The Corps’ First Female HQ Director Opened Doors for Women, Minorities

Betty Farwell was appointed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ first female supergrade (GS-16) in 1978. Lieutenant General John W. Morris, Chief of Engineers, selected Mrs. Farwell as Real Estate Director, capping a long and distinguished career in private law practice and with the federal government. She joined the Corps in 1962 as Assistant District Counsel for Detroit and became the first female District Counsel in 1968. Mrs. Farwell moved to Washington, D.C., in 1969 as Assistant Acquisition Division Chief in the Real Estate Directorate and became the Chief of Litigation in 1976.

Born in 1919 in Mount Clemens, Mich., Betty was one of seven children. Her mother died young and her father was a commercial sign maker in Detroit. Even as a child, Betty worked to support her family at the peak of the Great Depression. When in boarding school, she performed secretarial duties at the head office to pay her tuition, mimeographed documents for the music department to fund her music lessons, babysat in the afternoons, and worked as an usher in the evenings. During weekends, she fronted a candy counter for 20 cents per hour. When not working, Betty was the editor of her school’s newspaper, president of the Student Council, and vice president of her class.

Betty’s dedication and incredible work ethic spurred her ground-breaking career in the Corps of Engineers. After graduating from high school, Betty took on several secretarial jobs before eventually finding her way into the office of Leo Carrigan, a Detroit attorney. Mr. Carrigan was reluctant to hire Betty because of her lack of legal experience. Betty was reluctant to accept because of the lack of compensation, but she offered him a deal. She suggested that she work for him for one month and if at the end of that month he found her work unsatisfactory, she would leave. Otherwise, she wanted higher pay.

Betty remained Carrigan’s secretary for several years. He was so impressed with her work that he encouraged her to earn a law degree. He gave her an application and obtained recommendations from local judges, lawyers, and even the justices of the Michigan Supreme Court on her behalf. Betty was accepted and attended the University of Detroit Law School, where she graduated second in her class of roughly 50 in 1949.

Betty entered into private practice and served several firms and companies until 1962, when she received a letter from the Corps of Engineers expressing interest in her for the Assistant District Counsel position in Detroit. Betty thrived with the Corps and became District Counsel in February 1968—the first woman to hold that position. In 1976, Mrs. Farwell was named Chief of Litigation for the Office of Counsel. She was the first woman in Corps history to become a GS-15 and advanced to Real Estate Director in May 1978.

Throughout her life, Betty fought for equal rights for women and minorities. While in law school, she challenged the legal sorority’s policy against admitting African-American students. She refused to join and protested until the group finally changed its national charter and admitted one of Betty’s friends, Jessie Slayton, as its first black member. While working for the Corps in Detroit, she served as chairperson on the Equal Opportunity Subcommittee of the Federal Executive Council of Detroit. She visited local high schools and encouraged minority students to seek job opportunities with the federal government, especially young women. When recruiting for positions, Betty called local African-American organizations, encouraging them to advertise the opportunities in their communities. Betty personally hired several female lawyers during her tenure. When she first arrived at the Office of Counsel, however, she was the only woman.

For much of her career, Betty was one of only a few women in what was then a man’s domain. “It was difficult to sit in meeting after meeting when there were anywhere from 10, 20, 100, 150 men and not have women.” However, Betty opened the door for women and minorities in the Corps. Women came to visit and tell her that they would never have achieved their career status had it not been for her determination and ability to prove that women could perform the same high-level duties as men. Betty Farwell retired on December 31, 1981 after nearly 20 years of service to the Corps of Engineers.

Betty Farwell (front row) attending a 1975 real estate appraisal seminar

This vignette is based on a 1985 oral history interview with Betty J. Farwell conducted by the HQUSACE, Office of History.


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March 2006.
No. 100