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THE FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
COLLEGE OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
THE ROLE OF NORTH AMERICAN WOMEN
IN U.S. CULTURAL CHAUVINISM IN THE PANAMA CANAL ZONE, 1904-1945
PAUL W. MORGAN, JR.
A Dissertation submitted to the
Department of History
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Summer Semester, 2000
Copyright @ 2000
Paul W. Morgan, Jr.
All Rights Reserved
The members of the Committee approve the dissertation of Paul W. Morgan, Jr.
defended on 30 June 2000.
Darrell E. Levi
Professor Directing Dissertation
Morton D. Winsberg
-Outside Committee Member
Com *tee Member
Valerie J. Conhdr
Neil T.Ju onville
I gratefully acknowledge the immeasurable assistance given to me in this project
and in my academic studies over the years by my doctoral committee. I thank my major
professor, Darrell Levi, for helping me to explore Caribbean and Latin American events,
as well as the teaching profession, from many different perspectives. I appreciate the
guidance given to me by Rodney Anderson in using statistics as an archeological tool
to uncover the less obvious underpinnings of Latin American history. I am grateful for
the insights of Neil Jumonville and Valerie Conner regarding how ideas and culture, as
well as people, contribute to U.S. history. Finally, I appreciate the dedication of Morton
Winsberg to cultivating geographical and cultural understanding among the peoples of
Without the institutional support I received from many circles, this research
could not have been accomplished. I acknowledge my debt to the staff of the Inter-
Library Loan department at Strozier Library, Florida State University. I am grateful for
the cooperation of staff members at the Women's History and Resource Center of the
General Federation of Women's Clubs, Washington, D.C., for opening their archives to
me. Patrice Brown and Fred Romanski were invaluable in my delving into government
documents in the Panama Canal collection at the National Archives in College Park,
Maryland. Lastly, I appreciate the aid given me by Pat Beall and Barbara Green in the
Panama Canal Society offices in Seminole, Florida.
People on the Isthmus of Panama were exceedingly helpful on my research trip
to the former Panama Canal Zone. Prior to my leaving the States, former Canal
librarian Maryann Nita advised me well on my proposed research in Panama. While in
the Republic, the staff at the Technical Resources Center, headed by Maricarmen
Ameglio, greatly facilitated my work in the Panama Canal collection. With very little
available on the history of West Indian women in Panama, discussions with Melva
Lowe de Goodin, founder of the Sociedad de Amigos del Museo AfroAntillano de
Panama (Society of Friends of the Afro-Antillian Museum of Panama), and Toni
Williams-Sanchez of the "Silver Sisters" oral history project were essential to grasping
the West Indian perspective.
None of this work could have been possible without the loving assistance of my
wife, Stacia. My preoccupation with this topic necessitated sacrifice on her part, a great
deal of understanding, and a willingness to put both our lives "on hold." Not only did
she do this, but she actively took part in the work, contributing her outstanding editing
skills to the final product.
Finally, many former residents of the Canal Zone shared memories with me, as
well as diaries, letters, and mementos from previous generations. Though I have
formally recognized only those whose contributions I have cited, I want to thank all who
gave of their time to share their experiences, their remembrances, their lives with me. I
especially want to thank the U.S. wives and mothers of the Canal Zone, including my
own mother, for creating this history. They followed their spouses to the Isthmus to
build an "American" home-for better or for worse.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
List of Figures .......................................................................................... ............... vi
Abstract ....................................................................... ...................vii
The Panama Canal Zone (Construction Period) .......................viii
The Panama Canal Zone (Post-Construction Period) ................ix
P R E FA C E .......................................................................................................... 1
1. WOMEN AND IMPERIALISM ......................................................... ...................11
2. THE ARRIVAL OF "THE LADIES, GOD BLESS THEM!" .......................................40
3. ORGANIZING "AS WOMEN OF THE UNITED STATES" ........................................83
4. EITHER "NEED NEVER ENTER THE OTHER" ....................................................117
5. TAKING CARE OF "OUR OWN" ................................................................................156
6. "O UR AM ERICAS" ..........................................................................................197
E P ILO G U E .............................................................................................................236
B IB LIO G RA P HY ....................................................................................................249
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .................................................................................264
LIST OF FIGURES
1. The Panama Canal Zone (Construction Period) ..............................................viii
2. The Panama Canal Zone (Post-Construction Period) ...................................... ..ix
This dissertation examines the role North American women played in importing,
cultivating, and propagating U.S. middle-class values and customs in the Panama
Canal Zone, from the early days of canal construction through the Second World War.
The study illustrates how women's domesticity served U.S. cultural imperialism, a
relationship in history that has received minimal attention. In the formative years of the
Canal Zone lay the cultural roots of both resentment and regard which the Panamanian
people feel for the U.S. residents of the Canal Zone.
Research into Zone women's activities throughout the twenties, the global
depression, and the Second World War reveals how wives of North American canal
workers collaborated with the U.S. government in building an orderly "American" climate
on the Isthmus of Panama. As a by-product of domesticity, their entrenchment of U.S.
customs provided the community stability desired by the U.S. government but also
advanced U.S. cultural chauvinism in Isthmian life.
Despite the inter-cultural efforts of U.S. women, their ethnocentric views and
their defense of Zonian prerogatives helped foster the perception that U.S. culture was
superior to those of other Isthmian peoples. As the epilogue reveals, the Second World
War enhanced cultural reciprocity between U.S. and Panamanian women, but this
"softening" of chauvinism failed to eradicate the perceptions in both Zonians and
Panamanians formed in the first fifty years of U.S. presence on the Isthmus.
u> PANAMA CANAL T
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Nations with a long-term presence in foreign lands bring with them elements of
their home culture. At a minimum, such elements may simply be icons of overseas
commerce. At most, cultural influence becomes cultural imperialism, as when the
culture of a colonial power dominates and undermines the native culture of the colony.
Although the United States has never claimed the Republic of Panama as a territorial
colony, the influence of U.S. culture on the Republic has been pervasive. Efforts of
multinational corporations and global economics do not explain this influence as much
as the physical presence of a United States enclave on the Isthmus of Panama-the
Panama Canal and its surrounding Canal Zone. This enclave brought U.S. culture into
a close and dominating proximity with that of the Republic of Panama.
The abutment of the Canal Zone with the terminal cities of Col6n and Panama,
in which the majority of Panamanians live, made the Canal's influence on the Republic,
according to Panamanian historian, Bonifacio Pereira Jim6nez, "certain, definite,
effective-not only in economic life, but in social, political, and cultural life as well."'
Many Panamanians, in their desire for a better economic life, tied their destinies to the
Canal and its supporting activities in the Canal Zone, where business was carried on
and signs were posted in English. In addition, intermarriage and subsequent residence
1Quoted in Jean Gilbreath Niemeier, The Panama Story (Portland, Oreg.:
Metropolitan Press,1968), 166.
in the Canal Zone often "North Americanized" the Panamanian partner, leading one
Panamanian nationalist to state that "from a political point of view intermarriage is one
of the surest ways the United States has for conquering Panama."2 U.S. culture began
to dominate soon after the construction of the Canal, and by the 1920s, one visiting
journalist observed that U.S. citizens in the Zone were not adopting Panamanian ways
so much as the "natives" were trying to assimilate North American ways.3
Many of the ways imitated or adopted by Panamanians stemmed from the
cultural and social environment created by North Americans residing in the Canal Zone,
the "Zonians." These people came to the Isthmus to accomplish a vast engineering feat
at the beginning of the twentieth century and stayed to maintain the operation of this
canal at the "Crossroads of the World." To insure that a sufficient supervisory and
skilled workforce would come from the States and remain to operate the Canal, the
United States government and Canal Zone authorities instituted policies to make living
and working conditions as familiar to middle-class, white North Americans as possible.
Policies related to housing, medical care, and public facilities segregated the U.S.
enclave from the "other," whether the surrounding jungle or the people of the Republic
of Panama. This physical separation reflected a cultural insulation and aloofness.
Geographer Stephen Frenkel's work, "Cultural Imperialism and the Development of the
Panama Canal Zone, 1912-1960," fully examines this process. His analysis, though,
2John Biesanz, "Inter-American Marriages on the Isthmus of Panama," Social Forces 29
(December 1950): 161.
3Charles Phelps Cushing, "Yankee Notions in the Canal Zone," NY Herald Tribune
Magazine (March 3,1924): 2.
does not give much coverage to the role played by the residents of the Canal Zone.4
Most historians writing on the relations between the United States and the
Republic of Panama have spent few pages on the social history of the Zonians.
Instead, much has been written within the political context, such as the foreign policy of
the United States and its treaty disputes with Panama. In that context, the Zonians
discussed were mainly officials who had contact with State Department and
Panamanian authorities. Also much of the literature on the Panama Canal and its
workers was written during and shortly after construction, when the great engineering
achievement drew many travel writers to the Isthmus. Very few works were published
between the 1920s and the 1960s. After the excitement created by the new canal died
down, the history of North American workers and their families on the Isthmus was
relegated to passing comments in later political works and magazine articles concerned
with the Canal Zone's impact on U.S. policies and treaties with Panama.
Two exceptions are the work of John and Mavis Biesanz, The People of
Panama,s and Herbert and Mary Knapp's, Red, White, and Blue Paradise.6 The
Biesanz's sociological study, written in 1955, includes the Zonians, along with urban
Panamanians, rural Panamanians, and West Indians, in their discussion of the four
categories of people living on the Isthmus of Panama. But it is more of a static picture
of the Zonians than an historical review of how their cultural milieu was created. On the
4Stephen Wolff Frenkel, "Cultural Imperialism and the Development of the Panama
Canal Zone, 1912-1960" (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 1992).
5John Biesanz and Mavis Biesanz, The People of Panama (New York: Columbia Press,
6Herbert Knapp and Mary Knapp, Red, White, and Blue Paradise: The American Canal
Zone in Panama (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).
other hand, the Knapps' book, published following the onset of the new Panama Canal
treaties in 1977, describes how the current North American culture of the Zone was
imbedded in, if not fixated on, the ideology of the Progressive Era. This "fixing" of a
cultural way of life explains how Zonians could be portrayed as heroic roughnecks on
the outposts of an "American" empire during the construction of the Canal and as
obstructionist "rednecks" by State Department personnel during the negotiations of the
new Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s.7 Despite the authors' criticism of the Zone's
cultural chauvinism, the reader cannot escape the impression that the book was written
as a defense of Zonian life to counter American and Panamanian critics.
A major deficiency in every work, however, is the insufficient coverage given to
the U.S. women of the Canal Zone. Consequently, I have chosen to concentrate on
these women both to fill this gap in the historical literature and to recognize their
participation in developing a North American environment. Like their sisters in other
areas of history, Canal Zone women as a group have been greatly overlooked in their
own history. The workforce, mainly male, has received the primary attention given to
the Zonians. Both men and women did contribute to the character of the cultural life in
the Zone. But women, especially in their domestic role, had a major impact on social
and cultural life due to their flexible schedules. These wives and mothers created and
perpetuated homes and communities on the Isthmus in the image of North American
life, and in doing so, fostered the perception of a superior North American, Anglo-
Saxon, middle-class culture.
The minimization of the role of women in the U.S. presence in Panama is
7 Knapp and Knapp, Red, White, and Blue Paradise: The American Canal Zone in
Panama, 191, 211.
partially due to the challenges of women's history in general. Women traditionally have
been excluded from the history of imperialism, as in British history, where "imperial
historians have preferred male actors, while feminist women's studies scholars have
chosen to resurrect more 'politically correct' women" rather than look at women who
played leading roles in supporting imperial efforts.8 A partial explanation for this
omission is the domestic nature of most women's work overseas; in many ways, their
tasks abroad were the same as those at home. After all, imperialism was considered a
"paternal responsibility."9 From the earliest efforts to chronicle the construction of the
Canal, a similar exclusion has been common. S.P. Verner, a construction-era Canal
worker, bemoaned how writers avoided telling the story of women's contributions to
Canal history and their "unfaltering spirit whose heroism no pen can describe."10
The history of women in the Canal Zone has also been hindered by their
"invisibility" in govemment records. In the U.S. census of 1900, married women were
not listed as working for pay, even if they did receive a salary for work outside their
domestic duties. This omission reflected society's view that the main work of women
was keeping house, no matter what else they did.1 Likewise, in the early days of
construction, the Canal Zone police censuses failed to include employed females
among the total number of employees, listing such women as simply residing in the
8Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds., Western Women and Imperialism:
Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1992), 7.
9Callaway, Helen and Dorothy O. Kelly, "Crusader for Empire: Flora Shaw/Lady
Lugard," in ibid., 93.
'S.P. Vemer, "The Women Who Made the Canal," Society of the Chagres: Yearbook,
1916-1917 (Girard, Kans.: Girard Job Shop, 1917), 76.
"Carl J. Schneider and Dorothy Schneider, American Women in the Progressive Era,
1900-1920 (New York: Anchor Books, 1993), 23.
Zone.12 Although women workers were later recorded in their own right, unemployed
women in the Canal Zone never had any independent status.
A wife's status was based solely on her husband's employment; she was
granted government privileges, benefits, and identity in the Zone only on that basis. In
the eyes of the Canal Zone government, as with the military, women in Zone families
were "dependents," merely sharing their husbands' status and history. For example,
when the wife of Walter Van Dame, a former Panama Railroad employee, applied for a
pass during a trip back to the Zone, the governor refused, stating that "the passes you
had before were probably obtained by our New York office on the strength of Mr. Van
Dame's being a Railroad employee, and the possibility of getting these [passes] passed
when he severed his connection with the Panama Railroad."13 So with official
government records offering minimal material for piecing together the contribution of
women, history has generally emphasized the efforts of the men on the Canal, who
made up the majority of the workforce.
What little recognition the U.S. government has made of women's contributions
to the Panama Canal has been understated in the celebration of the accomplishments
of men. When the construction was completed, the chief engineer, Colonel George W.
Goethals, wrote that each woman on the site deserved credit for being "a real helpmeet
'1Memorandum from Chief Health Officer to Various Departments and Divisions, 8
August 1918, File 28-B-105 (Census of the Canal Zone-General, 1 September 1913-
31 January 1920); File 28-B-107 (Police Census of the Canal Zone, 1 April 1914-30
June 1915), The Panama Canal General Records, 1914-1934, Record Group 185,
13Governor M. L. Walker to Mrs. Walter Van Dame, 22 June 1927, File 28-A-6
(Associations, Organizations, Etc., of "Old Timers" on the Isthmus and in the
United States-General, 1 June 1925-31 December 1934),The Panama Canal
General Records, 1914-1934, Record Group 185, National Archives.
in the home, and an influence for good in the community," doing her duty to the nation
but in a different sphere.14 For putting up with the dangers and climate in the tropics,
President Theodore Roosevelt called the North American wife on the Isthmus "a better
fellow" than even the male worker.'5 In turn, these male workers were grateful for the
government's benevolence in providing for the "wives of its employees."16 Yet in the
face of a significant historical event, applauding good companionship and the
perseverance of women was but a faint compliment.
The memoirs and accounts by women who lived on the Isthmus, beginning with
canal construction, indicate that they, at least, saw themselves making history, not just
participating in it. Wives like Jeanette Ferris Brown joined their husband-workers in the
great engineering achievement. They too saw themselves as "Canal Builders against
the world," creating a new identity far from home "in a new field ... cut off from their
own kind." 17 Harriet Verner, an Isthmian wife writing during construction days, declared
that they "nursed the blueshirters ... married them ... taught [the children]... made
the land look like it was really inhabited.... And then they made it home."18 This last
statement truly spells out women's contribution to the establishment of U.S. culture on
the Isthmus of Panama: they made their communities, as well as their houses, into a
North American home. Not with picks and steam shovels but with domestic and social
14Mrs. Ernest Ulrich von Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal,
from 1904 to 1916 (Panama: Star and Herald Co., 1916), preface (no page number).
'5Star and Herald, 26 November 1906.
16J. Macklin Beattie, "Reminiscence," Society of the Chagres: Yearbook, 1914 (Balboa
Heights, C.Z.: John O. Collins, 1914), 165.
17Rose Van Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly! (Hollywood, Calif.: The Pan Press,1956), 14.
"Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, iii-iv.
activities, women helped create and maintain an enduring North American culture in the
midst of the Republic of Panama.
Through letters, memoirs, newspapers, records and histories of women's
organizations, government files, and material in the National Archives, the story of how
North American women promoted their presumed cultural superiority on the Isthmus of
Panama, often unintentionally, has unfolded. In their attempts to build a familiar home,
religious, and community life in the Canal Zone during the first half of the twentieth
century, the women of the Canal Zone transplanted, adhered to, and prioritized before
the people of Panama a North American culture that would later characterize the Canal
Zone as "more American than the Stars and Stripes."19
The scope of my examination is primarily limited to the North American women
of the civilian communities in the Canal Zone from 1904 through World War II, the
formative years for this cultural development. These were wives of civil servants
employed by the Panama Canal, the Panama Railroad, and, in some cases, U.S.
military forces. Much of my research stems from the activities of organizations in which
these women participated, since such activities were the most publicized and recorded.
Although I cannot say that all women belonged to these organizations, Zonians as a
group typically created associations and clubs in which to preserve their cultural ways.
Additionally, source material outside of organizations only reinforces the cultural tone
and attitude found within organizational information. Wives of U.S. military personnel
stationed in Panama, who provided a counterpoint to the identity of Zonians, also
contributed to the North American cultural milieu. But their transiency in Panama made
their contribution to this cultural superiority less weighty. Consequently, I do not focus
g1Jules Dubois, Danger Over Panama (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), 343.
on their activities.
Regarding terminology, I refer to my subjects as "Zone" or "Zonian" women,
"North American women in the Zone" or "U.S. women in the Zone." This is as accurate
an English designation as I can make of two terms Panamanians commonly used in
print during this time period: zoneitas, which referred to all North Americans living in the
Canal Zone, but without distinguishing gender; and norteamericanas, which referred to
North American women, but without distinguishing between those who lived in the
States and those in the Zone. At certain places, the term "Americans" is used for
Zonians, in keeping with quotes from authors of the time period. I do recognize,
however, that restricting this term to North Americans is incorrect as both Central and
South Americans may also rightly claim that designation.
Before proceeding, I also need to define "culture" within the context of this
study. Culture can be defined narrowly, as in the case of "high" culture versus "low"
culture. But in examining the cultural role of U.S. women in the Panama Canal Zone, I
am defining culture in its widest sense, in terms of "customs." Alexis de Tocqueville, the
nineteenth-century French nobleman who traveled throughout the United States
observing its democratic culture, construed customs as "the whole moral and
intellectual condition of a people."20 When U.S. women transplanted the customs from
their stateside homes on the Isthmus of Panama, they imported an attitude and a way
of life which perpetuated the most commonly-held, middle-class values of the United
States. Lawrence Harrison, in analyzing the clash of North American and Latin
American cultures, described the dominant customs of the United States as Anglo-
20Quoted in Lawrence E. Harrison, The Pan-American Dream: Do Latin America's
Cultural Values Discourage True Partnership with the United States and Canada?
(New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 25.
Protestant in respect to work, frugality, education, community, law, and progress.21 This
cultural attitude, in addition to the stateside popular cultural pursuits of the day,
pervaded life in the Canal Zone and consequently affected Panamanian culture.
My purpose in exploring this cultural phenomenon in United States-Panama
relations is to contribute specifically to the histories of the Canal Zone and Panama and
to bring new information to bear on the general topic of women in imperialism. I also
believe that examining the domestic and cultural roles of North American women in this
overseas enclave amplifies the overall histories of the United States and Latin America.
21Harrison, The Pan-American Dream, 4.
WOMAN AND CULTURAL IMPERIALISM
To understand the role of women in U.S. cultural imperialism in Panama, the
historian needs to consider certain elements influencing the study of that role. First, the
myth of American exceptionalism, exempting the United States from European-style
imperialism, has made it easy to disregard the cultural behavior of U.S. women
overseas as imperialist. Secondly, literature on women's activities in overseas
endeavors reveals that their acts of cultural imperialism have not been monolithic. The
relationship between controlling and controlled nations has influenced the nature of
those acts. Some acts have been direct, aggressive attempts to transform the native
culture into the culture of the imperial nation; others have been defensive efforts to
transplant and preserve the superiority of the home culture while in a foreign land. But
in both cases, women's domestic role has been a willing ally. Lastly, the geographical
structure of the Canal Zone encouraged U.S. women to develop and maintain a North
American society on the Isthmus of Panama and to manifest U.S. cultural chauvinism,
a defensive form of cultural imperialism.
In the debate on imperialism and colonialism, the myth of American
exceptionalism depicts the United States' experience with imperialism as distinct from
that of its European counterparts. The fact that some observers do not mention North
American women alongside their European sisters of empire reflects the view that U.S.
imperialism was a brief historical diversion from the traditional democracy of the United
States or, at worst, a benign and progressive form of imperialism.1 Frederick Merk
differentiated the imperial actions of the United States in the 1890s, and the resultant
colonial exploitation, from the continental expansion under Manifest Destiny, which he
said "envisaged the elevation of neighboring peoples to equal statehood."2 A case has
been made, however, that the "new" overseas American empire was not new but was
merely a continuation of the continental expansion and the imposition of U.S.
government interests and ideology, if not rule, upon "other" peoples.3
Historians have also broadened the definition of imperialism. Graeme Stewart
Mount, discussing U.S.-Panama relations, concludes that an imperial power can still
control without physically populating the subordinate nation or directly governing the
people under that control.4 Diplomatic historian William Langer likewise postulates that
the application of such control can be indirect as well as direct.5 Furthermore, imperial
control can encompass areas other than political.
'Vicente L. Rafael, "Colonial Domesticity: White Women and the United States Rule in
the Philippines," American Literature 67 (December 1995): 640.
2Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Vintage
Books, 1963), 256.
3How the "new" empire was a natural culmination of the expansion that saw the
confiscation of native American lands, slavery, and the conquest and partition of
Mexican territory is the subject of Lloyd C. Gardner, Walter F. LaFeber, and Thomas J.
McCormick, Creation of the American Empire (2d ed., 2 vols., Chicago: Rand McNally,
1976). Anders Stephanson's Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of
Right (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995) explores the spiritual underpinnings of Manifest
Destiny and places imperialism on the same continuum.
4Graeme Stewart Mount, "American Imperialism in Panama" (Ph.D. diss., University of
Toronto, 1969), 5.
5William Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Cultural imperialism constitutes one of those other areas of control, though it is
often reinforced by political or economic power. The adherence to and the promotion of
a culture foreign to the nation which an imperial power controls may be deliberate or
incidental. In either case, if the power undermines the native culture with ideas that
erode traditional values, lifestyles, and identities, that action denotes cultural
imperialism.6 Edward Said, in his study of the relationship between imperialism and
culture, points out that although U.S. expansionism has been principally economic, this
expansion has depended upon and been tied to a cultural ideology about the United
States. Those ideas have been continually repeated in the market place overseas,
wherever the United States does business or influences how business is transacted.7
How a power promulgates this cultural imperialism overseas depends on the
political and economic relationship between the imperial power and the country over
which it exercises influence or control. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, in areas where that relationship was one of direct control, Europeans
explicitly imposed the imperial culture on native peoples. Women in those colonies also
took part in this cultural transformation. In many instances, the domestic role they
carried from home to the overseas colony facilitated cultural imperialism. To illustrate,
the architects of the British Empire typically felt it was their duty to guide dependent
peoples along the road to self-government, if not ultimately to independence.8 In like
6Nancy Morris, Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity (Westport, Conn.: Praeger
Publishers, 1995), 10.
7Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 289.
8John La Guerre, "The Social and Political Thought of Aim6 C6saire and
C. L. R. James: Some Comparisons," in Dual Legacies in the Contemporary Caribbean:
Continuing Aspects of British and French Dominion, ed. Paul Sutton (London: Frank
Cass, 1986), 202.
manner, British women who committed themselves to "improving" the lives of native
people often undertook a maternal role in trying to mold those people according to
European and Victorian ideals. In India, for example, some British women felt the need
to guide adult Indian women in the art of "proper" dress. They promoted the dress of
Western Victorian womanhood as more modest and superior to Indian attire, and, in so
doing, emulated the Empire's perception of the Indian people as infantile.9
Even British feminists who may have disputed the Victorian ideology of
womanhood at home seldom flouted their social conventions before native people. In
India, such women, though aligned with Indian reformers to uplift the status of native
women, could not escape their ethnocentrism and educate without Anglicizing.10 In
Africa, British women who spoke out against the exploitation of native women or who
defended the indigenous cultures nevertheless rarely called into question the
supremacy of Britain and Anglo-Saxon values in the hierarchy of civilizations and races.
The direct attempts by women to improve the life of colonial peoples were consistent
with traditional British ideals of justice, civilization, and womanhood.1
On the North American continent, U.S. women in the westward migration
packed their customs and values from home among their worldly goods. In the trek
across the continent, men and women sought new land for farming and mining, for new
markets, for free religious expression, among other interests. With the ideology of
Manifest Destiny and the U.S. war with Mexico providing justification for confiscating
9Barbara N. Ramusack, "Cultural Missionaries, Maternal Imperialist, Feminist Allies:
British Women Activists in India, 1865-1945," in Western Women and Imperialism, ed.
Chaudhuri and Strobel, 132-133.
"Callaway and Kelly, "Crusader for Empire: Flora Shaw/Lady Lugard," 93.
native American and Mexican lands, "whites" or "Anglos" progressively transformed or
displaced the culture of the previous inhabitants. Male pioneers viewed women
migrants as "civilizing" influences in the new frontier. Preservers of the "home" culture in
the new land, such women inspired one poet to write: "Without their gentle touch, this
land/Would still be wilderness."12 But the homes of the new inhabitants were not the
only object of women's cultural efforts. Women who taught displaced native Americans
and Mexicans often saw themselves as "cultural missionaries" to this frontier.13
Abroad, North American women relied primarily on the history of women in
overseas religious missions as their background for cultural transformation. Protestant
missions were colored by U.S. economic, political, and cultural influences. Historians
have characterized the attempts to transform native culture in the mission field as
undoubtedly imperialist. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. concluded that the U.S. Protestant
missionary enterprise, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fit
into the general theories of cultural imperialism. Evangelism included the aggressive
communication of the superiority of American values over those of native peoples. The
work further strengthened the missionaries' own sense of "American chosenness."14
Reinforced by the myth of American exceptionalism, Protestant missionaries
tried to distance themselves from the charge of imperialism. They contrasted the
territorial colonialism of the Old World with the benevolent expansion of U.S. values
'2Glenda Riley, A Place to Grow: Women in the American West (Arlington Heights, Ill.:
Harlan Davidson, 1992), 204.
14Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "The Missionary Enterprise and Theories of Imperialism," in
The Missionary Enterprise in China and America, ed. John F. Fairbank (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), 336, 352, 353, 363, 365, 372.
and enlightened interests. But overseas, as with native Americans and Mexicans in the
western and southwestern frontiers of the United States, "heathen" meant both non-
Christian and non-American. Missionaries often expressed the blessings of Christian
salvation in the language of traditional American values. As the following lines from
Mother Goose Missionary Rhymes, composed for Presbyterian Sunday School children
in the early twentieth century, illustrates, Protestant evangelism and the "American way"
were intertwined to bring enlightenment to foreign peoples:
Three little heathen didn't know what to do;
One learned our language, then there were two.
Two little heathen couldn't have any fun;
One gave up idols, then there was but one.
One little Heathen standing all alone;
He learned to love our flag, then there were none.15
U.S. missionaries, towards the end of the nineteenth century, viewed their
mission as two-fold: evangelism and social welfare. Women missionaries, many of
whom had worked in settlement houses, held middle-class values. They implemented
these values to improve the quality of life in the people they had come to evangelize. In
turn, they felt their Christian ideals could spiritualize U.S. secular interests in the region
and thus prevent the exploitation of native peoples. Yet contemporary and later critics
labeled much of their Progressive-Era evangelism as simply practical "Americanism."16
Reviewing the types of tasks performed by U.S. missionary women in India,
China, and the Philippines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sheds
light on this North American quality of evangelism. In northern India, missionary women
'5Quoted in William Hutchinson, Errand to the World ( Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1987), 123.
161bid., 92-93, 125, 129-130.
from the United States worked among lower-caste women to "improve" their social
conditions and among high-caste women to "improve" their education. The vehicle for
this "improvement" was the promotion of North American, middle-class social values
within the context of Christian teachings. They offered Western medical aid to women
along with criticism of traditional Indian health and hygiene. Missionaries introduced
young Indian women in the mission boarding schools to the benefits of North American
sports, such as basketball, along with lessons to improve their literacy. What they
taught often strengthened, at least in the minds of the missionaries, the necessity for
the presence of Western culture, administration, and medicine.17
Protestant missionary goals for cultural conversion were more extensive in
China. The U.S. missions targeted China's practices in education, family organization,
religion, and gender ideology. Although missionaries characterized China's practices as
contrary to Christian teachings, their conversion of these practices was based on the
North American variant of Christian culture.1 Women played a central part in
questioning Chinese practices and converting the Chinese to American Protestant and
social values. Prior to World War I, the cult of domesticity and true Victorian
womanhood gave women missionaries their separate sphere of influence, and this
sphere was of great benefit to the task of cultural transformation.19 North American
'7Leslie A. Flemming, "A New Humanity: American Missionaries' Ideal for Women in
North India, 1870-1930," in Western Women and Imperialism, ed. Chaudhuri and
Strobel, 192, 193-194, 198, 199.
s1Gael Graham, Gender, Culture, and Christianity: American Protestant Mission
Schools in China, 1880-1930 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995), 195, 1.
"'Throughout the nineteenth century, Euro-American societies tied what it meant to be
a true" woman to her domestic roles. A "true" Victorian woman was one who took care
of her family and home. This restricted women's influence to a sphere separate from
that of men but it also gave women a unique moral standing in the eyes of society.
women made contact with indigenous wives on a personal level, a difficult encounter
for their missionary husbands due to Chinese custom. Under the gaze of Chinese
women, American women championed the cultural model of the "American Christian
family" and spoke to what they perceived to be abuses in China's gender ideology.
This latter target involved the teaching of English. Missionaries initially admitted
there was no real justification for teaching English, since the Bible was already
translated into Chinese dialects. However, English was valued by Chinese commerce;
merchants were prone to send their children to mission schools and financially support
programs that taught their children English. By teaching English to young girls as well
as boys, missionaries felt they were helping to remedy the subordination of women and
to elevate the intellectual status of women in the minds of men. The educational efforts
in mission schools, however, continually juxtaposed the "superiority" of Western culture
to the "inferiority" of Chinese culture.20
The endeavors of missionary women in the Philippines provided a more
immediate model of cultural imperialism to those secular women soon to join their
husbands in a territory of the new overseas American empire. As U.S. policy would
presently include a direct transformation of Filipino institutions, women missionaries
saw themselves as a civilizing vanguard for that process. In their view, Filipinos were
culturally immature, having lived for many years under the oppressive, authoritarian rule
of Catholic Spain. The ideas of Progressivism and the Social Gospel would mature the
Filipinos to the level of eventual self-govemment. Like their British imperial sisters, U.S.
women missionaries viewed the Filipinos as child-like. In such a state, Filipinos needed
both Christian (Protestant) and North American instruction, while requiring protection
20Graham, Gender, Culture, and Christianity, 16, 17, 59-60.
from the potential corruption in secular Americanism.21
Shortly after the United States began to govern the Philippines, a number of
wives enlisted in the work of ameliorating the Filipino people. As with missionary
women, their maternal values fit the U.S. perception of Filipinos as infantile in many, if
not all, facets of civilization. Wives placed domesticity in service to cultural
imperialism.22 Formally and informally, they taught hygiene, beautification of the home,
the "principles of civilized cooking and housewifery," and the spirit of democracy, fair
play, and progress based on North American values.23 They formed their own women's
clubs and engaged in charitable work similar to that in the States, bringing moral values
from home to bear on the problems of Filipino society.24 They considered the elevation
of North American culture before the Filipino people to be beneficial and edifying,
despite anti-imperialist criticism of "trying to make a Filipino over into an American."25
A similar pattern occurred in Puerto Rico, as women accompanied United States
officials, military personnel, and businessmen to the island after the Spanish defeat in
1898. Again American exceptionalism justified the assimilation of the Puerto Rican
people into the U.S. sphere as a benign process. The cultural transformation was
21Kenton J. Clymer. Protestant Missionaries in the Philippines, 1898-1916: An Inquiry
into the American Colonial Mentality (Urbana, III.: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 19,
22Rafael, "Colonial Domesticity": 639, 641.
23W. Cameron Forbes, The Philippine Islands, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
1928), 87; Carl Crow, America and the Philippines (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday,
Page and Co., 1914), illustration between pages 68 and 69.
24Forbes, The Philippine Islands, vol. 2: 366.
25Henry Parker Willis, Our Philippine Problem: A Study of Colonial Policy (New York:
Henry Holt and Co., 1905; New York: Arno Press, 1970), 444.
merely to "bestow upon them the best of our civilization without destroying all that was
good in the old."26 This interpretation was commonly given to U.S. cultural incursions
into indigenous traditions around the world. But Puerto Rican writers, such as Manuel
Maldonado-Denis, charge that the cultural goal of American power was, again, to make
"good North Americans" out of Puerto Ricans. 27
One woman who followed the flag early in the United States' occupation of
Puerto Rico revealed in her account an attitude that became common among those
North American women who were concerned that Puerto Ricans receive the blessings
of North American culture. In an article published at the close of the nineteenth century,
Mrs. Guy Henry, wife of the first U.S. military governor of Puerto Rico, wrote of the
United States' responsibility to all native peoples in its empire:
No matter to-day how or why they became ours-the ever-present
question is, What shall we do with them? Like Christian's pack,
they are strapped upon our back. When we lie down they must still
be with us. When we arise as a nation and travel onward they will go
with us. And we must carry the burden straight forward now to the end.28
Women like Mrs. Henry saw a "white woman's burden" in this new empire:
helping those whose conditions were deplorable, especially by North American, middle-
class standards. But this burden was more than a mission to help the poor and
unfortunate. As with club women back home, it was a mission to "Americanize" the
alien in his or her own land. Shortly after military wives joined their husbands in Puerto
26John E. Jennings, Jr. Our American Tropics (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell
Co., 1938), 121.
27Manuel Maldonado-Denis, Puerto Rico: A Socio-Historical Interpretation (New York:
Random House, 1976), 133.
28Mrs. Guy V. Henry, "Porto Rico from a Woman's Point of View," American Monthly
Review of Reviews 20 (July-December 1899): 180.
Rico, some formed a women's aid society to provide food, clothes, and education to
Puerto Rican women and children, responding, they said, to "a wail ... for life and light,
for a hand to guide and hold and help them to rise above the ignorance and poverty ...
to reach a higher womanhood." But helping Puerto Ricans to become self-sustaining
meant educating their children to grow "great and grand like the Americanos [and
become] true American citizens."29
The role of women in defensive cultural chauvinism, however, is more prevalent
in the history of European and North American empires than women's participation in
the direct imposition of foreign values upon native peoples. Such chauvinism involved
women from all walks of life. It was natural for women accompanying their husbands
overseas to transport and perpetuate their stateside values in their new homes and
communities. Unlike those women who intentionally prescribed imperialist values for
colonial peoples, a wife whose world solely consisted of her family and activities within
her social circle did not necessarily see the impact on native peoples of transplanting
her home culture. Indigenous people were not her focus; she was only making a home
for her spouse and children, as she had before going overseas. Women simply
replicated their domestic and social activities from their homeland. This form of cultural
imperialism was, for the most part, unintentional.
Yet the defensive function of the transplanted culture presupposes a belief in
the superiority of that culture. Soon after women arrived on foreign shores, many would
become homesick. Living in an alien land and married to men who worked long hours,
they felt socially isolated and focused on what they had left behind. They became more
29Henry, "Porto Rico from a Woman's Point of View": 178, 179.
preoccupied with the loss of their home "civilization" than with learning a new culture.30
The remedy was to recover and hold on to what was familiar. By transporting their
traditional values and activities to the new land, women defended against that loss or
contamination of the home culture and kept indigenous or other cultures at a distance.
There was also a second purpose in this cultural chauvinism. Society saw
women's domestic functions as natural, informal, and familial. But at times, as will be
seen in the discussion on the Panama Canal Zone, governments systematically and
officially enlisted women's help to benefit the mission. By creating surroundings
reminiscent of home, women were helping authorities maintain a stable, orderly, and
satisfied workforce, necessary for administering the colony or enclave overseas.
Historical discussions of nineteenth-century imperial endeavors disclose how
the presence of women was strongly linked to the defense of the moral and cultural
standards from home. Brian Moore states that British women were introduced into
British Guiana by colonial authorities to bring a sense of decorum to their elite male
counterparts, to maintain class lines, and to uplift the social morality of the colony by
preserving Victorian social customs.31 Dea Birkett notes that authorities in colonial
Africa expected British women to retain their Victorian dress and social conventions.
British nurses, called to Africa to keep racial and cultural divisions intact, also stood as
a symbol of the empire. British colonials opposed treatment by native medical
practitioners, whom they considered incapable, and they desired their medical sisters
from home to provide that service. To insure that nurses imitated nursing life in Britain,
30Callaway and Kelly, "Crusade for Empire: Flora Shaw/Lady Lugard," 89.
31Brian L. Moore, "The Culture of the Colonial Elite of Nineteenth-Century Guyana" in
The White Minority in the Caribbean, ed. Howard Johnson and Karl Watson (Princeton,
N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998), 102, 103.
colonial regulations demanded they remain in uniform, even when off duty, and
restricted their entertainment to avoid any appearance of scandal.32 The goal was to
keep everyday life as "British" as back home.
In Caribbean colonies, where imperial powers faced competition from each
other in small geographical areas, European women worked to preserve the hierarchy
of their national origins and culture as well as social mores. In Trinidad, as long as there
was no common threat to European control from native people, British and French
colonists competed over cultural superiority and kept their traditions separate from each
other and from other Europeans. Bridget Brereton denotes that even in charity work,
such as the temperance movement, women organized along lines of national and
religious origins. Many of these groups were geared to helping their own people, as in
the association to help gentlewomen in "reduced circumstances" to eam money.33
As the twentieth century approached, imperial competition in the Caribbean, and
thus cultural competition, increasingly came from North Americans. The utilitarian
North American ways of U.S. military and political officials clashed with the ceremonial
approach of European diplomacy. European governments feared the loss of their
cultural, as well as political and economic, hold on regional interests. Although Haiti had
been independent since 1804, the French Roman Catholic Church had dominated the
island's educational system during the nineteenth century. French nuns traditionally
taught the children of Francophile mulatto elites and had established social and cultural
32Dea Birkett, "The White Woman's Burden in the 'White Man's Grave': The
Introduction of British Nurses in Colonial West Africa" in Western Women and
Imperialism, ed. Chaudhuri and Strobel, 179, 184.
3Bridget Brereton, "The White Elite of Trinidad, 1838-1850" in The White Minority in
the Caribbean, ed. Johnson and Watson, 46, 49, 59.
ties to them. So when the U.S. military began to occupy the island in the twentieth
century, the French government looked to these women to keep alive French cultural
influence in the face of the North American incursion.3
Women of the North American Protestant missions also participated in
defensive cultural chauvinism. As previously discussed, missionary tasks during the
Progressive Era included the direct and aggressive application of North American
values to the evangelical mission field. But missionary homes were also refuges within
which wives practiced a defensive domesticity. In the China mission, many wives
considered their homes "oases of civilization in the deserts of heathendom."35 One
missionary woman described the environment within the missionary compound, with its
familiar elements, as an "air of comfort and truthfulness that [reminded] me very much
of home."36 With comfort, truthfulness, and civilization on the side of North American
values, such domestic defenses against the outside host culture communicated a belief
in cultural superiority and hampered the free and equal exchange of cultures.
U.S. women brought their domestic and matemal skills along on the "civilizing"
mission of the United States in the Philippines. Vicente Rafael, in his observations on
U.S. occupation of these islands, points to women as the primary agents of colonial
domesticity. He contends that U.S. women sought to protect white men from the threat
of racial and cultural contamination, as well as from any corruption of middle-class
morality. In this role as cultural defender, women created a home and social climate
3David Nicholls, "Cultural Dualism and Political Domination in Haiti" in ibid., 232.
35Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Tum-of-the-
Century China (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), 116.
36Frederick John Heuser, "Culture, Feminism, and the Gospel: American Presbyterian
Women and Foreign Missions, 1870-1923" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1991), 132.
that reflected both a real and mythical North American national identity. Their homes
performed the dual function of providing a refuge "of leisure and recuperation" from the
outside world and of symbolizing what Rafael calls "domestic outposts of 'beneficial
republicanism.'"37 According to historian Emily Hahn, women saw their mission much
like that of North American ministers and missionaries. To keep the home culture intact
and pure, they had to keep the immoral and unacceptable elements of the native
culture at bay. This resulted in a segregated, if unofficial, American community.8
Since middle-class wives traditionally regulated social affairs in their stateside
communities, they naturally did so in the Philippines. They became the gatekeepers of
polite, genteel society within the North American sphere. Diplomacy may have dictated
that some social mixing was required, but this mixing excluded all but the elites of
Filipino society, many of whom had become invested in the U.S. presence. Most
Filipinos, especially in the early years of empire, were excluded from North American
homes and clubs.39 The nature of these homes and the social rules goveming them
erected barriers between the cultures of the United States and the Philippine Islands.
Contemporary critics of early U.S. life in the Philippines largely attributed the
social and cultural barriers to the racial prejudice of North American women. Society
had traditionally accredited to women the moral and maternal character beneficial to a
just and "democratic" community. But critics charged that they failed to apply that
character to the Filipino people. Henry Parker Willis criticized U.S. women more than
37Rafael, "Colonial Domesticity": 642, 643, 652-653.
38Emily Hahn, The Islands: America's Imperial Adventure in the Philippines (New York:
Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1981), 128.
39Crow, America and the Philippines, 231.
men for drawing the color line, because women had fashioned North American homes
in a way that accentuated rather than diminished the racial barrier.40 Carl Crow felt that
wives had failed to take advantage of the opportunity to sow harmony and break down
the barriers between them and their "intellectual equals."41 Belief in the superiority of
U.S. culture over those of lesser peoples logically accompanied this racial attitude.
The activities supported by North American women in the Philippines
manifested this unofficial cultural and social segregation. The women formed social and
intellectual clubs as forums for pursuing a multitude of topics of interest to themselves.
For example, in 1912, suffrage activist Carrie Chapman Catt organized the Manila
Woman's Club when she became aware that there was no organization working in
Manila for the vote of U.S. women.42 Some club topics also related to the colonial
surroundings in which these women found themselves. They did desire to learn about
the cultures of the Philippine Islands, but they were more comfortable observing and
learning about these cultures from a distance, from the vantage point of a familiar North
American setting. Island subjects were merely topics for women to study and discuss
while "at home."43 Although North American women's clubs may have found kinship
with those of elite Filipino women, for the most part, they kept their meetings and
activities separate in the early years of occupation. This was consistent with the social
segregation of the North American community in general, which Willis attributed to the
40Willis, Our Philippine Problem, 250.
41Crow, America and the Philippines, 233, 234.
42Mildred White Wells, Unity in Diversity: The History of the General Federation of
Women's Clubs (Washington, D.C.: General Federation of Women's Clubs, 1953), 41.
43Rafael, "Colonial Domesticity": 650.
desire "to live as nearly in the American style as circumstances [would] permit."4
North American life in Puerto Rico followed similar social and cultural patterns to
those in the Philippines. Caribbean historian Gordon Lewis wrote that as late as the
1960s, North Americans were still predisposed to restrict their social life to their own
circles within Puerto Rican communities. They read U.S. papers and sent their children
to English-speaking schools. In most aspects, there was little attempt to identify with
Puerto Rican life. Instead North Americans tended to judge Puerto Rico by U.S.
standards.45 As North American women had done in the Philippines, those in Puerto
Rico were interested in island culture and folklore, but at a distance. There was little or
no attempt to see Puerto Rican culture as a viable alternative to the U.S. way of life.46
U.S. women did not necessarily isolate themselves from activities within the
Puerto Rican community. Through their clubs and churches they participated in local
philanthropic work. On occasion, North American women's clubs collaborated in charity
campaigns with parallel associations among Puerto Rican elites, but they primarily kept
their social and recreational pursuits separate. This separation can partially be
explained by the differences in interests between the two populations. North American
women instituted recreational pursuits similar to those they had left at home, whereas
Puerto Rican women's organizations, such as the Club Civico de Damas, the Uni6n de
Mujeres Americanas, and Casa de Espara, preferred Hispanic traditions.47 But
"Willis, Our Philippine Problem, 64.
45Gordon K. Lewis, Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean (New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1963), 310.
differences of interests do not totally account for the separation. North American
cultural chauvinism became well entrenched through the years of U.S. presence on the
island, spreading eventually to elements of the Puerto Rican elite.
In both Puerto Rico and the Philippines, some North Americans did try to
conduct cultural exchanges with their island neighbors. As previously noted, the elites
of these islands often had ties to North American interests, so their social and cultural
paths crossed. But the lack of a separate, official North American civilian community
helped stimulate this spontaneous cultural exchange. With no formal U.S. reservation
other than military bases, North American civilians frequently lived near or in the more
affluent neighborhoods of the Puerto Rican and Filipino elites. Furthermore, those who
lived outside San Juan, Manila, or other areas of North American concentration, were
prone to even greater interaction with their native neighbors. W. Cameron Forbes notes
in his early account of U.S.-Filipino relations that in the provincial capitals and the
outlying cities, North Americans and prominent Filipinos were thrown together more
because the North Americans did not have sufficient numbers to form their own
societies.8 Most North Americans in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, however, saw
themselves as temporary residents, having no real reason to assimilate native ways.
Moreover, the colonial status of these islands and the direct cultural transformation
undertaken by U.S. authorities soon after the defeat of Spain reinforced this posture.
In some ways, the presence of the United States on the Isthmus of Panama
presents a similar portrait of U.S. imperialism to those in the Philippines and Puerto
Rico. United States power had intervened and insured order on the Isthmus since
1846. U.S. commercial representatives had built a railroad, established a town at the
"4Forbes, The Philippine Islands, vol. 2: 93.
Caribbean terminus, and propagated North American views in a bilingual Isthmian
newspaper, the Panama Star and Herald. In 1903, the United States had facilitated
and taken part in Panama's revolution against Colombia. The U.S. government had
seen its interests protected in a treaty with Panama by a non-Panamanian emissary of
the new republic. Shortly after the onset of the construction of the Canal, U.S. officials
instituted policies on health and security in the terminal cities of Panama and Col6n to
deal with conditions that could impact on the successful construction and operation of
the Canal. Through sanitation, disease control, and the construction of water facilities
and roads, the U.S. began to wedge its values into the new Republic of Panama.49
In the early years of the twentieth century, imperialist pride was present among
North Americans, even if such ardor was tempered by the belief that U.S. imperialism
had a benevolent character and a more indirect application than the European version
and by men like Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan who opposed "empire" as
destructive to the "republic."5 The commercial and strategic benefits of the Canal to the
United States were covered extensively by journalists visiting the construction site.
49The building of the Panama Railroad is detailed in John Haskell Kemble, The Panama
Route, 1848-1869 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1943; Columbia,
S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990) and Jean Sadler Heald, Picturesque
Panama: The Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal (Panama: Jean Sadler Heald,
1928). Jean Gilbreath Niemeier, The Panama Story (Portland, Oreg.: Metropolitan
Press, 1968) discusses the origins of the Star and Herald newspaper. Panama's march
toward independence is the theme of Alex Perez -Venero, Before the Five Frontiers:
Panama from 1821 to 1903 (New York: AMS Press, 1978). John Major, Prize
Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993) chronicles events leading to Panama's revolution.
50The anti-imperialist opposition in the U.S. Senate nevertheless succumbed to patriotic
rhetoric, commercial interests, and Theodore Roosevelt's claim that the U.S. role in
Panama's revolution was in "the interests of collective civilization" and ratified the 1903
treaty with Panama. Walter LaFeber, The Panama Canal: The Crisis in Historical
Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 40-41.
Travel writers such as William Scott also wrote of the cultural benefits the North
American presence would offer the region:
Panama now becomes the farthest outpost of Americanism in
Latin America .... The American conquest of Latin America should
be more through uplifting ideals than through bald commercialism
leading to discord and unbrotherly relations.51
This "conquest" by American ideals and culture certainly fit the benevolent view
of U.S. imperialism. In Panama, the United States viewed itself as going about its Canal
business under the gaze of its Latin American neighbors. Latin America was to be
uplifted vicariously by observing what the United States would accomplish on the
Isthmus of Panama. The U.S. presence would be "an outpost of a high civilization in
the tropics."52 Panama would be cleaned up physically and morally, but only as a by-
product to building the Panama Canal and establishing the Canal Zone. On the
Isthmus, Glenn Ward Dresbach composed a poem in 1913, reflecting what he believed
was Panama's proximity to the "blessings" of U.S. government and public health:
The Panama of pest-hole, harlot, lout
Is now no more. She stands,
With young, unfettered hands,
Greeting the world she lived so long without.53
Public opinion in the United States certainly felt that the presence of North
Americans would bring about stability in the new republic. North American efficiency
51William R. Scott, The Americans in Panama (New York: Statler Publishing Co., 1912),
52Willis J. Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose (London: Syndicate
Publishing Co., 1913), 403.
53Glenn Ward Dresbach, "Ode on the Completion of the Panama Canal," The Canal
Record (December 1961): 67.
and values would provide a moral compulsion for Panama to be stable.4 But in all such
references to the benefits of North American ways, values, and culture, Panama was
but an indirect recipient and not the target for cultural transformation. The intended
forum for North American culture would be a territorial community of its own kind.
In this way, U.S. presence on the Isthmus was different from the occupation of
Puerto Rico and the Philippines: building the Panama Canal and establishing the Canal
Zone did not entail the direct cultural transformation of native traditions. They did not
lead to a systematic program to change Panama's way of life in the Republic. U.S.
authorities did not officially attempt to impose the English language on Panamanians in
the Republic, dictate what would be taught in their schools, or govern the Republic with
U.S. governors. Any intervention into Panama's way of life was restricted to those
elements that affected or could potentially affect the smooth operation of the Canal. So
the example of the U.S. in Panama contributes but minimally to the discussion on direct
or aggressive forms of cultural imperialism.
The defensive form of U.S. cultural imperialism, cultural chauvinism, however,
was more intense in Panama than in the insular territories. Like their counterparts in
Puerto Rico and the Philippines, North Americans connected with the Panama Canal,
the Zonians, read English-language newspapers, sent their children to U.S.-run
schools, attended their own churches, formed their own associations, and pursued the
familiar recreational activities of home. In Panama, though, these North Americans
lived, worked, and played on a U.S. government reservation, the Canal Zone. A
separate official community stimulated the chauvinistic character of North American
54Alfred Charles Richard, The Panama Canal in American National Consciousness,
1870-1990 (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1990), 183.
culture within its boundaries. The longer the residents identified with this geographical
entity, the more like permanent residents they began to feel and the more they
perceived the Zone as "American" as the United States.
Within the confines of this U.S.-controlled strip of land in the middle of an
independent Latin American nation, the United States government encouraged the
residents to establish and to live life as they had in the States. Zonians were able to do
so because the U.S. government in the Canal Zone, though authoritarian, was
paternalistic in providing the residents with what they needed to live that "American"
life. In turn, the Zone finished a predictable and secure setting in which the United
States could operate the Panama Canal in the years to come. Since the Canal Zone
was established and maintained for that one purpose, the Canal greatly influenced the
attitudes and the self-identity of Zonians. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in clarifying
the status of the Canal Zone, only reinforced the unique yet "American" nature of
Zonians when he said that the population of the Zone was not a self-goveming
democracy but simply agents for the American people.55
This "American" character of the Canal Zone emerged immediately after
Panama's independence from Colombia, preceding the arrival of the Canal workforce.
Philippe Bunau-Varilla, Panama's minister plenipotentiary, modified Secretary of State
John Hay's draft of the 1903 treaty and indicated that though the zone around the
Canal was not to be an acquired or annexed territory in the political or commercial
sense, it was nevertheless to be "the exclusive preserve of the United States.""
55Henry Stimson, Some Problems of the Panama Canal (Washington, D.C.:
Government Printing Office, 1911), 4-5.
5John Major, Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 48.
Zonians never lost sight of that distinction. In a speech for the Fourth of July Isthmian
celebration in 1907, Canal Zone Supreme Court Justice Hezekiah A. Gudger spoke of
the blessings of U.S. wealth, transportation, education, and free government that now
existed not only on the continent but in "our possessions, Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippine
Islands, Porto Rico and the Canal Zone."57 Not Panama but the Canal Zone was
United States territory, the place where United States culture and values would prevail.
Beginning with the removal of indigenous residents from a 450 square mile
area, the Isthmian Canal Commission (I.C.C.) created this territorial zone to construct,
maintain, defend, and sanitize the Canal. The Commission then provided an
environment where North Americans constructed, maintained, and defended U.S.
culture. Construction-day contemporaries stated that although the Zone was a
cosmopolitan community, with West Indian, East Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and
southern and northern European workers, the I.C.C. always insured that North
American ideas prevailed.5 Later chroniclers noted that after the completion of canal
construction, many international workers were either repatriated or moved into Panama,
and the Canal Zone became even more exclusively North American.59
Pride in the engineering accomplishments of North Americans on the Panama
Canal bolstered pride in the "American" nature of the Canal Zone. From the time of its
completion, the Canal was applauded by the U.S. public and others in the world as a
monument to "American" engineering. U.S. Canal workers declared their own pride in
57Star and Herald, 8 July 1907. [Italics added.]
58Frank A. Gause and Charles Carl Carr, The Story of Panama: The New Route to India
(Boston: Silver, Burdett and Co., 1912), 134.
59Knapp and Knapp, Red, White and Blue Paradise, 169.
the waterway as "a vanguard of American ingenuity and organization seen at close
range by thousands of people from all the lands of earth."60 Built in an age of
pragmatism and professional expertise, the Canal embodied the United States' aptitude
in scientific engineering The Canal Zone likewise demonstrated the nation's efficient
and systematic social planning. After community life was well established in the Zone,
its governor, Colonel Jay J. Morrow, declared that the Canal Zone and the Canal were
the "finest expression of American thoroughness in engineering, public health, and
community life ... a model of sureness and efficiency, and an example to the world of
the capacity of the American people."61 Together the Canal and the Canal Zone
composed a "city on a hill," a symbol to the world of North American ability in civil
government, construction, and sanitation.
The pride in the Canal Zone was not only in North American ability but in the
North American culture perpetuated there. That culture was based on values that were
thought to benefit the entire Latin American region. Willis Abbot, an observer of the
Canal's construction, called the Canal Zone "a little bit of typical United States life set
down in the tropics."62 Not a temporary enclave, the Zone was a community of North
American workers that was viewed as necessary to insure the proper operation of the
Canal and to sustain the passage of world commerce through its waterway. If it could
be maintained according to its high standards, the Canal Zone would "exercise an
influence for good on [the neighboring Latin American countries]. It is the little leaven
60Panama Canal Retirement Association, The Canal Diggers in Panama, 1904 to 1928
(Balboa Heights, C.Z.: n.p., 2 January 1928), 42.
61Colonel Jay J. Morrow, A Great People's Great Canal (Mount Hope, C.Z.: Panama
Canal Press, 1923), 16.
62Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 436.
that may leaven the whole lump."63
Yet such moral and cultural influence was a by-product of the Canal Zone, not
the rationale for its establishment. According to the 1903 treaty, the Canal Zone and
additional lands that may be needed outside of the zone were designated "for the
construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation, and protection of said Canal.""4 In
that function, the Zone provided a community life for its workers residing there. Given
that the United States considered the Panama Canal to be an "American" canal, the
Canal Zone was an "American" zone.
The Canal Zone was therefore a physical as well as psychological
representation of the United States-both for Zonians and for Panamanians. Canal
Zone legal codes and court systems were applied to both North Americans and
Panamanians within the confines of the Zone. In order for the residents of Panama and
Col6n or those from the eastern portion of the Republic to visit someone in the western
portion of the Isthmus, they were required to pass through this U.S. zone. Thus a
Panamanian could not cross the Canal Zone in the middle of his own country without
respecting Canal Zone and U.S. laws, courts, and police.
English was most valued as the language spoken within the Zone. It was also
the language for Panamanians conducting commerce with the Canal Zone. To get a
6Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 403. Yet not all Latin Americans
considered the North American character of an isthmian canal to be beneficial. In the
1920s, Peru's Victor Raal Haya de la Torre called for the intemationalization of the
Panama Canal as part of the agenda of his American Revolutionary Popular Alliance
(A.P.R.A.) to redeem "Indo-America" and resist U.S. imperialism. See Thomas E.
Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modem Latin America (3d ed., New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992), 206.
"Clive Perry, ed., The Consolidated Treaty Series, vol. 194 (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.:
Oceana Publications, 1980), 264.
good job in the Zone, Panamanians needed to learn English. During construction days,
a Panamanian was even paid more if he spoke English.65 This geographical and
official domain under the U.S. flag and laws made it easy for Zonians to replicate life
from the United States, to preserve that way of life on the Isthmus, and to thwart any
challenge to that way of life from the uninvited encroachment of indigenous culture.
Some observers of overseas enclaves have asserted that the longer people live
in a foreign culture, the more assimilated they become, the more open they are to free
cultural exchange, and the more accepting they become of the native culture. Frederick
Heuser remarked that the missionary's role as cultural ambassador lessened the longer
he or she stayed in the field. Missionaries increasingly identified more with the culture
of their mission field than with that of their own country.66 Yet, with some exceptions,
residents of the Canal Zone generally kept the native culture at bay, picking and
choosing only those elements of the host culture that would compliment their North
American identity without compromising it.
Human and family systems theory, in the field of psychology, provides insight
into the "siege mentality" of cultural chauvinism in the Canal Zone. It also helps explain
how the Progressive-Era or construction-day character of the Canal Zone, discussed in
Herbert and Mary Knapp's work, persisted long after it was considered out-of-step with
the changes in the rest of the global community. In human systems, boundaries
function to regulate the flow of information. "Closed" boundaries monitor and limit the
information that is allowed to enter the system and restrict what information can flow
outward. Thus a "closed" system is one in which there is minimal or no free exchange
65Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 224.
66Heuser, "Culture, Feminism, and the Gospel," x.
with external entities, and the components of the system are little influenced by the
The nature of a community, as a human system, can be affected by the degree
of openness it fosters or discourages. Two family therapists, William Nichols and Craig
Everett, have noticed that families in "closed" systems tend to isolate themselves from
the external milieu and cling together for self-preservation and self-protection.68
Isolation or restrictive interaction, then, limits change. Through the Second World War,
and beyond in the minds of many Zonians, the mission, symbol, and boundaries of the
Canal Zone worked within everyday life to preserve the perceived superiority of North
American culture and protect the "American" way of life in their communities.
Canal Zone boundaries were both geographical and cultural. U.S. authorities
enforced the geographical boundaries for the Zone, but for the most part, the residents
of the Zone enforced the cultural boundaries. They monitored and restricted how much
of the native culture was allowed to become a part of the American Zone. And within
this population, given their traditional roles and their flexible schedules, women
developed much of the domestic and social environment to make North Americans feel
at home. The more women made this environment home for Zonians, the higher
expectations became that North American priorities, interests, and ways would always
prevail within the Zone.
As will be seen in the next chapter, the presence of U.S. women on the Isthmus
was officially requested by the U.S. and Canal authorities to provide cultural, social,
67William C. Nichols, Treating People in Families: An Integrative Framework (New York:
Guilford Press, 1996), 46, 47.
"William C. Nichols and Craig A. Everett, Systemic Family Therapy: An Integrative
Approach (New York: Guilford Press, 1986), 125.
and moral stability while the Canal was being built. This is something that the French
had not done during their unsuccessful attempt to build an inter-oceanic canal through
the Isthmus. Rampant tropical disease engendered little desire to bring French workers'
wives and children to Panama. Overall, the French approach was more mechanical,
simply to build a canal with little regard for establishing community life. Conversely,
U.S. authorities, as North Americans increasingly brought disease under control,
recognized in women a benefit to both the construction and the long-term operation of
As the reader will discover, the role of cultural defender changed little as women
took up more permanent residence in the Canal Zone at the completion of construction.
In striving to maintain a comfortable and familiar environment for themselves and their
families, U.S. women, knowingly and unknowingly, became gatekeepers in the
boundary between North American and Panamanian cultures. In promoting North
American culture, they aspired to provide stability for their "American village," not for
Panama's benefit. Not until the end of the Second World War did an increasing number
of Zonian women significantly and systematically begin to reach across the boundary
and open the dialogue for a more reciprocal cultural exchange on an equal basis.
Despite that later cultural reciprocity, the belief in the superiority of North
American cultural values, generated and sustained in Zonians since the early years of
this century, has endured to this day on the Isthmus to some degree, in some form, and
in some circles. In their activities, North American women drew their cultural priorities in
the first half of the twentieth century more from life in the United States than from life in
the Republic of Panama. The geographical separation of the Canal Zone from the
"other" parts of the Isthmus fostered and reinforced this cultural chauvinism. With the
recent transfer of the Canal and the Canal Zone to Panamanian administration, that
territorial entity has been terminated. But a legislative act will doubtlessly not eradicate
as quickly a preference for "things American" so long ensconced in Isthmian life.
THE ARRIVAL OF "THE LADIES, GOD BLESS THEM!"
Before the Canal was built, the achievements of the United States on the
Isthmus since the mid-nineteenth century set the stage for North Americans to assume
a culturally superior outlook in Panama. "Americans" had already conquered the
Isthmus by rail.1 "Americans" had helped Panama to attain its independence from
Colombia.2 By 1904, "Americans" were poised to succeed where the French had failed.
North Americans on the Isthmus were convinced of the efficacy of their methods.
Political and engineering success heightened their sense of U.S. cultural supremacy.
Yet women's potential contribution to continuing success was not apparent to
Canal authorities in 1904. Construction plans did not include wives accompanying U.S.
workers to "the Big Ditch," as neither the climate nor the work was deemed conducive
to family life. Ironically, it was the work itself, or rather the need for a stable workforce,
that eventually induced the Isthmian Canal Commission to be more receptive to the
presence of women. As a result, during the construction era, 1904-1914, U.S. women
'U.S. managers oversaw the construction, but most of the actual labor was performed
by Jamaicans. Jean Sadler Heald, Picturesque Panama: Panama Railroad and the
Panama Canal (Panama: Jean Sadler Heald, 1928), 88. The husband of Jean Sadler
Heald, S. W. Heald, was Superintendent of the Panama Railroad from 1908-1928.
2Given their multiple revolts against Colombia in the nineteenth century, Panamanians
bristle at the claim that without Theodore Roosevelt and the United States, Panama
would never have gained its independence. Alex P6rez-Venero, Before the Five
Frontiers: Panama from 1821 to 1903 (New York: AMS Press, 1978), 156-157.
arrived to "Americanize" the cultural climate on the Isthmus. In their domestic and social
activities, they helped lay the foundation for a way of life in the Canal Zone that
reflected the customs and values of the States more than those of the host country.
Regardless of the global implications in the motto of the Panama Canal, "the
land divided, the world united," the primary beneficiary of this waterway between the
oceans was to be the United States. Due to its geographical position, the Isthmus had
earlier been important to Spain as a strategic and commercial link between its imperial
holdings in the Atlantic and Pacific worlds.3 At the beginning of the twentieth century,
the U.S. viewed the potential Canal as a major component in its drive to join the forum
of imperial power. Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History,
which was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, purported the Caribbean Sea to be an
"American Mediterranean." An isthmian canal would bolster an expansionist spirit and
foster a new navy of ships, coaling stations, and bases supporting distant colonies.4
That spirit first led North Americans to break through the Isthmian jungles by rail,
fifty years prior to canal construction. In 1846, U.S. diplomat Benjamin Bidlack secured
a treaty with New Granada (precursor to Colombia) whereby the U.S. guaranteed both
the rights of transit across the Isthmus and Colombian control over it.5 The Panama
Railroad was built to hasten the travel of North Americans from the eastern United
3The Isthmus' role in the commercial operations of the Spanish Empire is detailed in
Christopher Ward, Imperial Panama: Commerce and Conflict in Isthmian America,
1550-1800 (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).
4David McCullough, The Paths Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal,
1870-1914 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977), 252-253.
STheodore Roosevelt used this guarantee of the "rights of transit" to justify U.S.
intervention in Isthmian affairs, even in Panama's Revolution in 1903. He ignored the
guarantee of Colombian control by declaring the treaty to be "a covenant running with
the land," despite who controlled the Isthmus. LaFeber, The Panama Canal, 34.
States to the gold fields of California and the territory of Oregon, both recent
acquisitions in U.S. expansionism. The U.S. negotiated the railroad concession with
New Granada to link up with two mail steamship runs to Panama authorized by the U.S.
Congress, from New York and New Orleans in the Atlantic and from California and
Oregon in the Pacific .6 To correlate with its Pacific terminus in Panama City, the
railroad built the Atlantic-side terminal city of "Aspinwall," so designated at the
suggestion of a Colombian official to honor the U.S. capitalist, William H. Aspinwall, a
major force behind the project.7 When the railroad was inaugurated on February 24,
1855, after six years of construction, the New York Mirror proclaimed that the task of
uniting two oceans was "conceived and executed ... in the frowning face of obstacles
that none but Americans could have overcome."8 The editor of the Daily Courier of
Aspinwall, "a loyal American," echoed this sentiment on the Isthmus:
From the inception to its consummation, it is purely American-
American genius conceived the plan; American science pronounced
it practicable; American capital has furnished its completion in spite
of the most formidable difficulties.9
The railroad created feelings of "second-class citizenship," however, in the
masses of Panama. Because U.S. officials viewed the natives as "apathetic and
unaccustomed to labor," they imported railroad workers.10 Though the railroad reduced
6Heald, Picturesque Panama, 86.
7Panamanians rejected mail sent to "Aspinwall," since their legislature had already
named the city "Col6n" in honor of Christopher Columbus. Perez-Venero, Before the
Five Frontiers, 65.
8Quoted in Heald, Picturesque Panama, 92.
10lbid., 87. The I.C.C. used the same rationale to import its workers. Peter Haines, "The
Labor Problem on the Panama Canal," North American Review 179 (July 1904): 50.
the stay on the Isthmus for U.S. travelers and thus their contact and friction with
Panamanians, it failed to eradicate the condescending attitude of North Americans. In
addition, a shorter stay meant less commerce and profit for Panamanian merchants."
French efforts to construct a canal in Panama from 1878 to 1888 accentuated
the Panamanian perception of North Americans as arrogant. The plans of Ferdinand de
Lesseps included hospitals, store-houses, machine-shops, and docks to support canal
construction but no design for a distinct community.12 Decades later, the nationalistic
newspaper, El Diario Nacional, contrasted Panama's relations with North Americans
and the French. The French sought to share the challenges and benefits of the Canal
with Panama in a spirit of fraternity, while North Americans came to dominate, creating
divisions of nationality, race, or color.13 Contributor Jos6 Napole6n defined amistad
(friendship) as a "reciprocal affection ... [or] what we really consider constitutes the
friendship between Panama and France."14 Conversely, "American" friendship differed:
The friend, if he is stronger and richer, must be master. .. [and] is not
obligated to respect the rules of courtesy ... towards his weaker or
poorer friend; he ... can appropriate the home of this weaker one,
... violate his rights and insult his modesty; whereas the poorer and
weaker friend is forced ... to sacrifice everything, goods, honor,
independence and character, to benefit the powerful friend.'"
France's failure to construct the Canal only underscored North Americans' self-
"John Haskell Kemble, The Panama Route, 1848-1869 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of
California Press, 1943; Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), 198-
12McCullough, The Path Between the Seas, 240.
'3EI Diario Nacional, 19 July 1921.
'4My translation of the quote in El Diario Nacional, 25 August 1920.
'5My translation of the quote in ibid. Long after U.S. presence was established on the
Isthmus, Panama still remembered the French fondly during Bastille Day celebrations.
perception as culturally and technically superior. It was common for Francophobic
citizens of the United States to view de Lesseps' failure and the scandalous affaire de
Panama, with its bribery and misappropriation of funds, as indicative of the decadence,
incompetence, and impracticality of the French.16 Yet France's main folly was trying to
replicate the sea-level canal at Suez, amidst unequal ocean tides and hostile terrain. As
historian David McCullough determined, "the strategy did not fit the battlefield."17 But
North Americans would do what the French did not do. Unlike the private concession of
de Lesseps, the U.S. effort was to be a national undertaking. U.S. health experts would
first control disease.'1 North Americans would construct a lock canal with a surrounding
zone to insure proper operation and maintenance. But more than that, France had put
its faith in the scientific and technical potential of the nineteenth century, fortified by
de Lesseps' conquest of Suez and Gustave Eiffel's matchless tower. New machines
would "save the day," the French had asserted, conquering whatever nature threw at
de Lesseps' Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoc6anque (Universal Inter-oceanic
Canal Company) in Panama.'9 While U.S. visionaries shared the belief in scientific
innovation, "Americans," not just new machines, would save the day.
Before the U.S. could show the world its engineering capability, it had to
maneuver around the political climate in the region. By 1888, the French failure was
6McCullough, The Path Between the Seas, 240.
"The French were more reactive than proactive in fighting disease. Most accounts put
their losses at 19,000-22,000 workers. The British consul in Jamaica said the deaths
reported by the French actually represented only one-fifth of their actual loss. Lancelot
Lewis, The West Indian in Panama: Black Labor in Panama, 1850-1914 (Washington,
D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), 25.
19McCullough, The Path Between the Seas, 239.
evident, yet Colombia extended France's concession to 1903, with the Compagnie
Nouvelle du Canal de Panama (New Panama Canal Company) as the new operator.
The new company's spokesman, an engineer and former Acting Director General of the
Compagnie Universelle, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, hoped to recoup part of France's loss
from the North Americans. He offered the company's inventory and franchise to the
United States for $40 million.20 Despite strong lobbying for a U.S. canal in Nicaragua,
President Theodore Roosevelt saw in the assumption of the French concession a less
expensive and more rapid means to construct the canal and solidify the recent vault of
the United States onto the imperial stage. But this meant negotiating with Colombia.
U.S. desire to build the Panama Canal and Panamanian aspirations for
independence from Colombia dovetailed in 1903. The Colombian senate's rejection of
the Hay-Herran treaty, which delineated the Canal concession, simultaneously angered
Roosevelt and inflamed wealthy Panamanian merchants and landowners, many of
whom had already lost money to the French effort.21 The resentment in both circles
provided the opening for elite urban Panamanians seeking independence.
Liberal and Conservative elites directed Isthmian politics to protect their property
and position. Both factions favored independence but with their privileges intact. In the
interior, elites owned cattle ranches; in the cities, they pursued professional and
business careers.22 The urban elite had ties to the Panama Railroad. Dr. Manuel
Amador Guerrero, the railroad's medical officer, led pro-U.S. Conservative plotters and
20Thomas L. Pearcy, We Answer Only to God: Politics and the Military in Panama,
1903-1947 (Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 37.
22Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981 (Pittsburgh, Pa.:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 19.
was slated to be Panama's first president. Already victorious in the Thousand Days'
Civil War in 1900-1902, such men were set on consolidating their power on the Isthmus
through the revolt in 1903 and subsequent canal concession.23
With U.S. political and military weight behind the revolt, Panama achieved its
independence-but at a price: the loss of judicial and legislative sovereignty over part of
its territory in a treaty signed by a non-Panamanian. The revolutionary junta had named
as its minister-plenipotentiary Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the liaison between the junta and
Washington prior to the revolt. The French engineer signed the 1903 treaty on behalf of
Panama before Amador and his cabinet could arrive in the U.S. capital. Besides
granting the United States protectorate status over Panama, the treaty gave the U.S.
control over the Canal Zone, a parcel of land five miles on each side of the canal route
from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as if it were sovereign. As Thomas Pearcy put it,
"Panama thus began its republican era with a system of government that revolved
around a small urban elite whose ability to govern hinged on foreign military support."24
President Roosevelt wanted to dispel Panama's anxiety over U.S. colonial
aspirations. In a letter to Secretary of War William Howard Taft, he wrote:
We have not the slightest intention of establishing an independent
colony in the middle of the State of Panama..... Least of all do we
desire to interfere with the business and prosperity of the people of
Panama" through "a competing and independent community which
shall injuriously affect their business, reduce their reserves, and
diminish their prestige as a nation.25
23Pearcy, We Answer Only to God, 36.
25Major, Prize Possession, 100. At the signing ceremony for the 1977 Canal treaties,
Panama's Omar Torrijos reminded the U.S. of Roosevelt's words and added that, to the
contrary, a colony had indeed been established in the Zone. William J. Jorden, Panama
Odyssey (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1984), 454-455.
Yet to maintain a North American labor force on the Isthmus, a cultural as well as a
commercial colony evolved in the middle of the Panamanian nation. Like the Panama
Railroad and the Canal, the Canal Zone was considered an "American" achievement.
The longevity of U.S. families on the Isthmus-"Zonians"-perpetuated that "American"
cultural character in the Canal Zone.
From the beginning of construction, however, conditions on the Isthmus
mitigated against continuity in the U.S. workforce. Even as late in the process as 1911,
the average length of stay on the Isthmus for mechanics, for example, was only one
year.26 What had brought many workers to the project, a patriotic fervor and the desire
to make history while making expenses, soon succumbed to the fear that by coming to
the Isthmus they were sacrificing "all that [was] good and wholesome in the States."27
Labor representatives recommended that unskilled work be done by blacks since white
men could not long endure manual labor in the oppressive tropical climate.28 This
factor, and the racial prejudices of the time, contributed to an unequal, dual pay scale
and the perception that U.S. white workers were best suited for supervisory and skilled
work. Climate, disease, and exhausting, repetitive work induced many enthusiastic
Canal pioneers to return to the States long before the task was accomplished.
But as debilitating as the climate and work environment were, emotional
monotony, loneliness and the perception of cultural deprivation were even more
enervating. After work, there were relatively few avenues of amusement and recreation
for workers housed along construction. They tumed to make-shift cantinas near the
26Logan Marshall, The Story of the Panama Canal (N.p.: L. T. Myers, 1913), 151.
27Star and Herald, 15 February 1905.
28Star and Herald, 15 January 1906.
work sites and establishments of ill-repute in the nearby terminal cities of the Republic
to relieve boredom. But such diversions resulted in missed work and poor performance.
I.C.C. officials described U.S. workers as soon wanting to "get back to God's country,"
away from "a land not merely foreign but lacking in most of the familiar comforts of
modem civilization."29 Lack of familiar pursuits led U.S. workers to mourn the loss of the
old rather than to seek the new culture. A contemporary chronicler of construction
days, Frederic Haskin wrote that unlike some Europeans who eventually adopted
native dress or custom, "the American in the tropics tenaciously clings to many of his
home habits, despite the changed conditions of his place of sojourn."30
The Isthmian Commission tried to resolve this dilemma by building Y.M.C.A.
"clubhouses." This solution illustrated the cooperation between the government and
citizenry advocated by progressives of the time. The government provided the funds for
constructing the facilities, while stateside Christian families supported the "wholesome
amusement, entertainment, and physical exercise" provided their husbands, sons, and
brothers.31 In such facilities, workers found soda fountains, gymnasiums, bowling
alleys, card and reading rooms-just like home. The remedy for homesickness and
boredom was to bring "home" to the Isthmus rather than to go home from the Isthmus.
The I.C.C. was inextricably tying the successful construction of the Canal to the
29Joseph Bucklin Bishop, "A Benevolent Despotism," Scribner's Monthly 53 (March
1913): 309. Joseph Bucklin was I.C.C. Secretary from 1905 to1913. From his vantage
point, he had an optimum view of the authoritarian and paternal nature of the
30Frederic J. Haskin, The Panama Canal (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page and
Co., 1913), 176-177.
31Comments of U.S. Minister to Panama, John Barrett, to Star and Herald, 27 February
establishment of U.S. customs and cultural pursuits on the Isthmus. The Commission
believed that the wholesome and familiar surroundings of life in the States would boost
work efficiency. Secretary Joseph Bucklin Bishop wrote that to maintain a stable North
American workforce, the I.C.C. sought to make life on the Isthmus more attractive to
U.S. workers and to cultivate a spirit of public morality and order.32
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Western society still considered public
morality to be a "natural" interest of women. U.S. communities looked to their female
citizenry to preserve moral order.33 Yet despite the desire to suffuse the environment
with such order, U.S. officials, as their French counterparts before, initially did little to
encourage the presence of women at the construction of the Canal.
Duplicitous French treatment of West Indian workers set a precedent for
discouraging workers from bringing families to the Isthmus. The French Canal company
had publicized travel fares for families as an incentive for West Indians to labor on the
Canal. Those workers who migrated to the construction site with their wives, however,
discovered that the company had not provided nor would provide family quarters. The
dire circumstances forced families to live wherever and in whatever accommodations
they could find. Lack of family housing refuted the French "encouragement" of spousal
migration. Early in the U.S. effort, the I.C.C. mirrored the French behavior. 34
General George W. Davis, the first governor of the Canal Zone, 1904-1905, was
32Bishop, "A Benevolent Despotism": 312
33Schneider and Schneider, American Women in the Progressive Era, 14.
1But the I.C.C. did desire the immigration of West Indian women for domestic service
and as a stabilizing influence on its male West Indian workers. Velma Newton, The
Silver Men: West Indian Labour Migration to Panama, 1850-1914 (Kingston, Jamaica:
Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of West Indies, 1984), 95.
more direct than the French in trying to dissuade workers from bringing their families.
Yet I.C.C. headquarters in the States, like the French company, advertised free
quarters for both married and bachelor workers as an inducement to work on the
Canal.35 Without govemment sponsorship and housing, wives of U.S. workers who
nonetheless came to the Isthmus were forced to live in tents, railroad box cars, and
deteriorating French quarters, if not in privately-owned dilapidated shacks commanding
high rents.36 Canal officials were initially reluctant even to admit North American women
into the hospital wards, which had been designated only for men and "colored" women.
The I.C.C. did not construct a ward for white women in its Col6n hospital until 1908.37
The housing shortage was the main reason that Canal officials in Panama
wanted to deter workers from bringing their wives. In the early days of U.S. occupation,
the few North American women on the Isthmus placed little demand on Commission
resources. Housing of the higher I.C.C. officials in construction towns, especially in the
administrative township of Culebra, included sufficient space for their families. Nurses
were housed in the old French hospitals in Ancon and Col6n, where they worked.38
The I.C.C. also deemed it too expensive to build housing for its few women
employees. Quarters for male Canal laborers took priority. Unmarried female workers,
other than nurses, often had to find accommodations in the Republic. Even after
families began to populate the Canal Zone in sufficient numbers that the government
35Star and Herald, 13 March 1905; Scott, The Americans in Panama, 205.
3"Canal-Diggers' Wives Were Pioneers of Tropic Brand of Housekeeping," The Canal
Record 23 (June 1989): 65; The Canal Record 2 (March 17, 1909): 230.
37Mary Chatfield, Light on Dark Places at Panama (New York: Broadway Publishing
Co., 1908), 212.
'The Canal Record 1 (May 27, 1908): 310.
was forced to establish schools to educate children, unmarried female teachers still had
to stay with relatives and friends in the area.39 The Commission was simply not ready to
house a small female workforce or a migration of North American women in general.
Additionally, the Canal Commission did not consider the environment on the
Isthmus to be fitting for North American women. When the I.C.C. reluctantly brought
unmarried female employees to the zone, it was only because they were deemed
necessary. In 1904, Chief Nurse Mary Eugenie Hibbard and a few other nurses were
numbered among the Canal vanguard to Panama. These first women were employed
only because "of the peculiar fitness of women for this work."' Moreover, after the
nurses arrived, the I.C.C. restricted their activities and movements. One of the earliest
to arrive, Jesse Murdoch, recorded how officials prohibited nurses from visiting the city
of Panama and confined them to the area around the hospital in Ancon.41 Policies
restricting off-duty movements of unmarried female employees continued even after the
wives of U.S. workers arrived. Mary Chatfield, a female clerk hired in 1906, complained
that her division mandated that unmarried stenographers be in their rooms between
9:30 P.M. and 6:30 A.M., subject to a provost marshal's inspection.42 Whether to
protect the women or to prevent any behavior disruptive of the work at hand, I.C.C.
policies indicated that U.S. women generally did not belong in these surroundings.
39Memorandum from Superintendent of Schools to Visiting Commercial Clubs of
Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, 2 March 1907, File 91-A-37 (Miscellaneous
Information of Canal Zone or Panama Schools, 28 April 1906-15 May 1925), General
Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group 185, National Archives.
40The Canal Record 1 (May 27, 1908): 310.
41Jesse Murdoch, "Ancon Hospital in 1904 and 1905," Society of the Chagres:
Yearbook, 1913 (Culebra, C.Z.: John O. Collins, 1913): 54.
42Chatfield, Light on Dark Places at Panama, 252.
But the desire to maintain social order and a stable workforce compelled the
Canal Commission to approve and support the presence of women and families on the
Isthmus. When West Indian workers held a sit-down strike, saying "no women, no
work," U.S. workers said they shared the same attitude.43 The report of the Special
Labor Commission also pointed to problems inherent in an unaccompanied workforce,
stating that bachelors, "finding the monotony of the work under tropical conditions
unendurable, [were seeking ] amusement in the larger communities, where the saloons,
dance halls, and other evil resorts [were] the only social resource with open doors."4
It became apparent to government officials and contemporary observers alike
that the growing presence of women brought a stabilizing atmosphere of "home," the
prerequisite for a steady, proficient workforce. The value in married workers having
their families with them was pragmatic: contented married men stayed longer, lost less
time at work, and were more reliable and effective on the job. Travel writers, such as
Edwin Slossen and Garner Richardson, wrote of the emotional benefit of a worker's
having his family with him:
It is greatly to be desired that the number of women on the
Zone be increased. It would save the time of the men in
various ways, and also keep them from thinking too much
about themselves, their health and their comfort .... Worrying
about one's wife and children is bad enough, but does not have
so injurious an effect upon a man's disposition and efficiency.45
4Fannie P. Hemandez, "Men Dug the Canal... But Women Played a Vital Role," The
Panama Canal Review (Spring 1976): 32.
"Report of the Special Commission on the Conditions of Labor on the Isthmus of
Panama to the President of the United States, 6 August 1908, File 28-B-144 (Special
Labor Commission), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group185,
45Edwin E. Slossen and Gardner Richardson, "Life on the Canal Zone,"
The Independent 60 (March 22, 1906): 659-660.
After the Canal was completed, Chief Engineer George Goethals viewed the benefit of
women more in terms of public moral order:
It is without a doubt true ... that the largest single factor in the
contentment, and therefore in the permanency and efficiency,
of these men was the policy of providing family quarters so that
they might have their wives with them on the Isthmus. ... In any
body of men removed for a long period from the restraining and
refining influence of women, there is inevitable deterioration.46
For the I.C.C., public morality and pragmatism were two sides of the same concern.
As the Commission increased the number of family quarters, the concept of a
married workforce began to change the landscape of the Canal Zone. Constructing
better housing for families than what was provided for bachelors fed the perception that
the government was actually encouraging marriage.47 The desire to maintain a stable
environment and to keep workers on site until the job was finished became the impetus
behind the government's family housing program. Married U.S. workers could even lose
their family quarters if they didn't get their families to the Isthmus promptly.48
Yet housing was not perfect for married workers. Only after 1908 were quarters
for workers and their families even close to being adequate, and then they were not
4Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, preface (no page
47Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 370.
"Mattie J. Morrison, "Mattie J. Morrison Tells of Pioneer Days on the Zone: Present Day
Comforts Were Unknown to Valiant Ladies Who Joined Husbands Here," part 1, The
Canal Record 23 (December 1989): 69. The 1906 Zone census set the ratio of white
females to white males at only 1:6. By 1911, the number of women had quadrupled
and the ratio was 1:3. J. LePrince, Paraiso Chief Sanitary Inspector to Colonel
William C. Gorgas, 4 October 1906; Memorandum from C. Luedtke, Assistant Chief
Clerk, to M. M. Thatcher, Chief, Department of Civil Administration, 25 September
1912, File 28-B-105 (Census of the Canal Zone-General, 1 September 1904-31 July
1912), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group 185, National
lavish.49 In keeping with "progressive" social engineering, the size of quarters was
determined by a formula. The rate for the worker was one square foot per dollar of
monthly salary, His wife had to occupy the same space, and each child was allocated
an additional .05 square feet of space for every dollar of his father's salary multiplied by
the child's age. But housing was not adjusted quickly as families or salaries grew.50
Families arrived before quarters and furnishings were available. Fumiture supplied by
the I.C.C. was spartan, sparse, and long in coming. Yet the housing and furnishings
that married workers received exceeded that of their unmarried counterparts.
Although by 1906, wives of North American workers had the support of the
authorities to come to the Isthmus, they faced the same conditions that caused many
workers to leave before the job was done. The early nurses feared that they were going
to a place where "any white woman was sure of destruction."51 The main river, the
Chagres, cyclically rose over its banks and flooded the unpaved streets bordering
government housing. Insects infested homes, food and supplies. I.C.C. physicians
reported to President Roosevelt that yellow fever was under control by 1906, but
tuberculosis, pneumonia, malaria, and other diseases continued to thrive throughout
the era.52 Construction accidents and deaths were common-place. When pioneer
Mattie Morrison arrived in the township of Gorgona, she observed coffins stacked at the
49The Panama Canal, 1914-1939: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (Mount Hope, C.Z.:
Panama Canal Press, 1939), 48.
50Slossen and Richardson, "Life on the Canal Zone": 659-660.
5sMary Eugenia Hibbard, "The Early Days of Panama, A Sketch," 1904, Panama Canal
Collection, Technical Resources Center, Panama Canal Commission, Republic of
Panama, Typescript: p. 3.
52McCullough, The Paths Between the Seas, 500, 585.
depot and men taking measurements of all new workers disembarking from the train.53
As with the men, U.S. women also felt deprived of the common items they were
used to in the States. The Commission placed the Panama Railroad commissaries
under its control in 1908 to provide familiar food, clothing and other objects deemed by
the government as necessary to U.S. workers for daily living.54 These commissaries
were also to offset the high prices local merchants charged, if they even stocked such
items. The Commission felt that if high prices continued unabated, they would force the
government to increase workers' salaries and thus construction costs.55
The commissary system, though, was far from efficient in these early days.
Women waited in lines to buy long-awaited goods. In 1908, with no cold storage, there
was little fresh meat or milk, and refrigerated vegetables had to be shipped from the
States.56 By the end of construction, the Canal Zone had solved the refrigeration
problem with its own cold storage plant and refrigerated railroad cars.57 But those
women who lived in townships with no commissaries had to place their orders by mail
with the closest commissary, await delivery on the next train, and then hope that what
was delivered was what they had requested instead of some unannounced
53Morrison, "Mattie J. Morrison Tells of Pioneer Days on the Zone," part 1: 68-69.
'Major, Prize Possession, 103.
55Albert Edwards, "Testing Socialist Methods in the Canal Zone" in The Amana Society:
A Study in Cooperation from the Viewpoint of a Socialist, ed. Allen W. Ricker (Girard,
Kans.: A.W. Ricker, n.d.): 72. The Canal Zone was a government reservation, with all
facilities and conditions for living provided by the U.S. government. With no private
ownership, employees of the Panama Canal lived within a "socialist" environment.
56The Canal Record 5 (June 1971): 70.
57Joseph Bucklin Bishop, The Panama Gateway (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
substitution.5 Commissary clothing inventories favored male workers; it took time for
the stocks to reflect feminine needs. The uncertain arrival of stateside items still forced
many women to shop in Panamanian towns, at times using a process akin to barter.59
Yet, by their presence, U.S. women gradually improved the living conditions in
Zone communities. They influenced the choice of furnishings that the government
placed in family quarters.6" They prompted commissaries to expand their inventories,
especially to include women's and children's clothing alongside the work shirts and
trousers of men. Women conducted a beautification campaign, making the external as
well as the internal surroundings more like home. When wives of Canal officials and
workers in Culebra planted flowers around quarters and along the road from the train
depot to the administration building,61 other townships followed suit.
The fashion of Zone women reflected the world back home to the male workers.
Women in construction towns dressed in Victorian style, often a white dress or a long-
sleeved shirt waist with a wide skirt that would be wringing wet with perspiration and
trailing in the dust or mud of the unpaved streets. Adorned with wide-brimmed hats,
topped with a wreath of flowers, workers' wives seemed more suitably dressed for a
garden party than a construction site.62 Old-timers would later recall that it was the
women who early on determined how the government should do things in the Zone and
8Beattie, "Reminiscence": 166.
59Mildred C. Persons, "Former Resident Describes Life in Panama in the Early 1900's,"
The Canal Record 18 (September 1984): 65.
60Hernandez, "Men Dug the Canal... But Women Played a Vital Role": 32.
61Star and Herald, 29 October 1906.
62Elizabeth Kittredge Parker, Panama Canal Bride: A Study of Construction Days (New
York: Exposition Press, 1955), 57.
who helped make the whole place much more habitable and attractive.63
As more women arrived, they increasingly affected the social life in the Zone.
Before North American workers' wives came to the Isthmus in any great number, I.C.C.
nurses comprised the largest U.S. female presence. But greatly outnumbered by male
workers, they precipitated some problems for the Commission. As early as 1905, with
only a handful of nurses on contract, doctors at Ancon and along the construction line
were said to be "playing havoc with the tender affections" of some of the nurses.""
When the Ancon hospital lost 17 nurses to matrimony from April to June 1907, medical
authorities, in their recruitment, requested applications from older, plainer nurses.65
Nurses may have enjoyed the attention they received from military officers and
I.C.C. employees, yet many felt their lives to be devoid of the cultural pursuits common
at home: "no music, no churches,... no books or magazines, no driving, except round
and round inside the towns."6 Jesse Murdoch related that nurses were often left to
their own devices after shifts and tried to fill up time in their quarters with activities
reminiscent of their lives back home.67 Consequently, they heralded the arrival of
workers' wives, even if it meant the nurses would no longer be singled out as much for
male attention. The immigration of wives meant the development of a more extensive
"Panama Canal Retirement Association, The Canal Diggers in Panama, 21.
"Star and Herald, 22 May 1905.
65Star and Herald, 30 March 1908. Biographical sketches of U.S. Canal employees
revealed that many I.C.C. nurses married fellow Canal workers both in and out of the
medical field. Marriage in the early days led to resignation from Canal employment.
Society of the Chagres: Yearbook, 1912 (Mount Hope, C.Z.: I.C.C. Press, 1912), 77-78,
rStar and Herald, 24 July 1905.
67Murdoch, "Ancon Hospital in 1904 and 1905": 52.
social and community life with familiar cultural organizations.68
The arrival of workers' families altered the leisure and recreational world of men
on the Isthmus. I.C.C. clubhouses, built for the diversion of male workers, now included
"open house" hours for women, with certain afternoon and evening events earmarked
for them.69 When women ate in I.C.C. facilities, the Commission became less tolerant
of misbehavior and bad language in the dining areas.70 Workers had earlier organized
baseball teams with inter-divisional or inter-township competitions. When women began
to attend games, men voiced their concern about the lack of netting to protect female
patrons.71 Yet women did more than force adjustments in men's activities or demeanor.
Women also enhanced men's programs by rekindling in the minds of male
workers the memories of life in the States. Women brought homestyle refreshments
and decorations to men's club and business meetings. By preparing meals for special
picnics and organization days, they gave young, homesick North American workers a
taste of home. Such contributions to men's social life led one worker to exclaim, "The
ladies, God bless them!... [They make food] like mother used to make."72
As the number of U.S. women on the Isthmus rose, they increasingly took a
prominent role in community entertainment, much as they had in the States. They held
card parties and suppers in their quarters and organized functions in community sites.73
"Murdoch, "Ancon Hospital in 1904 and 1905": 58.
69The Canal Record 1 (September 11, 1907): 7.
70Chatfield, Light on Dark Places in Panama, 239.
71Star and Herald, 17 September 1906.
72Star and Herald, 6 November 1905.
73"Canal Diggers' Wives Were Pioneers of Tropical Brand of Housekeeping": 67.
Women lent their voices to choral societies and drama groups and their steps to
dancing clubs. They put on performances in I.C.C. clubhouses and theaters. They even
joined men in performing "coon songs" in the popular black-faced minstrel shows of the
day, shows made even more popular by local characterizations.74 In so doing, North
American women, as well as men, replicated on the Isthmus the vaudevillian
entertainment of the United States, with all of its accompanying racial prejudices.
Holidays found U.S. women striving to put as much "home" as possible into the
occasions. Women assisted in Fourth of July observances in the Canal Zone and in
Panama. Their presence was increasingly noted in newspaper reports of the annual
holiday. When the Star and Herald reported in 1909 that North Americans celebrating
on the Isthmus outdid their compatriots in the States, considering their numbers,
women were singled out as giving "the old city [Panama] a Yankee appearance."7s
Wives and mothers tried as well to emulate stateside Christmas celebrations in
both their quarters and in community facilities with whatever ornaments and supplies
they could find. They decorated I.C.C. clubhouses to look like scenes from the States,
with fake fireplaces, Santa Clauses, and palm fronds thrown in among the few
evergreens.76 Orange trees with ripe and green fruit or coffee trees were placed in
74Star and Herald, 9 March 1908; The Canal Record 5 (January 3, 1912): 151.
75Star and Herald, 12 July 1909. For the first time, Panama's government declared the
Fourth of July to be an official civic holiday. Panamanians, recalling their independence
and love of liberty, simply made the celebration their own. Grateful to the U.S., Panama
nevertheless wanted to be accepted on an equal basis with its northern neighbor. Two
years earlier, the newspaper recorded the holiday as the birthday of continental liberty,
tying the U.S., as exemplar of freedom, to the fight for independence by Latin American
republics. Star and Herald, 8 July 1907.
76The Canal Record 3 (December 29, 1909): 142.
schoolrooms and homes to represent the Christmas tree in the tropics.77 Because
seasonal foods had to be sent from the States, some women substituted local fruits
and native turkeys when the stateside items didn't arrive in time.78 Substitution and
creativity kept the "American" flavor in the Canal Zone's holiday spirit.
Additionally, North American women helped shape the religious life in the Canal
Zone. Besides forming and supporting community churches, Zone women and men
created a unified Protestant movement with a distinctly U.S. flavor on the Isthmus. The
Roman Catholic diocese of Panama had already extended its dominion over seven
branch churches in the Canal Zone,"7 and the Episcopal presence had previously been
established during the building of the Panama Railroad.,8 But the Protestantism of
white transient Canal workers had been too diverse to sustain denominational clergy.
As women and family life became more visible, the desire for weekly Protestant
worship began to flourish. The Sunday School, a traditional forum for women's religious
activism, became the unifying body in establishing interdenominational worship.'8
Women served on the executive councils of the Christian Leagues in the major
construction communities and helped the Leagues form the Isthmian Sunday School
77 Hemandez, "Men Dug the Canal... But Women Played a Vital Role": 37; Norine Hall
Kaufer, "Emperador: Empire, Canal Zone, 1909-1919" (Unpublished memoir given to
author by her daughter, Nancy Kaufer Lanfranco, 1996): 1.
78Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 83.
79The Canal Record 4 (September 28, 1910): 38.
8sMuenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, 38. The railroad-built
Episcopal church in Col6n was considered Anglican by the large number of West
Indians who also held services there, separate from those of the North Americans.
81Robert H. Rolofson, Christian Cooperation at the World's Crossroads (Canal Zone:
The Union Church of the Canal Zone, 1950), 71.
Association to unify worship and religious study among families in scattered towns.82
This produced a more coordinated and cooperative ministry among Protestants.
The drive to unify Protestant worship likewise kept alive the values of home in
the United States. Religious activities in the Zone brought Protestants closer to America
as well as to God and each other. As Maribel Weaver, an early Zonian, remarked,
people gathered at church to "sing hymns of the homeland, strangers, in a strange
country."83 Zone congregations imported Sunday School curricula from the States.
They organized men's and women's auxiliaries along stateside lines. Church calendars
of events generally paralleled those back home. Congregants tried to make the
religious week no different in the Zone than in countless towns in the United States.
Thus religious obligations were accented with cultural obligations. Christian ideals were
couched in "American" ideas of what was right and moral, as was common among U.S.
Protestant missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One Zone
mother, Rose van Hardeveld, verbalized the matemal and patriotic tone of her Sunday
School work, stating that "in the midst of an alien people ... it was given to us to keep
our own ideals and teach our children, in a large measure, the standards and culture of
the United States.""
The North American character in the Zone's Protestant religious life was further
demonstrated in the establishment of the interdenominational Union Church of the
Canal Zone. To insure continuous Protestant worship in the Zone as long as the Canal
was under U.S. control, the men and women of the Christian Leagues and the Isthmian
82The Canal Record 4 (August 2, 1911): 387.
"8Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, 31.
84Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 116.
Sunday School Association formed the Union Church of the Canal Zone on January 25,
1914. Its motto was "with unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials and charity in all
things."85 The church's emphasis on union intentionally reflected the "American" myth.
The prologue to the church's history declared that the Union Church of the Canal Zone
symbolized "the genius and strength of [the United States], its non-divisive diversity, its
democracy, its vigor, and its spiritual heritage." Tied to its U.S. roots, the Union Church,
the prologue affirmed, "amid the strange culture of this far-off land,... would be a
monument to ... the deep devotion and prophetic wisdom of the founding fathers."86
The formation of these unified churches in the major towns of the Zone also intended to
convey to Roman Catholics in Panama and Latin America that the diverse Protestant
Christianity of the United States was not hopelessly divided.87
A symbol of U.S. Protestant values, the Union Church's primary purpose was to
sustain Protestant worship and "American" religious values in the Canal Zone. Its
purpose was not to convert Panama to Protestant Christianity. Women indeed
participated in missionary societies and supported church outreach on the Isthmus, just
as they had at home. But the first order of business was to build an "American" church
for "Americans" at the "Crossroads of the World."
This distinction was lost on North Americans who saw in the Protestant church a
85Rolofson, Christian Cooperation at the Word's Crossroads, 72, title page.
871bid., 86. Protestant unity was additionally reinforced at the Congress of Panama in
1916, when denominational competition, which had weakened the Protestant mission in
Catholic Latin America, was replaced by a plan dividing Latin America into mission
territories. Panama was placed within the Methodist fold. Michael Dodson and Laura
Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy, Nicaragua's Other Revolution: Religious Faith and Political
Struggle (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 81, 82.
vanguard for social and theological enlightenment in Latin America. After the war with
Spain in 1898, U.S. propaganda perpetuated la leyenda negra, the "Black Legend" that
painted Spain with the brush of barbarism and decadence. Popular dogma recounted
how the Northern European Protestant version of Divine Providence had defeated the
Spanish and brought a higher civilization to the world.88 North Americans blamed the
illiteracy, poverty, and "backwardness" they found in Spain's former colonies on its
institutions: the despotic colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church. The first
was gone; the latter was not. By the time the Congress of Panama met in 1916, where
delegates from the "progressive" U.S. Protestant denominations discussed how
education could redeem Latin American society, the ties between Protestant thought,
modernization, and economic development had long since been established.89
Methodist Bishop George Miller, who spent years on the Isthmus during canal
construction, lamented that the influence of Protestant institutions in the educational,
social, and spiritual life of Panama was not far-reaching. He attributed this to the fact
that the major Protestant presence on the Isthmus, the Union Church, was situated in
the "wholly North American" Canal Zone and not within the Republic. With U.S.
institutions suspect in a "thoroughly Latin" Panama, Miller believed that locating the
Union Church alongside North American institutions decreased the likelihood that the
88Philip Wayne Powell, Tree of Hate: Propaganda and Prejudices Affecting United
States Relations with the Hispanic World (New York: Basic Books, 1971), 125.
89Jose Miguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism: 1993 Camahan
Lectures (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 12. Latin
American "liberals" after independence from Spain sought trade with Northern Europe.
Seeking to modernize their nations, they viewed Protestantism as a factor in the
success of those industrial nations and a bulwark against Catholic hegemony. Dodson
and O'Shaughnessy, Nicaragua's Other Revolution, 66.
Protestant church could become a powerful force for change in Panama.9
But the overall goal of U.S. women was to match everyday life in the Canal
Zone with the flag that flew over it. Patriotism, which contributed to the decision of
many U.S. workers to enlist in the nation's engineering effort, affected their wives as
well. Pride in their native land helped dispel the fears of being surrounded by an alien
people and culture. Looking back, Mattie Morrison recalled her feelings when she first
arrived in Gorgona and saw "Old Glory," waving over the courthouse:
My heart overflowed with ... gratitude for what it represented:
safety and protection for all of Uncle Sam's children even in this
distant land. The ensuing years have proved that we were equally
safe under the Panama flag, a fact which we did not then realize.91
Progress on the Canal made U.S. wives believe that there was no limit to what
the United States could accomplish in the world.92 The fact that the Panama Canal was
a U.S. engineering project and that officials and supervisors were North Americans
tainted the wives' perception that construction was a white, "American" achievement,
notwithstanding the fact that most labor was performed by black West Indians, the
largest single group within the workforce.93 For Zone wives like Rose van Hardeveld,
faith in "American" progress remedied any doubts they had in being in a new land.94
Patriotism strengthened their resolve to make their overseas enclave "American."
90George Miller, Prowling About Panama (New York: Abingdon Press, 1919), 249.
91Morrison, "Mattie J. Morrison Tells of Pioneer Days on the Zone," part 2, The Canal
Record 24 (June 1990): 61. [Italics added.]
92Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 143.
93The "invisibility" of the West Indian contribution to the Panama Canal is documented
in Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981.
4Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 143.
North American mothers considered the reinforcement of patriotic beliefs in the
lives of their children to be a maternal obligation. Family outings involved walks along
construction sites to see what the U.S. was accomplishing. Women and children made
it a habit to go regularly to Culebra Cut to watch the progress in excavation.95 The wife
of I.C.C. Chairman Theodore Shonts wanted her daughters to be familiar with all
aspects of the project. The young women regularly visited hospitals and machine
shops, and even rode horseback into the jungle to view the construction.9 The wife of
Assistant Chief Engineer John C. Sullivan would accompany her husband on inspection
trips to Culebra Cut and then surprise visiting journalists with her knowledge of what
was going on.97 Familiarization with construction moved wives to take pride in and
"ownership" of the project. Yet creating communities and homes that manifested
stateside customs and standards was as much a source of pride as the Canal.
Notwithstanding the focus of North American women on life within the U.S.
enclave, their presence nevertheless also affected daily life in the Republic. The more
publicity their activities received in Panama's newspapers, the more Panamanian
culture became exposed to North American culture. From the earliest years, how North
American women viewed and dealt with the differences in U.S. and Panamanian
cultures helped color the relations between Panamanians and Zonians and concretized
the "American" presence in the Canal Zone.
Panamanian society, like Latin American societies in general, is highly stratified,
and it was more so during the construction days. Panama's elite guarded its "Spanish"
95Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 39.
"Star and Herald, 26 November 1906.
97Star and Herald, 29 October 1906.
heritage and considered most North Americans to be uncultured.98 Unlike Europeans,
North Americans were not sufficiently ceremonious with important persons and events.
They subordinated ceremony to pragmatism, as demonstrated in the lack of ceremony
in the U.S. takeover of French operations. When the United States assumed control of
the French hospitals, I.C.C. nurses deemed the lush gardens on the grounds, which
France's Sisters of Charity had tended so lovingly to aid the sick, to be a breeding
locale for the deadly mosquito carrying the sickness.99 U.S. health and sanitation
priorities were also imposed on Panamanian society. Protection against mosquitoes
was necessary, but urban Panamanian women complained that arrogant, "lower strata"
fumigation teams did not respect their privacy.1' According to Winifred James, a
European married to a U.S. businessman in Panama, the informal North Americans
seemed not to care "that its prestige should be kept up in a world where pageantry is
the handmaiden of prestige."101
The families of Panama's elite and of lower-echelon North American workers
traveled in different circles. Panamanian women were mostly confined to the homes of
98 As Panama's elite pointed to its Euro-Spanish racial lineage to differentiate itself from
the mestizo and mulatto masses, its "Spanish" cultural lineage distinguished the elite
from the "American" newcomers. But, though some elite Panamanians view themselves
today as Spanish descendants with no indigenous blood, racially-pure creoles are
rarely found. Likewise, Panama's "pure" cultural criolla (creole culture) is actually a mix
of Spanish, indigenous, and African cultures. Georgia Isabel Jim6nez, "Panama in
Transition: Period of 1849-1940" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1954): 19, 53.
99Phyllis Foster Healy, "Mary Eugenie Hibbard: Nurse, Gentlewoman and Patriot" (Ph.D.
diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1990): 229-230.
1' Star and Herald, 7 August 1905.
'O'Winifred (Mrs. Henry De Jan) James, American Woman in the Wildemess (London:
Chapman and Hall, 1915), 46.
their husbands or fathers, which were generally inaccessible to foreigners.102 When
they did venture forth, they limited their activities to women of their own social class.
Initially, the interests of the two groups differed. Consequently, it was difficult to form
friendships between North Americans and elite Panamanians in the early days, except
among the officials of Panama, Zone authorities, and diplomats in the U.S. legation.
The image of North American women contrasted with the traditional image of
Panama's elite. U.S. historians Carl and Dorothy Schneider generalized the "New
Woman" of the era as a "quintessentially American," self-confident female who played
sports, rode bicycles and horses, and spent free time with men without chaperones.103
Similarly, U.S. women on the Isthmus typically were more informal, independent, and
bold than the women in Panama's upper classes.
It was not long, however, before U.S. culture, manifested by North Americans
on the Isthmus, began to encroach upon Panama's culture and to influence activities
on all levels of Panamanian society.'0 U.S. women pursued familiar cultural past-times
on the Isthmus. To keep slender, Zonian women played tennis, took swimming lessons
in "bathing places" along the Canal, rode horses in outlying areas around the towns,
102Jimnnez, "Panama in Transition": 54.
103Schneider and Schneider, American Women in the Progressive Era, 16.
'"Cultural images accompanied the influx of North American and European businesses
into the import-export economies of Latin America. Changes in the economy and in the
perception of women from developed countries moved middle-class Latin American
women to greater independence and participation in the work arena. See Susan K.
Besse, "Pagu: Patricia GalvAo-Rebel," in The Human Tradition in Latin America: The
Twentieth Century, ed. William H. Beezley and Judith Ewell (Wilmington, Del.:
Scholarly Resources, 1987), 103-117. Panamanian women did not "benefit" as quickly
due to Panama's lack of a modem economy. But the presence of the Canal ultimately
influenced women's transition into more middle-class jobs, as the Canal Zone exported
to Panama U.S. images of "modem" women.
and enrolled in gymnastic and dance classes. Uniquely "American" dances made their
appearances at community functions as women showed off the latest steps.
The publicity given such activities by Panama's newspapers increasingly
familiarized Panamanians with U.S. culture, in spite of the limited interaction between
the two societies. The reviews of this cultural invasion were mixed. In 1905, when the
Kangaroo Walk was in vogue among North American women on the Isthmus, the
bilingual Star and Herald expressed disappointment that young women of Panamanian
society were being drawn to this "latest product of the restless female mind" like "the
moth and the flame."'1 Yet only two years later, when the bicycle trend hit Panama as
a result of North Americans practicing the stateside craze, the newspaper responded
differently. As the I.C.C. paved more streets, U.S. women began to cycle in Panama
City and Col6n. The fad, which attracted mostly young Panamanian men at first, soon
included young women of the Republic, leading one reporter to announce that it was
time for the "Belles of Panama society ... [to] drop some of the old Spanish
conventionalities and declare themselves as the real twentieth-century article."16
Women as wage-eamers was a topic which distinguished the cultural
perspective of U.S. women in the Canal Zone from that of Panamanian women. In
1909, Panama's newspapers reported that in the United States, one-fifth of the women
had already abandoned domestic life and become wage-earners.107 The women of
Panama's upper classes were more averse to working outside the home than were
North American women. Elite Panamanian women tended to stay home, administering
'05Star and Herald, 15 May 1905.
' Star and Herald, 25 March 1907.
107Star and Herald, 12 July 1909.
their households. The women of Panama's infant middle class were trying to become
more economically, politically, and socially active, as was the case in the more
developed areas of Latin America, but no well-developed middle class would exist in
the Republic until after World War II.108 Historically, only the poor or lower-class women
of Panama worked outside the home, and most of these worked in domestic service,
retail, textiles, tobacco, and shrimp processing.1" The lack of social recognition of
working women is evident in Panama's census of 1911, where no women were
recorded as employed, though many were known to work at least in domestic trades.110
Wives and female relatives of U.S. workers, mainly from the middle classes,
procured jobs in the Canal Zone after they arrived. As previously noted, the I.C.C. did
not want to bring women, other than nurses, to the Isthmus, even if its offices were
understaffed. Female applicants faulted officials for hiring unqualified non-U.S. males
over qualified U.S. women.1' But as North American families populated the Isthmus,
the I.C.C. and the Panama Railroad began to hire wives and daughters as dieticians,
clerks, teachers, cashiers, telephone operators, telegraphers, and stenographers.12
U.S. women were even able to obtain jobs traditionally relegated to non-U.S. citizens."3
'ODubois, Danger Over Panama, 348.
109Amelia Marquez de Perez, "Gendered Jobs, Gendered Earnings in the Panamanian
Labor Force" (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1996): 3.
"OReport from Director General de Estadistic, Isidoro Hazera, to Secretario de
Fomento, 10 August 1912, File 28-B-106 (Census of the Republic of Panama, May
1905-May 1918), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group 185,
"'Chatfield, Light on Dark Places at Panama, 102.
112The Canal Record 7 (May 6, 1914): 356
13Chatfield, Light on Dark Places at Panama, 310.
The foremost reason for the government's reticence to bring women employees
from the States, the lack of housing, was overcome by the fact that female members of
U.S. workers' families were already in residence on the Isthmus. The employment of
U.S. women teachers illustrates this situation. As North American children increased in
the Zone, the Commission wanted to hire more U.S. teachers. Since male teachers
could earn better wages in canal construction and women were traditionally paid less
than men, the I.C.C. tried to lure women teachers to the Isthmus. But poor housing and
climate conditions discouraged them from coming.14 So the Commission hired women
from U.S. workers' families. In 1908, most of the twenty-five U.S. women teachers
appointed were wives or daughters of male employees living in the Zone."1 Women
were rarely chosen from Civil Service registers. If they could do the job, the I.C.C. and
the Panama Railroad hired them because they were already in place.
Nationality was an additional factor in the employment of North American
women in the Zone. Employment figures in 1912 reveal how U.S. workers were over-
represented in the better-paying positions of the Canal workforce. During construction,
workers from ninety-seven countries labored on the Canal."" North Americans made
up only one-sixth to one-seventh of the total workforce, counting from manual laborers
to officials."7 Yet U.S. men monopolized the higher-paid supervisory and skilled
114Memorandum from Chief Clerk, Department of Civil Administration to Chairman,
I.C.C., 16 July 1913, File 91-A-37 (Miscellaneous Information of Canal Zone or Panama
Schools, 28 April 1906-15 May 1925), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914,
Record Group 185, National Archives.
15The Canal Record 1 (May 27, 1908): 310.
"6McCullough, The Path Between the Seas, 471.
17Marshall, The Story of the Panama Canal, 149.
positions. North American women similarly occupied the more desirable female
positions in the Canal Zone. Although only thirteen percent of U.S.-bom women,
fifteen years of age and older, living in the Zone were employed,18 they were
nevertheless given priority over other nationalities in the better-paid I.C.C. and Panama
Railroad positions. Those two organizations included only 321 women among their
32,513 employees, but of these, seventy-eight percent were bom in the States.119 Out
of the 4,066 women hired as domestics, small traders, agriculturists, and miscellaneous
workers in the Zone, but not by the I.C.C or Railroad, only thirty-four U.S. women were
so employed.120 Most of those lesser-paying jobs went to non-U.S. women.
Such statistics also give evidence of the social stigma against women working
and its impact on women's education in Panama. Of the 600 Panamanian women
employed in the Zone, most were hired as domestics, the traditional position of women
of the lower classes. Of the 1,037 Panamanians hired by the I.C.C. and the Panama
Railroad, only five were women.'21 At this time, Panama's undeveloped economy and
low level of urbanization and industrialization had not created more "modern" jobs for
women, such as the I.C.C. positions held by U.S. women in the Canal Zone. With a
lack of vocational training available to women in Panama, work options were limited.122
Under the educational system that was constituted at the birth of the new
s8lsthmian Canal Commission, Census of the Canal Zone: February 1, 1912 (Mount
Hope, C.Z.: I.C.C. Press, 1912), 36-39, 52-53.
119bid., 25, 52-53.
120lbid., 25, 26-27, 52-53.
122Star and Herald, 16 May 1910.
Republic, young Panamanian women eventually would be able to pursue typically
middle-class careers in teaching, nursing, and clerical work.123 But at the time the
vanguard of the Isthmian Commission arrived on the Isthmus, educational authorities in
Panama still expected a female teacher at a girls' school to be "an artist with her needle
and efficient in drawing and music."124 Women's education meant domestic training.
The presence of the Panama Canal, and perhaps the I.C.C.'s employment of
U.S. women, influenced the rise of vocational training for Panamanian women and
provided another source of employment.125 In 1905, Canal workers began teaching
telegraphy classes to young Panamanian women. A Star and Herald reporter noted:
"Little by little the seioritas of Panama are awakening from their hereditary dignified
lethargy and realize that every sensible twentieth century lady has an axe to grind."'26
By 1910, a school of telegraphy was established in Panama, and women, heretofore
excluded from vocational training, were listed among the students.127 Despite different
cultural perceptions, such programs, at the very least, contributed to the increasing
number of women employed in Panama's government offices and bureaus.128
The cultural divide between North Americans and Panamanians, though, was
'23Marquez de Perez, "Gendered Jobs, Gendered Eamings in the Panamanian Labor
Force": 3. By the 1950s, Panamanian elite women would begin to enter the workforce,
usually in the higher levels of labor, such as banking and government.
124Star and Herald, 25 April 1904.
125World War I also opened Canal jobs to Panamanians, when non-U.S. citizens of
countries allied with the United States were admitted to various Civil Service exams "in
view of the needs of the service." The Canal Record 12 (October 9, 1918): 86.
'26Star and Herald, 3 July 1905.
'27Star and Herald, 26 December 1910.
128Star and Herald, 21 May 1909.
widened by language, or more accurately, by the pervasiveness of English on the
Isthmus at the expense of Spanish. To a greater or lesser degree, the preference for
English continued to hinder harmonious relations throughout the U.S. presence on the
Isthmus. English was the first language in the Zone and even in certain settings in the
Republic. After the Canal was completed, Zone officials encouraged the learning of
Spanish as important in understanding Panama and Latin America and for the
development of trade.129 Workers seeking to pass the Spanish language exam and
enhance their chances for promotion took Spanish lessons.3" Others felt that they
could better transact business in Panama if they had some facility in Spanish.
But convenience, perceived cultural superiority, and the lack of a foreign
language tradition among U.S. residents relegated Spanish to an optional language in
the Zone. When the Commission offered to assist any employee who wanted to learn
Spanish, it reported that no one made such a request, probably because "practically
everyone down here speaks English, and that language is all that is required for the
ordinary necessities."'31 The presence of English-speaking West Indians and the ability
of trades people in Panama to speak English only perpetuated this reluctance.
In Canal Zone schools, with students from northern and southern Europe, Latin
America, and the Caribbean, as well as the United States, teachers taught in English.
Initially, courses were to be taught in English and Spanish, and both English-speaking
129The Canal Record 9 (6 October 1915): 56.
130Haskin, The Panama Canal, 187-188.
131Canal Zone Governor to R. D. Cortina Company, 15 September 1905, File 91-B-2
(Teaching of Spanish in Canal Zone Schools, 30 June 1905-12 July 1913), General
Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group 185, National Archives.
and Spanish-speaking teachers were to be employed.'32 But since most students came
from the English-speaking Caribbean and the United States and it was difficult to find
U.S.-qualified teachers with Spanish facility, English dominated. Early on, Spanish
became a foreign language elective in schools in the middle of the Isthmus of Panama.
From the opening of Canal Zone schools, the educational priority for Zone
officials and U.S. parents was to duplicate and prepare their children for stateside
schools. This is noteworthy since only ten percent of the students were white North
Americans in a student body dominated by so-called "colored" children from the
Caribbean, Latin America, and southern Europe.33 During the French tenure, Jamaican
parents had established schools for their children and staffed them with teachers from
their own communities. Judging these early efforts as "meager" and "incompetent,"
Canal officials declared that "with the advent of the Americans,... a new impetus was
given to education in the Canal Zone."34 When possible, more U.S. teachers and
fewer Jamaican and Panamanian teachers were hired.'35 The Canal Zone public school
system was instituted to be "essentially American, with many American teachers,
American methods, American textbooks, American songs and literature ... and the
132Star and Herald, 1 February 1906.
133Memorandum from Chief Clerk, Department of Administration, for Chairman, I.C.C.,
16 July 1913, File 91-A-37 (Miscellaneous Information of Canal Zone or Panama
Schools, 28 April1906-15 May 1925), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914,
Record Group 185, National Archives.
13Memorandum from Chief Clerk, Department of Administration, for Chairman, I.C.C.,
16 July 1913, ibid. Given that Jamaicans held education in high regard, U.S. prejudice
presumably played a part in this statement. Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal, 18.
'35Memorandum for Visiting Commercial Clubs of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, and St.
Louis from Superintendent of Schools, 2 March 1907, File 91-A-37 (Miscellaneous
Information of Canal Zone or Panama Schools, 28 April1906-15 May 1925), General
Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914.
American flag, floating over every school house on the Zone."136 This cultural
commitment to English and "Americanism" was aptly demonstrated when, as the Canal
near its completion, Zone schoolchildren in Cristobal celebrated the Fourth of July
before the President of Panama by singing Panama's national anthem-in English.137
North American women fell prey to the same cultural chauvinism in their homes
and domestic circles. Some saw the benefit of learning Spanish, especially to deal with
merchants and markets in Panama, yet most chose the convenient course. U.S. wives
hired West Indian maids over Panamanians, mainly because they spoke English.'38 It
was not the inability of North American women to speak Spanish that offended
Panamanian women; it was their unwillingness to learn. Educated Panamanian women
could not fathom why women from a country that was rated so highly in education
seldom spoke anything other than "plain United States," whereas Panamanian women
educated in Europe or the United States acquired the language of their host country.'39
Panamanian exposure to the cultural education of Zone Americans included
their beliefs about society. Though the U.S. presence on the Isthmus would influence
ideas of democracy in Panama, Zonians nonetheless reinforced the rigid stratification
of Panamanian society. Canal Zone officials and U.S. diplomats, who socialized at
'3Unsigned and Unaddressed Memorandum, Executive File No. 7383, 1 August
1906, File 91-A-37 (Miscellaneous Information of Canal Zone or Panama Schools, 28
April1906-15 May 1925), General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914. The Canal Zone
school system was "American" in another aspect. Zone schools were integrated when
they first opened in 1906, but by 1909, separate "colored" schools were in place. The
latter schools stressed agricultural, industrial, and practical courses, mirroring Jim Crow
school segregation in the United States. The Canal Record 3 (November 10, 1909): 86.
'37The Canal Record 7 (July 8, 1914): 459.
38""Canal-Diggers' Wives Were Pioneers of Tropical Brand of Housekeeping": 67.
139Star and Herald, 25 December 1905.
affairs with their counterparts in Panama, asked Zone workers to attend Panamanian
celebrations and parties when invited.'1 Yet, apart from the North American officials,
the Panamanian elite looked upon U.S. workers as beneath its social standing.
Likewise, Canal workers were as aloof from the lower urban masses as Panama's elite
were. Consequently, most Zonians kept to themselves, isolated from the unaccepting
elite of Panama and isolating themselves from the unacceptable lower classes.
The self-imposed segregation of U.S. workers and their families from the lower
classes of Panama fit the social conventions of Panama's racial hierarchy. Latin
America has a tradition of perceiving white-skinned people as superior to darker-
skinned persons. The impact of European racial theories and social Darwinism on the
"whitening" of Latin America has been documented by historians.'41 In its censuses,
Panama typically distinguished races in terms of the dominant physical characteristics.
If a Panamanian looked "white," he was designated "Spanish." Those who had mostly
African traits were designated "mulatto," while those with more indigenous features
were deemed "mestizo."142 Mestizo and mulatto Panamanians at the lower end of the
social scale were familiar with the disdain with which white-skinned elite families looked
at them. Panamanians called the elite rabiblancos ("white tails"), a term which signified
the masses' contempt for or the elite's pride in Euro-Spanish blood-lines. Some elite
Panamanians even shunned U.S. nurses who cared for West Indians in I.C.C. hospitals
140Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 33.
141For in-depth coverage of this tradition in one country, see Thomas E. Skidmore,
Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1974; Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993).
142Jimenez, "Panama in Transition": 21-22.
and refused to attend a reception for these nurses at the U.S. Legation.143
U.S. Canal workers, in the same way, denigrated the lower classes of Panama
because they were uneducated and of non-white or mixed blood. These Panamanians
were well aware of the North Americans' racial contempt for them. 44 Panamanians at
the lower end of the social scale identified Zone families, their culture and privileges,
more with the elite of Panamanian society than with themselves. After all, Zonians who
made intimate friends among Panamanians did so only among the "better class of
Spanish residents" in the cities, and only the more educated Panamanians were invited
to the galas given by the I.C.C. in its hotels.45 Zone families considered this "better
class" as those refined and educated Panamanians "who [spoke] perfect English."'1
Panamanians who believed in the superiority of whiteness found an ally in North
American women. As U.S. women arrived on the Isthmus, advertisements in the Star
and Herald praising the virtues of women portrayed their subjects as Anglo-Saxon
women in Victorian attire. One reporter observed that Panamanian women were
wearing a lot of powder on their faces, with the general rule being that the darker the
complexion, the more powder should be applied.'47 For U.S. women, racial identity was
as much of an issue as cultural identity. Housing along the construction line was initially
'43Hibbard, "The Early Days of Panama, A Sketch."
"4Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 280-282.
145Gause and Carr, The Story of Panama, 250. In calling Panama's elite "Spanish,"
these writers, who were also Canal Zone school officials, either were reflecting the U.S.
tendency to lump Spanish-speaking peoples together as "Spanish" or were mirroring
the European self-bias of Panama's elite.
146Heald, Picturesque Panama, 70.
147Star and Herald, 3 February 1908.
not as racially segregated as it would become in the future. So it was not surprising
when Rose van Hardeveld declared her excitement at the prospect of getting a white
female neighbor, even if she was neither North American nor could speak English.148
How U.S. wives in this early period related to the lower classes of Panama, the
women of the West Indies, and indigenous tribes indicates that most perceived the
"American" culture, if not the white race, to be superior. To build "protective walls
against the threatening strangeness of other people and to legitimize the boundaries
and terms of intergroup contact,"149 Zone women used the racial stereotypes reflected
in U.S. foreign policy to justify racial and cultural subordination. Most mestizos with
whom Zonian women came into contact lived in the jungle regions along the route of
the Canal. Van Hardeveld viewed these poor people to be without ambition and
ignorant of the real need for building the Canal.'15 Natives in the path of the rising man-
made lake who had to be convinced to move, according to Elizabeth Kittredge Parker,
were "unimaginative,"151 notwithstanding the fact that the poor mestizos did not benefit
from the Canal but only suffered from being dislocated by it. Van Hardeveld also said
that she felt sorry for the "little brown mothers of the jungle" and built a relationship with
one such mother over her sick child. But the charity of Zone mothers was generally
permeated with their belief in the superiority of U.S. child-caring methods.152
48Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 45.
'49Michael Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University
Press, 1987), 90.
1 Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 67-68.
151Parker, Panama Canal Bride, 81..
'52Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, 15-16.
North American wives differed in their views of charity under such conditions.
Some felt that whatever they gave to the natives would only make them dissatisfied
with their state of life.15 Others, in their gift-giving, hoped that these rural people would
want what Zonians were trying to help them achieve. Yet Zonian wives, such as Mrs.
Emest von Muenchow, were often frustrated that these poor Panamanians, though
appreciative of the small comforts North Americans offered, actually preferred their way
of life and had no intention of changing their traditional customs for U.S. ones.54
Zonian women likewise viewed indigenous tribes from their perception of U.S.
cultural superiority. Those North American women assumed that what they valued in
their culture would be the envy of tribal women. This was evident in the experience of
Emma Eger, an unmarried Zone teacher who in 1916-1917 was one of the first white
women to visit the Kuna tribes on the San Bias Islands off the coast of Panama. When
she encountered the short-haired Kuna women, she interpreted their interest in her
long braided, blond hair to be a desire "to possess woman's crowning glory just as
much as any other woman the wide-world over if only their customs permitted."55
The most contact U.S. wives had with women of "other" Isthmian cultures came
in their relationship with their West Indian maids. Many of the middle-class U.S. women
who came to the Zone had little experience with domestic help. During this period, most
housewives in the States did not have servants. With the supply of domestics declining
153McCullough, The Paths Between the Seas, 587.
'"Muenchow, ed., The American Woman in the Panama Canal, 120.
155Emma (Eger) Bradley, "The San Bias Indians," circa 1916-1917 (Unpublished
memoir, given to the author by her daughter, Betty Bradley London, 1996): 10.
during the Progressive Era, middle-class women generally hired only part-time help.156
But as North American women arrived in Panama, the oppressive climate and the
availability of inexpensive domestic labor increased their demand for maids and cooks.
West Indian women had worked in domestic labor since arriving in Panama during the
French period. The I.C.C. employed some as nurses' aides, laundresses, commissary,
clerks, cooks, and custodians, but most were not on the Canal payroll. Some hired out
as dressmakers or managed sleeping quarters. Yet the vast majority sold fruits and
vegetables to help their families survive or were in domestic service.'57
West Indian women were characterized in the Canal Zone in terms similar to
those used by North Americans to describe African-Americans and other people of
African descent. They were considered "grinning black monkeys,"'" ignorant of a
"civilized" home,159 and "hopelessly immoral, though extremely religious withal."160 This
last disparaging description was based on the fact that many West Indian women were
not legally married to the men with whom they had children.161 Misunderstandings
'5Schneider and Schneider, American Women in the Progressive Era, 23-24.
'57Agatha Williams, "La mujer antillana en la construcci6n del Canal," La Prensa, 8
'IHardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 23.
'59Parker, Panama Canal Bride, 27-28.
'60Abbot, Panama Canal in Picture and Prose, 381.
161Many of these women were in common law marriages. In the West Indies, formal
marriage was mainly available to those who were financially well-off. Poverty and
mobility in search of employment made a stable family life a practical impossibility for
many. In the face of charges from the States that such women had been imported as
prostitutes, an I.C.C. investigation concluded that they were simply wives of laborers.
But the women still had to appear before the Commission to attest to their morality.
Williams, "La mujer antillana en la construcci6n del Canal," La Prensa (8 March 1991).
between maids and their U.S. employers were mostly due to the lack of knowledge
each had about the other's culture. But the wives' expectations that their maids should
immediately understand what took place in a North American household illustrated the
ethnocentric perspective from which U.S. women viewed other Isthmian cultures.
The longer some North American women resided on the Isthmus, however, the
more they understood that the difficulties in comprehending another's culture were
mutual. Such women also came to appreciate the strengths of women from other
cultures.162 The "civilized" home, of which Elizabeth Parker had said her maid was
ignorant, later was said to have benefitted from West Indian ways that outshone North
American methods. For example, her maid more effectively cleaned the ubiquitous
white tropical suit by washing and drying it on the grass than by boiling the material as
was the U.S. custom.16 Rose van Hardeveld began to understand the benefit of West
Indian "wailing" to bring emotional relief when she herself broke down amidst the stress
of living on the Isthmus.'4 Some of the same U.S. women who patronized native and
West Indian women gradually viewed them as representing "another way." As Emma
(Eger) Bradley wrote about the Kuna, their "ever free and easy life without hurry or
bustle made me compare it with our own contenual [sic] rush, worry, jealousy and
greed and I couldn't help but say to myself which is richer."165 But this occasional
162A similar emotional change took place within some white women in the western
frontier of North America. The longer they lived near native Americans, the more their
feelings moved from discomfort and pity to understanding and appreciation of native
customs. See Riley, A Place to Grow, 132-133.
163Parker, Panama Canal Bride, 33-34.
'"Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 52-53.
165Bradley, "The San Bias Indians": 10-11.
cultural appreciation did not displace U.S. cultural chauvinism. The tension between
cultural understanding and cultural chauvinism would persist in Zone women.
As North American women became more settled on the Isthmus and as
stateside customs and lifestyles became more established in the Zone, women felt
more at ease with their surroundings. Wives strolled with their husbands amidst the
Panamanians in the city parks. Rose van Hardeveld and other mothers, who had
feared raising their children among "a hodgepodge of humanity whose ideas and
customs were so different and unfamiliar," now explored and enjoyed the foreignness
of the land and its people.'" It was, however, the awareness that an "Americanized"
and domesticated environment in which to raise their families was being established,
with women's help, that undergirded their degree of comfort. As Gardner Richardson
noted on his visit midway through the construction of the Canal:
Light-haired American children were playing games under the
palm trees.... Baby carriages were being wheeled along the
water front.... A spectator might easily forget that he was in
Panama, for all the customs in the States are loyally followed.167
1~Hardeveld, Make the Dirt Fly!, 33, 95.
167Gardner Richardson, "Progress in Panama," The Independent 66 (April 22, 1909):
ORGANIZING "AS WOMEN OF THE UNITED STATES"
The manner in which U.S. women organized their activities influenced the
cultural climate on the Isthmus during the construction of the Canal and beyond.
Organizations gave women a more collective voice in community affairs, despite the
fact that the Canal Zone was a reservation of the U.S. government. Organizers also
hoped that these associations would provide a defense against social classism and
other divisive factors that were isolating Zone women from each other. The replication
of "American" women's organizations on the Isthmus not only helped inculcate North
American cultural values in Zone communities but gave women experience that would
prove beneficial to volunteerism during the First World War. The separation of these
organizations from their Panamanian counterparts, however, implied a cultural elitism
that further segregated the activities of Zonians from those of their Isthmian neighbors.
Certain conditions in the Canal Zone made civil organizations imperative if
Zonians were to have a say in their daily lives. Herbert and Mary Knapp correctly
described the government in the Zone as a form of "authoritarian socialism."' Since
politicking was forbidden in the Canal Zone, the Knapps conclude that voluntary
organizations kept alive the sense of democratic procedures as well as mediated
'Knapp and Knapp, Red, White, and Blue Paradise, 78.
between the individual and the government.2 Even Zone authorities encouraged the
self-initiative of these clubs, declaring that too much governmental paternalism would
not be conducive to good results.3
Zone organizations also infused individuals with a sense of power when
confronting the equality mandated by this form of government. Alexis de Tocqueville
wrote of the tyranny of equality in the U.S. and the protection afforded by associations:
Among democratic peoples associations must take the place
of the powerful private persons whom equality of conditions has
As soon as several Americans have conceived a
sentiment or an idea that they want to produce before the world,
they seek each other out, and when found, they unite. Thenceforth
they are no longer isolated individuals, but a power conspicuous
from the distance whose actions serve as an example; when it
speaks, men listen.4
A government-instituted "sameness" pervaded all aspects of Canal Zone life. To rebel
against it was to invite correction by an authoritarian government. Resorting to a social
hierarchy to offset such equality threatened to disturb the "American" identity that
united Zonians and the outward image that all U.S. citizens were equal. Social and civic
associations, on the other hand, differentiated residents without rejecting institutional
"sameness" or disrupting the Zone's "American" image.
From the earliest days, the North American community on the Isthmus had its
share of associations whose primary purpose was social. Most social clubs manifested
2Knapp and Knapp, Red, White, and Blue Paradise, 123.
3Jackson Smith, Manager, Department of Labor, Quarters, and Subsistence to Colonel
George W. Goethals, Chairman and Chief Engineer, I.C.C., 18 June 1908, File 28-A-5
(National Civic Federation-Report of Gertrude Beeks, 1 December 1907-26 May 1909),
General Correspondence, I.C.C., 1905-1914, Record Group 185, National Archives.
4Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer; trans. George Lawrence
(New York: Harper and Row, 1966; New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), 516.
the Anglo-Saxon, middle-class culture of the United States. Male and female workers
during the construction period formed societies to keep alive the memories of those
days.5 The American Social Club was organized for the amusement and recreation of
white employees, and the women who graced the affairs of that club insured that every
occasion had all of the characteristics of home.6 Among others were the Tivoli Club for
dances, the Ancon Amusement Association, and the Pan-Hellenic Society of the Canal
Zone for members of college fraternities back in the States.7 Clubs were informally and
formally organized around dining, card-playing, and even the minority status of female
bachelors.8 The desire to be noticed in a climate of "sameness" was seen in names like
"The Card Club of Twelve" and "The Elite Club of Las Cascadas."9
Though Zonians became adept at organizing their leisure time, not all societies
were centered around social activities. As in the States, men and women joined groups
that improved the welfare of both the Canal Zone and Panama. Not long after a branch
of the American Red Cross opened in the Canal Zone, a woman's auxiliary was formed
to enlist North American women in Red Cross campaigns.'o Zonians also saw an
opportunity to import and teach humane methods for dealing with animals, children,
5Scott, The Americans in Panama, 220. Workers who worked continuously for six years
during construction could join the Society of the Chagres. Those who had been on the
job from the very beginning could become members of the Inca Society.
8The Canal Record 1 (October 23, 1907): 4.
7William C. Haskins, ed., Canal Zone Pilot: Guide to the Republic of Panama and
Classified Business Directory (Panama: Star and Herald Co., 1908), 459.
8Star and Herald, 26 October 1908.
9The Canal Record 3 (November 24, 1909): 102.
'oThe Canal Record 5 (November 22, 1911): 105.
and drunks on the Isthmus." Since both the Zone and Panama's terminal cities were
under I.C.C. sanitation and health control, U.S. workers and their spouses formed or
joined local chapters of the Humane Society in the Canal Zone, Panama City, and
Col6n. The Zone chapter posted signs at the boundary with the Republic, warning
drivers in English and Spanish that humane laws would be enforced in the Canal Zone.
Panama's President Pablo Arosemena, who had been made honorary president of the
Canal Zone chapter, ordered these signs to be placed in Panama as well.12
Although women participated in such social and charitable associations, the
organizations were neither established for nor composed solely of women. There were
limited opportunities for women in any great number to meet or work together. One
organization traditionally identified with women, the Women's Christian Temperance
Union (W.C.T.U.) was not that successful on the Isthmus, notwithstanding reports in
local newspapers that the organization was highly active in the Canal Zone.13 Licensed
cantinas had been permitted in the Zone to sell wine to Spanish and Italian laborers,
but these saloons were scheduled to be closed when the Canal was completed.14 For
this reason, Admiral John Walker, I.C.C. Chairman, had earlier told President Theodore
Roosevelt that making the Canal Zone a temperance territory would be absurd; in
addition, enforcement of prohibition would be impractical.'5 Consequently, the
W.C.T.U. never would command the interest of women as other organizations would.
" Star and Herald, 1 March 1909.
'2The Canal Record 4 (January 25, 1911): 171.
'3Star and Herald, 12 October 1917.
'4Abbot, Panama and the Canal in Picture and Prose, 392.
'5Star and Herald, 6 June 1904.
Stateside fraternal organizations of women organized chapters in the Zone
during the construction period. Masonry had been in Panama since the seventeenth
century, and North American Masons had been working on the Isthmus since 1822.16
Subsequently, Zone women, feeling that a "woman's heart beats responsive to the
same inspiration that prompts man to noble deeds,"17 established chapters of the Order
of the Eastern Star. Furthermore, ladies' auxiliaries of veterans organizations18 and of
secret lodges,19 such as the International Order of Odd Fellows, the Improved Order of
Red Men, and the Knights of Pythias, made the same philanthropic commitments on
the Isthmus as the men's organizations. Yet by their nature, such societies did not lend
themselves to large, open memberships.
Women in the Zone, however, were as drawn to church organizations as they
had been in the States. In the early days of the Union Church of the Canal Zone, the
woman's auxiliary was formed to meet the needs of the community church like "a good
mother in her home."20 Besides studying comparative religions and aiding missionary
work, these auxiliaries promoted national ideals, discussed ways to teach young people
good Christian values, and worked to build good character among adults temporarily on
16Masonry in the Canal Zone and the Republic of Panama, A Short Historical Sketch
(Central American Printing Company, 1919), 33.
1Souvenir of Orchid Chapter, Number 1, Order of the Eastern Star on the Occasion of
the First Social Event at the Masonic Temple (Cristobal, C.Z.: n.p., February 20, 1915),
"The Canal Record 5, (March 6,1912): 223.
19The Canal Record 4 (August 2, 1911): 387.
20Rolofson, Christian Cooperation at the World's Crossroads, 159.
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