May is International Victorious Woman Month! This month, we recognize some of the women in Peace Corps history who made significant impacts and contributions in various industries such as government, business, science, arts and more.
By Priyasha Chakravarti
Happy International Victorious Woman Month! First celebrated in 2006, this month recognizes women who have stepped beyond their comfort zones, embarked on new journeys, and made a positive difference globally — something that Peace Corps Volunteers have done since the agency’s inception in 1961. This year, we want to use this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Peace Corps women in history and modern society, amidst the challenges and hardships they faced.
Julia Chang Bloch
Julia Chang Bloch (Malaysia 1964–65) was the first Asian American to hold the position of a U.S. ambassador in 1989, specifically for Nepal, working to promote dialogue and cooperation between the Nepali people and the monarchy. Her career centers around global diplomacy and bridging divides between different communities. Prior to her appointment as ambassador, she served at the U.S. Agency for International Development as Assistant Administrator for Food for Peace and Voluntary Assistance as well as Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East. She was a Fulbright 50th Anniversary Distinguished Fellow to Singapore and Malaysia, and worked at the United States Information Services branches in those countries. After her government service, Bloch entered the private sector, serving as Group Executive Vice President at Bank of America in 1993, where she spearheaded the Corporate Relations department, and the Bank’s Communications, Government, and Public Policy operations. Bloch is currently the President of the U.S.-China Education Trust, which is a program devoted to promoting American Studies in China through education and exchange programs. “We must take every opportunity we have to learn about each other, as this will lead to better understanding,” Bloch said regarding her work. “If we hope to transcend endless conflict, war, and misunderstanding, we must embrace education and exchange with open hearts and a combined sense of purpose.”
Elaine Chao’s (Peace Corps Director 1991–92) career is marked with remarkable firsts and consequential leadership in the government and business sectors. She was the first Asian American Director of the Peace Corps, serving from 1991–92. During her tenure, she expanded the agency’s presence in Eastern Europe, launching the first Peace Corps program in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and the former Soviet Union. Outside of the Peace Corps, Chao was also the first Asian American & Pacific Islander to hold a position in a presidential cabinet. She served as the United States Secretary of Labor in the George H. Bush administration and the United States Secretary of Transportation during the Donald Trump presidency. During her time in government, Chao advanced much-needed social and public policy legislation, including passing the Pension Protection Act of 2006, implementing the MINER act to improve mine safety, and boosting investment in newly emerging transportation modes such as unmanned aerial systems.
Mae C. Jemison
Dr. Mae C. Jemison (pictured; Peace Corps Staff 1983–85) — doctor, engineer, entrepreneur, and NASA astronaut — became the first African American woman to travel in space in September 1992. As the science mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, she conducted experiments on the effects of space motion sickness, frog fertilization, and bone loss during spaceflight. On this eight-day flight, Dr. Jemison and six other astronauts orbited the Earth 127 times before returning to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Eight months later, Dr. Jemison played Lieutenant Palmer in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Second Chances,” making her the first real astronaut to be on the show. Prior to her six year career at NASA, Dr. Jemison joined Peace Corps staff as its medical officer from 1983–85, managing the health care system for Volunteers and the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Following her time with the Peace Corps and NASA, Jemison embarked on her entrepreneurial journey in 1993 by founding The Jemison Group, a technology research company that explores the socio-cultural impacts of technological advancements and design. She is currently the Principal of the 100 Year Starship Project, a foundation committed to advancing human space travel and ensuring a successful human journey to another star by 2112. Dr. Jemison’s contributions to space travel are currently spotlighted in the Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures special exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Mary Kim Joh
Mary Kim Joh (Liberia 1977–78), was a Korean-American music composer, academic and medical research scientist. She studied music at Ewha Women’s University and after earning a master’s degree in music at the University of Michigan, she became the director of the music department at Ewha. Joh was well known for her 1945 song “School Bell,” which is still taught to preschool students in South Korea today. She was also asked to compose such songs by the South Korean government to bring back Korean-language education at the end of Japanese occupation. While in the U.S., Joh was frustrated at the lack of Korean music representation, so she also wrote Korean music for American libraries. She wrote, “Folk Songs of Korea,” published by Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, Iowa, in 1950. At age 73, Joh served in a hospital in Liberia with the Peace Corps. She started a program called “Spoons for Liberia,” which supplied sanitary utensils to Liberians to promote hygiene and to reduce the impacts of tropical diseases there. Joh also created a financial grant program to support teenagers pursuing careers as medical technicians. She holds an honorary degree from Ewha Women’s University in Seoul for her humanitarian work in the U.S. and Africa.
Elaine Jones (Turkey 1965–67) was one of the first African Americans to serve in Turkey, as well as the first female director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1993. Jones’ experiences as “the first” reaches back to the start of her earliest law career pursuits — including becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law. In 1970, after graduating from law school, Jones joined the LDF staff and was tasked to defend death-row inmates on the grounds that they received racially motivated sentences, making her the first African American woman to defend a client on death row. One of her most landmark cases was Furman v. Georgia, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to abolish the death penalty in 37 states for 12 years. In 1988, Jones became the first African American to serve on the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Board of Governors. More than two decades later, ABA announced Jones’ as the 2011 Thurgood Marshall Award recipient in recognition of her contributions to the advancement of civil rights and liberties in the U.S. She has received many honors and awards throughout her career, including 13 honorary degrees, the Jefferson Medal of Freedom from the University of Virginia, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.
Carolyn R. Payton
Dr. Carolyn R. Payton (Peace Corps Director 1977–78; Staff 1964–77), appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, was both the first woman and first African American director of the Peace Corps. Committed to social justice and peace between cultures, she focused on increasing the participation of African American and other minority volunteers, working tirelessly to convince young people that international service would enrich their lives. During a 1978 speech at Columbia University, Dr. Payton said, “We need minorities in our program, so a true picture of the United States is reflected abroad.” Before becoming the Peace Corps Director, she first began working with the newly formed Peace Corps as a field assessment officer in 1964 and oversaw the psychological assessment of trainees. Afterwards, she became a deputy director and then country director stationed in the Eastern Caribbean — while simultaneously serving as Howard University’s Director of Counseling from 1970–77. As one of two female country directors at that time, Dr. Payton’s success and contributions in the role motivated the Peace Corps to eliminate gender as a qualifier for staff positions overseas. After the Peace Corps, Dr. Payton returned to Howard University and served as Dean of Counseling and Career Development until her retirement in 1995. Dr. Payton was awarded the Peace Corps Leader for Peace Award in 1988. An alumna of Bennett College, Dr. Payton was recognized during the Conversation on Gender Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and the Power of Service event — hosted by the Peace Corps and Bennett College on March 22.
Loret Miller Ruppe
Loret Miller Ruppe (Peace Corps Director 1981–89) was the longest serving Director in Peace Corps history as of 2008, serving for eight years. Appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, she is widely credited for reinvigorating the organization and the overall desire for national service in the U.S. She began serving at a time when the Peace Corps’ volunteer force was at its lowest, its budget had been cut, and much of its independence had been lost. “The Peace Corps is needed more now than ever. It is our nation’s greatest peace-building machine, which serves overseas and then brings it all back home,” said Ruppe during a speech celebrating the Peace Corps’ 35th anniversary. Throughout her tenure, Ruppe was responsible for increasing Peace Corps visibility, expanding its volunteer force, and handling Volunteer programs in over 63 countries. She oversaw the agency as it started new programs or restarted former ones in Sri Lanka, Haiti, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and Cape Verde. Ruppe also initiated short-term programs which allowed teachers, doctors, and farmers to serve overseas even during vacations or sabbaticals. In honor of Ruppe’s contributions, NPCA launched the annual Miller Ruppe Award for Outstanding Community Service to recognize NPCA affiliate groups for their efforts in promoting the Third Goal of Peace Corps and continuing to serve host countries.