for friends and relatives back home as they work in education, health, nutrition, small business, agriculture in 74 countries worldwide.

When Peace Corps was first proposed, some in Congress assumed that only men would be Volunteers. Sargent Shriver consistently reinforced that “men and women” would serve. In a letter to a Congressman, Shriver said:  ”The women of our country have much to contribute to the peoples of other lands, and the Peace Corps will rely greatly upon their talents.”  The impact of the diversity of American culture was represented from the beginning in the women who served.

The work of these women doesn’t end when they return home from overseas, as one goal of the Peace Corp’s mission is to help promote a better understanding of other cultures here in the United States. About one half of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) begin graduate school after service, and one third choose education as their professional careers. Women are a significant majority of these educators. Interviews with principals of primary and secondary schools in New York City talk of returned volunteers as teachers, here are some of the things they say: ‘they speak the languages and the cultures of their students, gently integrating them into the broader American cultures to which they now belong.’ ‘They are patient, understanding, and tolerant of shortage of supplies and size of classrooms. They know what it is like to have so little and still be able to teach.’

Approximately 90,000 returned female volunteers are working and raising families in the United States today. They are executives in corporations, universities, nonprofit organizations, artists, social workers, and writers, Ambassadors, AID project managers, and senior State Department Foreign Service officers.

President Kennedy would surely also been pleased to know that long after PCVs complete their overseas service many, like Jody Olsen (Tunisia, 1966-68), would believe in the mission strongly enough to still be actively supporting the agency and Returned Peace Corps community decades later and even returning to the Peace Corps in key leadership positions.

Tragically, there have also been women who have served who paid an especially steep personal price. Current Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams worked on the legislation that was enacted in 2011 (the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act) to better respond to the alarming incidence of sexual assault and violence against women PCVs.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, it’s important to remember the key role women have played in promoting a better understanding and relationships between our country and the rest of the world.

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