Lady Bountiful Exposed

Women, Word and Volunteering Herta Loeser Beacon Press, Boston $8,95,254 pp.

THERE ARE BASICALLY two things that Herta Loeser has to say in Women, Work and Volunteering. One is that women of all age, classes and occupational status can find something interesting and exciting to volunteer for. Hence it is good. Two is that volunteering, being unpaid and service, oriented, means helping other people. Hence, it is good.

Both arguments center around one theme: that volunteering is not, as the sterotype has grown up, strictly envelope licking and fund raising:

A children's art center needed a ceramics teacher, the camping assocation was looking for exra counselors, and for office help to cope with a flood of applications. The...Red Cross was looking for volunteers for their blood-donor room. A neighborhood settlement house needed a group woker...

Given this situation, she says, there is no reason why every kind of woman should not find satisfaction in volunteer work. And once the "helping others" argument has been disposed of--by quoting Derek Bok's 1972 speech to the incoming class (people should "devote [their] talents and energies in generous measure to the problems and welfare of others")--Loeser can get down to the main points, which concern how women can help themselves by volunteering.

In her discussion of how women can help themselves, the word "enrich" floats like through an adman's copy on breakfast cereals. A bored housewife can "enrich" her life by volunteering. A woman returning to work can gain valuable experience by volunteering. High school and college students can learn first hand about possible careers. And in a series of chapters strangely reminiscent of "Ask Beth" and her advice to lonely high school freshmen, Loeser recommends volunteering to widows divorcees, new people in town and retired women; and woman, that is, who is lonely and in need of company.


The problem with this book is that it is simplistic. There are many interesting problems raised by the issue of volunteering. She extols the virtues of volunteering in whole chapters while glossing over some of the more important questions in sentences. Loeser says at the beginning of the book that her pro-volunteering arguments apply to men as well as women. But her discussion of the economic situation that leads women to volunteering instead of working is limited to one well-intentioned aside: "...I cannot disagree with the charge that much service oriented volunteering has served so far to reaffirm stereotyped sex roles; that voluntary agencies have been a convenient safety valve for women's energies, giving an illusion of participation but no real power."

This sentence comes at the head of a chapter entitled "Feminism and Volunteering." Despite the observation, Loeser concludes that the benefits to be gained from volunteering--interesting work, a possible lead to a professional career, working in a situation that has been "pioneered by women"--overrides the disadvantages and make it possible for feminists to espouse service volunteering with no loss to their political commitments.

And in dealing with the relationship between the helped and the helping. Loeser again makes a point and drops it. She speaks of the traditional image of the volunteer as a "Lady Bountiful" expecting gratitude from a pliable clientele. She says this image prevails only in some agencies. Her advice: "Avoid such agencies as you would the plague unless you are the well-organized, aggressive type who might enjoy the battle it would take to bring them around..." She also observes that there are few lower class and lower middle class men and women volunteering, but says she hopes this is changing: "There are some exciting indications now that shorter work periods without loss of pay, and increased activism among all classes, will bring these long-missed men and women into community activities on a volunteer basis. I hope so. It would greatly enrich the volunteer scene, other volunteers and their clients."

Loeser's original points are well taken. There is a far wider range of activity available to the average person through volunteering than through paid employment. A paycheck cannot glamorize unimportant work, nor can the lack of one take the glow off interesting and useful work. But she stops at that.

This is not an academic discussion, but a handbook for women. As such there is no need or extensive political and economic analysis of the pros and cons of working without pay. But a little less rabid partisanship would have produced a better and more well-reasoned book.

LOESER'S CASE studies of volunteering are as one-sides as her philosophic discussions. There is nothing wrong with being pro-volunteer; there is no excuse for collecting a series of public relations type examples of the benefits of volunteering, while blissfully ignoring its pitfalls. And these pitfalls are well within the area of self-help that Loeser is concentrating on; there is no need even to delve into economic and social analysis.

For every woman who found a successful job contact through volunteering, there is the woman who found herself manipulated by a paid professional coordinator. Despite Loeser's hope that women will be regarded as volunteer professionals, there is still professional snobbery that women have to contend with. For every successful collaboration between volunteer and agency, there is still exploitation (a woman who raises money for the high school hockey team finds that the following year the school board, impressed with her efforts, allocates no money to the hockey team, giving it all to the football team instead.)

This is not to say that there should be just a balanced "pro-con" set of examples. A one-sided presentation like this is a great deal less helpful to women facing real-world situations and not the idyllic future Loeser envisions.

In the one area where she could possibly have been of real help--the section on resources and appendix of agencies--Loeser sticks closely to her home base. She is co-director of the Civic Center and Clearing House in Boston, and an ex-research scholar at the Radcliffe Institute.

Such intense localization is a problem in the body of Loeser's analysis as well as in the resource appendix. Had she stepped back from her Cambridge-Boston base a little, her conclusions may well have been less facile.