Mina Carson Interview, Part 2

Dr. Mina Carson.  Photo taken by her daughter, Lyn.

Dr. Mina Carson. Photo taken by her daughter, Lyn.

[Part 2 of 2 of our exclusive interview with Dr. Mina Carson, author of Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary.]

Pauling Blog: How would you describe Ava Helen’s style of activism? I know that Linda Richards used the word “swirled” in reference to it.

Mina Carson: Yeah, I think that’s right. Ava Helen really loved to have a big important correspondence and she was quite honest – I mean she was a good correspondent, she was quite honest in her letters and that’s where you get a lot of her personality, her style. She didn’t suffer fools – what she took to be fools – gladly and she didn’t mince words. At the same time, she was difficult with her kids and she was difficult with some people because she was pretty forceful, but she also liked to flirt and she liked to be nice and she liked to be considerate. So many, many people liked her very much and a number of young women took her as a mentor and model and really worshiped her and I think that’s fascinating.

But her style, she did do committee work for a while – actually off and on for her whole adult life – but it wasn’t her favorite thing to do. I think she liked to give speeches, I mean she developed that – she deprecated her own ability but I think that was just “oh I’m not so good at that…if you think I have something of worth to offer then I’m happy to make a speech.” But that’s really what she liked to do. And she loved to travel with Linus and she loved to travel period. She loved to be made much of – I mean who doesn’t? But she loved to be made much of, so that style of being able to travel around the world and connect her Australian friends with her Canadian friends and with her South American friends, that was her all the way through.

And when she was disgusted with the red baiting she saw in some American chapters of WILPF and the Women’s International League and some of the European chapters as well, and when Women Strike for Peace came along in the early ’60s, she didn’t jump ship, she was loyal to WILPF, she didn’t jump ship. But she immediately joined WSP as a number of her WILPF colleagues did, and that really suited her because it was a no holds barred “let’s do this action here, let’s kind of shock them a little, let’s show them that women in hats can really live on the dangerous side.” And she loved that. So she was very much a maker of connections rather than a person behind the scenes who liked to work on committees and start a project that would go on for years. Yeah, I really think that’s right.

PB: How about her style of feminism? It seems to have evolved over time.

MC: It did. And at the same time she ended up in the camp of liberal feminism really about the time that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. And of course she had a very strong critique of Betty Friedan, which was interesting. She felt that Friedan put down homemakers and homemaking, and of course Ava Helen had so much ego tied up in that identity that she rejected it. But at the same time she was what we call “liberal feminist” and she, for the most part, believed that women should be offered the same, or earn the same opportunities as men. And that she really didn’t like to look out into the world and see young women not taking opportunities – you know, not finishing college as she had not and not creating opportunities for themselves to have independence, financial independence and professional independence. From time to time, she loved to go back into the history of women through the world – not very carefully, but in broad strokes.

It’s interesting to try to figure out if she was an essentialist, believing that women are essentially different from men. She kind of skirted that. She was more of a functionalist in that she believed that women had filled certain roles because their societies has pressured them into doing that because they did it well, not because they were born to certain fates as people. It’s hard to sort out. She’s not a deep thinker – she’s an eager thinker, she’s a smart person – but she’s not really a philosopher. It’s fun to go through her papers. It’s fun to follow the threads of argument. I do not put her down. She makes better speeches than I do. But what I’m saying is that it doesn’t repay, really probing her philosophy, because that wasn’t her thing. She was more of a political activist, political thinker, than a philosopher.

Ava Helen in the 1950s.

Ava Helen in the 1950s.

PB: The title of the book is Ava Helen Pauling: Activist, Partner, Visionary. We’ve touched on the activist and partner piece of it, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the visionary piece.

MC: She really could see, as did Linus. And I think she saw without the deep scientific insight that he had. She saw immediately that if we continued down the road, for example of atmospheric testing, that we would destroy the next generation’s Earth and, in many cases, lives. She felt passionately about the public health risks and the ecological risks of atmospheric testing and the nuclear race in general. She was infuriated by our dedication of such a huge percentage of public funds to the military. I’ve made the point – and it’s not a very profound point – that she and Linus were not pacifists per se. They certainly were interventionists in World War II, but they did not see another conflict that they believed that the United States should enter over the rest of their lives. And they were internationalists and they believed that human energies and human resources would go a lot more usefully into maintaining peace and building education and so on.

She left part of her money in her will to Sempervirens, a California Redwoods Foundation, and was very much involved as she had the energy to be in her last few years as she was ill, but very much involved in saving the wilds. It was a natural trajectory for her interests to move toward ecology and environmentalism and so she really was, in that sense, a visionary. And I think that, again, she had many allies. And it’s not that she had really a number of original thoughts, it’s that she could see the interconnections of all these issues and it was clear to her and it made her very impatient and very angry. And of course, a number of us can certainly understand that passion.

PB: Where do you think she was happiest? Do you think it was the ranch?

MC: I wonder. She loved the ranch and she loved the times that she and Linus – she remarked at one point that “I can’t believe we haven’t seen a single soul in a week, two weeks, and that has not happened since we were married.” But she thrived on human contact, so I think that she saw the ranch as he did, as a kind of blessed relief from the relentless social and political round that they had. But I suspect that she was happiest in the middle of an adoring crowd. I just suspect that in some cases, at least, that the celebratory moments were the times when she was happiest.

But it could well have been too, as she got older – and this is really important – that her grandkids remember her, Cheryl Pauling for example, remembers her as a wonderful grandmother. And Linda’s and Barclay’s kids too, sensitive to their uniqueness, sensitive to their needs, their desires, their needs as children. It’s so interesting. And Stephanie makes the same comment about her kids with Linus Jr. So I think that she did like the large family gatherings. There was often friction, because she had raised a bunch of strong-willed kids. So it can be difficult. At the same time, she wasn’t one to wilt under difficulty and conflict. She didn’t have a thin skin. So I think she liked being in a lot of different places, but probably not home alone with young children when she was a young woman.

Thanksgiving with Linda Pauling Kamb and her family, 1968.

Thanksgiving with Linda Pauling Kamb and her family, 1968.

PB: What were some surprises for you as you went through this process?

MC: I was really surprised about how active and open their sex life was in the 1920s. I mean, I was really just flabbergasted and really enjoyed Linus’ letters to her and really was taken aback. And that led me to search the secondary literature on college students’ sexuality in the 1920s. And I found that there is not a whole lot of literature. I tried a whole bunch of search terms and I really need to follow that up because I think that’s fascinating – you’d think that there would be much more research on that. And I’ve a couple of scholarly friends that I want to follow up on after the fact just because it’s fascinating. So that was a big surprise.

I think that I wasn’t surprised but I was interested to see how Linus matured as a parent. When his kids hit their 20s, all of a sudden he was very involved as a parent. And I think it was fun to see – it’s not surprising when you think about who he was. He was pretty laissez faire when the kids were small, but at the same time he didn’t really know what to do with them and he was pretty uninvolved with their day to day raising. Whereas when they became young adults he could talk with them. He had things to write to them about and he had money that they wanted and he had ways to control their lives in that way. So that was also interesting to watch the trajectory of his parenting over time.

And again, I wasn’t surprised but I was really deeply touched by his devotion to her and by his massive – I mean, he was shocked when she died. He was shocked at his own response. And he writes about his response and that was really interesting, that he writes some pieces for his kids about how he is doing. And he did this off and on throughout his life as if he were his own research subject. And he shocked himself “Oh my gosh, I have emotions and these are what they seem to be!”

Linus and Ava Helen at Deer Flat Ranch, 1977.

Linus and Ava Helen at Deer Flat Ranch, 1977.

PB: Is there something, a cache of materials or a specific document that you couldn’t find or that doesn’t exist that you really wish did exist or that you had found?

MC: Yes, several. I’m really sad that we do not have her love letters. I’m deeply sad about that because her personality kind of has to be reconstructed from the few letters that survived the mowing down of her correspondence by family members. And I so understand what they were doing, I so understand it, I just wish I had them. I wish we could have talked with Linda [Pauling Kamb]. She was so understandably tied up with Barclay’s recent death. And I was able to use the wonderful interviews that she did with Tom Hager, so I don’t feel like I was completely in the dark about her retrospective ideas about her family. To have those materials that Hager gathered was just really valuable. Yeah I wish I had more of her. We have so much of her personal correspondence as an adult and I just wish I had a little more.

…If I could go back in – I mean I’m very glad to have this project done and launched but if I could go back in, I did love casting it as a family history but I think in that sense I slighted some of the important points about women’s committee work that I could have made in the book. And I would be interested to see if reviewers find that a weak point. I think one of the strong points of the book is the history of the marriage and my attempt to connect that with some notion of 20th century marriages. But we’ll see about that too. But I think one weak point is not having done more with the importance of reinterpreting women’s committee work in the 20th century. So that’s a flaw.

PB: Well, the last question is what’s next up for you?

MC: I have no idea! I have like fourteen different interests. I really love the history of photography and I have a history of photography blog, so to beef that up is really, I have time for that now. And as I mentioned, I am really interested in what seems to be Lacanian in terms of this lack of research on college students lives in the 1920s and I’m really interested in that. I’m fascinated by the history of psychotherapy and haven’t yet written my grand book on that. So I think the short answer is I’m not sure. I need to decide really soon but I don’t know what I’m doing!

ahp-bio

Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary is available for purchase from the Oregon State University Press.

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