The Second X Chromosome

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[An excerpt from Ava Helen Pauling: Partner, Activist, Visionary, by Dr. Mina Carson – now available from the Oregon State University Press.]

Like her letters to her global correspondents, Ava Helen’s paper on women, “The Second X Chromosome,” used simple language to deliver a confident and impassioned assertion that it was time for all women to receive the equal standing and opportunities to which, in many places, their legal status already entitled them. Following her initial drafts through her final typed presentation for distribution, it is evident that she wrote easily when she was excited, in many cases framing the ultimate argument in her first handwritten draft. Linus too contributed to the paper, although his surviving notes addressed not rhetoric, but background research that he or Ava Helen thought would be helpful: information about Jane Addams, Bertha von Suttner, and other figures she introduced in the body of the paper.

She indicted American hypocrisy.

While her legal and social status under law are now more or less secure in most parts of the world, discrimination against women is still very real and nowhere more than in the United States which lags woefully behind the more advanced Western Nations and indeed in many respects behind the socialist countries in equality for women.

Whereas women were admitted to Soviet medical schools strictly on the basis of “scholastic ability,” she said, “in the United States … the ratio of women to men in medical schools is smaller than in 1900.” Perhaps in a nod to her more conventional audience, she joked that while Japanese women were often cited as the “ideal of complete subjection to men,” at least a woman walking behind her husband could keep an eye on him.

Ava Helen’s use of genetic imagery (“the second X chromosome”) to frame her argument exemplifies not so much an essentialist position on women’s special nature – although she could never quite separate herself from that possibility – as a Jane Addams-like strategy of promoting a “both-and” philosophy of equal opportunity. Like Addams fifty years earlier, Ava Helen skirted essentialism (the “nature” of women) by discussing women’s social and cultural roles throughout history – even prehistory.

She argued that, because of their role in carrying the embryo, the earliest women were undoubtedly “observant, wary, cautious, and persevering”: the first scientists, as they figured out how to feed and warm their families. Some anthropologists saw women as the stabilizing force in society, as they established agriculture, fire, and private property under primitive matriarchies. Ava Helen argued that historically, as her indispensable skills were recognized, woman fell victim to male efforts to keep her “under subjection.” Ten thousand years ago, matriarchy gave way to patriarchy “and women returned to the status of chattels.”

Ava Helen Pauling, 1958.

Ava Helen Pauling, 1958.

Only in the last two hundred years, she argued, had patriarchy faced new challenges. Women had written two of the nineteenth-century novels that successfully changed social perceptions of great injustices: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Bertha von Suttner’s Die Waffen Nieder [Lay Down Your Arms, or as Pauling translated it, Down with the Weapons of War]. In the twentieth century, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death likewise analyzed the social and environmental infrastructure:

In each of these four books the author, a woman, is attacking and exposing a well entrenched economic asset of society in areas controlled completely by men, eg. slavery, war, poisonous chemicals, and the funeral industry.”

Ava Helen brought her no-nonsense brand of political argument, fronted by her stance against interventionist warfare, to her position on modern feminism. She was not a fan of Betty Friedan’s recent Feminine Mystique, which, she wrote to a friend, “has some very foolish ideas in it.” She indicted Friedan for blaming the inability of American POWs in Korea to withstand their imprisonment on their permissive, smothering mothers. Pauling had no patience for an analysis predicated on the legitimacy of America’s military engagement in Korea. “I won’t agree,” she asserted, “that a woman’s highest role is to teach her sons to fight nobly the kind of war that was fought in Korea.” One can imagine the L. A. Unitarians nodding at this point.

Coupled with her disdain for Friedan’s tacit acceptance of the normality of the Korean War, Pauling resisted the invidious distinction between housewife-mothers and women who worked outside the home. “[W]ere the brave, napalm bomb throwing heroes of the Korean War the sons of career women? This would make an interesting study.” She went on:

A way to verify the Feminine Mystique would be to conduct a survey among women who work outside the home and compare them to women who work within the home with regard to happiness, contentment, joy of life, and adjustment to family and friends. I believe such a survey would show that work outside the home is not the answer to the American woman’s dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It is an oversimplification of the problem. Many women who work outside the home are just as unhappy as women who don’t.

The answer: equal access to college education; equal weighting of professional and household labor; public nurseries to allow mothers as well as fathers to go to school or work outside the home; and women’s active participation in politics.

Ava Helen Pauling, August 1964.

Ava Helen Pauling, August 1964.

Ava Helen’s feminist reform philosophy reflected her immersion in the Women Strike for Peace movement, whose primary image was that of active mothers protesting on behalf of the generation they were carrying in their wombs and raising, but whose most powerful spirits were women in their thirties, forties, and fifties, veterans of other peace movements, some of whom still had children at home and others of whom were primarily professionals.

Pauling’s evolving philosophy also offered her a way to resolve her own existential dilemmas. She had put her college education aside to marry and bear four children. Her identity for twenty years was the wife who protected her husband’s creative and intellectual life from family demands. Yet she had also excelled in chemistry as well as language and social science at Oregon Agricultural College. She had left her first toddler and a brief manual on modern child rearing in her mother’s hands in order to tour Europe with her husband unencumbered by maternal responsibilities. She had tutored her husband in social justice issues during the Depression of the 1930s. She had plunged into political work as Europe collapsed again into bloody war, and then as the United States imprisoned American citizens on suspicion of hostile loyalties. She had inspired Linus’s activism after the war to help fellow Americans understand the dire implications of the United States’ development of nuclear weapons, and over the following decade had stayed by his side as he risked his career against panels of accusers and political adversaries. And from the mid-1950s on, she had accepted her own career as a peace activist, her skills as a strategist, networker, and speaker enhanced by her notoriety as Linus’s wife and his partner in the petition drives that ultimately earned him the peace prize.

The Paulings at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

The Paulings at Deer Flat Ranch, 1962. Photo by Arthur Dubinsky.

Her friend Corda Bauer picked up on Ava Helen’s ambivalence as part of a snapshot Ava Helen sent her along with the manuscript of her “Second X Chromosome” paper. The photograph shows the Paulings at their ranch, with Linus in the foreground leaning on a fence, and Ava Helen slightly behind him. Bauer requested permission to ask an “impertinent” question:

Was it design or chance that kept you in the background of the photo? As an advocate of women’s rights I would have liked to have seen you leaning on the fence too, in an attitude of secure accomplishment. Linus deserves the place between the gateposts, where he can come and go as he pleases. Had you sat on top of the fence, it would have symbolized that women have to overcome many hurdles, but by golly no mere fence is going to stop them.

She was Linus’s equal, yet a step behind him, like the Japanese women Ava Helen had joked about. Linus Pauling, Jr., remembers that by the 1970s – and perhaps earlier – Ava Helen had started aiming sharp comments at Linus as they went about their daily routine. He remembers hearing her mutter that she too might have won a Nobel prize had she not been busy keeping the house and raising the children. This memory probably does not detract from the other things we think we know about the Paulings’ marriage: that the couple shared an unusual intimacy; that they preferred being together to being apart; that within the walls they were colleagues in their peace activism; that Linus always credited Ava Helen for her inspiration and companionship during the years of peace work; that he was most likely not a tyrant behind closed doors. From the year of courtship through his distracted grief after her death in 1981, Linus held Ava Helen as the most precious force in his life. “When asked to name someone else in the United States who might merit recognition for his efforts towards peace,” said Wallace Thompson during a Nobel celebratory dinner, “Dr. Pauling unhesitatingly said: ‘My wife.'”

The Paulings with Mrs. Dubinin at the 7th Pugwash Conference, Stowe, Vermont, 1961.

The Paulings with Mrs. Dubinin at the 7th Pugwash Conference, Stowe, Vermont, 1961.

Nonetheless, in the early years of marriage she suffered the decentered isolation of virtually all stay-at-home parents. This was exacerbated by Linus’s early and persistent fame, and his multiple scientific commitments. After the first few years of their marriage, she could not keep up intellectually with his work, and that must have added another dimension to any resentment she felt at her position in their life together.

Did she encourage their peace work in order to climb to an equal footing with him in their marriage, and in the world’s eyes? If she harbored that motivation, it really seems to have been obscured by her genuine passion for political change, coupled with her anxiety for Linus to be as effective as possible in his advocacy work. Yet by the early sixties, as she received multiple invitations to speak to progressive groups and women’s groups, and as she established a position as a key consultant among peace advocates, as she was for the WSP founders and Canada’s VOW activists, she also articulated her feminist vision of the equal value of all kinds of labor, professional or domestic, paid or unpaid, as well as the power of women to move the world politically. Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bertha von Suttner – all applied their personal and intellectual power to identify and redress social wrongs. Corda Bauer understood Ava Helen’s core message when she compared her friend’s talk to Camilla Anderson’s assertion in Saints, Sinners and Psychiatry: “Once women have tested their strength and overcome their rebellion, they are then free to return to homemaking and bringing up children with love and understanding by choice rather than being forced into it.”

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

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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!

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