A Feminist and an Educator

Ava Helen Pauling at home, 1977.

[Part 3 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

Ava Helen the Educator

As a public speaker, Ava Helen sought to both educate and empower her audience. She deftly wove scientific facts, sociological theories, and inspirational prose into an entertaining speech. A survey of the speeches which remain in the Pauling Papers at Oregon State University offer a glimpse of the scientific topics which Ava Helen covered; a range which included ecology, chemistry, physics, and biology. Most of her speeches were focused on the dangers of radiation and many would have fit well into the National Committee on Atomic Information’s collection of educational atomic literature. In one such speech, “High Energy Radiation and the Human Race,” Ava Helen discussed the history of radioactivity. Drawing on then-current studies, she clearly explained how radiation affects the human body. “High Energy Radiation,” like all of her speeches, was tailored to a female audience. Throughout the speech, Ava Helen beseeched fellow mothers to think about the health of their own children:

[Scientists] from the Atomic Energy Commission estimated the total genetic hazards of carbon-14 produced by the explosion of atomic bombs…their estimates are 500,000 children with gross physical and mental defect, 1,900,000 still born and childhood deaths, and 4,500,000 embryonic & nonnatal deaths.

Ava Helen utilized hard statistics and emotional appeals to connect the women in her audience to the dangers of atomic weapons. Her desire to educate women on radiation dangers extended beyond the lectern. Ava Helen, like many women who were allied with the NCAI, also promoted scientific education by creating public informational displays on atomic energy and arranging showings of scientific educational films. She distributed literature, such as pamphlets and booklets, on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Only two educational pamphlets on the dangers of atomic warfare survive in Ava Helen’s personal papers.

As Ava Helen’s reputation as a dynamic lecturer grew, she started to speak to her audiences on more general scientific topics. She became interested in the environment in the 1970s and gave speeches on water pollution and habitat loss. She asked audiences members to consider how their actions affected the quality of local drinking water. She also appeared on radio stations and gave short speeches on various scientific topics. Only one transcript of these broadcasts survives – on the science of making bread.

Ava Helen the Feminist

Ava Helen wanted to both educate and empower her audiences. She paired the democratic vision of the atomic scientists with the egalitarian beliefs of the feminists. Ava Helen earnestly believed that social equality for women was key to creating world peace. “I believe that we can only make real progress towards a better world if men and women work together,” she told an audience in the early 1960s. The peace movement had successfully united intelligent and motivated women towards a common goal. Ava Helen recognized the potential strength of the women’s peace movement and wanted to see that energy channeled toward women’s liberation.

Ava Helen at a women’s group meeting, ca. 1950s.

Ava Helen had certainly witnessed gender discrimination throughout her life. She had especially seen it within in the academic community. In a private interview in the 1970s, she confided her fury regarding the treatment of Rosalyn Franklin, who greatly contributed to the discovery of DNA. “If only women’s lib had come along a few years earlier,” she lamented. “If ever there was a woman who was mistreated, it was Rosalind Franklin…. She didn’t get the notice that she should have gotten for her work on DNA. She died.”

Ava Helen could personally empathize with Franklin. Both women had been denied the highest public honor for their contributions to society, a Nobel Prize. Linus Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, which both delighted and disappointed the Paulings. Although Linus certainly deserved credit for galvanizing the scientific community towards peace, Ava Helen had worked within the peace movement for at least as long. She was thrilled for him, but they were both saddened that the prize hadn’t been awarded jointly. Publicly, Linus gave Ava Helen full credit. As he accepted the Nobel, Linus told the crowd, “In the fight for peace and against oppression, [Ava Helen] has been my constant and courageous companion and coworker.” Still, the entire incident highlighted Ava Helen’s growing frustration with the accepted status of women.

Ava Helen was especially appalled by the lack of social progress in the United States. She angrily observed in a 1964 speech

Discrimination against women is still very real and nowhere more than here in the United States, which lags woefully behind the more advanced Western Nations and indeed in many respects behind the socialist countries.

Determined to rally the spirit of American women, Ava Helen traveled nationally to colleges, churches, and women’s clubs to spread the word.

Ava Helen loudly urged the women in her audience to stand up for themselves. “Women have equal capacity with men in brain power, talents, and capabilities,” Ava Helen proclaimed in a 1964 talk. “Indeed, in the matter of courage, sensitivity, and fearlessness, they may be superior.” Ava Helen especially wanted her female colleagues to pursue careers and to advocate for equal pay. She applauded President Kennedy’s 1961 Commission on the Status of Employed Women, which revealed discrimination across virtually all work fields. Ava Helen encouraged women to pursue non-traditional careers in medicine and science. “In every field of human endeavor… writing, science, engineering, woman has shown that she has ability,” Ava Helen told her audience. She famously suggested that the first scientists were women. She eagerly cited studies showing the equal intellectual abilities of boys and girls. She celebrated the appearance of women scientists, like Rachel Carson. In a speech given at a medical conference in the 1970s, Ava Helen applauded the appearance of women-run women’s health clinics. Like her suffragette mother before her, Ava Helen actively promoted equality between men and women.

Conclusion

“No woman wants to be put up on a pedestal, where she can be easily ignored and neglected,” remarked Ava Helen during one of her speeches. “She wants to be taking and doing her part in the affairs of the world with her feet on the ground and sharing in and contributing to the life around her.”

Ava Helen speaking at the Quilapayun Concert in Tribute to Victor Jara, Eugene, Oregon, 1979.

Despite her earlier misgivings about a woman’s role in life, Ava Helen leapt onto the world stage and become a political player. By the late 1970s, almost half a century after she had been a starry-eyed student in Germany, Ava Helen had finally become a respected public citizen within the international peace community. During the Cold War, Ava Helen had transformed from a frustrated suburban hausfrau into a confident public speaker. She became a dynamic player in two social revolutions that dared Americans to challenge their previously accepted conceptions about the roles of scientists and women. Although Ava Helen eventually accepted her own role as a non-scientist, she encouraged other women to pursue their own scientific careers. She became a role model for other women within her own community, who were interested in pursuing lives outside of domestic circles. Although Ava Helen modestly downplayed her own abilities, her insightful speeches won the admiration of American women. When a newspaper reporter asked Ava Helen what it was like to live with a genius, a friend of the Paulings piped up, “Ask Linus. He’s been living with Ava for years.”

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