VIRGINIA CARTER, CANADIAN BORN FEMINIST, PHYSICIST, EARLY PRESIDENT LOS ANGELES NOW, WORKED FOR NORMAN LEAR, ON “ALL IN THE FAMILY” AND “MAUDE”
I first heard of the modern Feminist Movement reading about it in Time Magazine around 1972. I had been a feminist since birth, so the article rang every bell . I picked up the phone and, feeling slightly embarrassed, asked the operator if there was any listing that might put me in touch with this Movement in the Los Angeles area. I was given a number that connected to an answering machine in a clothes closet in the home of Toni Carabillo. I called and heard there would be a meeting of this fledgling group at the Original BBQ restaurant somewhere in downtown Los Angeles. My partner, Judith Osmer, and I attended.
My heart was pounding as we went inside the restaurant. Dear god, upon entering we found a group of 30 or 40 people gathered at a few tables. Toni Carabillo was up front talking about what this group was about. I jumped right in with all the energy and enthusiasm I could muster. Within a year I was elected President of L.A. NOW. What an adventure! I learned more about people, group dynamics and life in the following two years than in any comparable span of time before or since. I am now 76 and break into a grin every time I think about those years. ??
I was born and raised in Arvida, a small town in Northern Quebec
Growing up in the North in the 1940s was quite a trip. The icicles which formed on roof eves were dangerous and had been known to kill people when they fell unexpectedly. Those icicles would go straight through the skull, perhaps even pierce the heart, we whispered to each other as we stared balefully up at them.?
My sister Jean- Ellen, 2.5 years older and a world away from me in temperament and taste, knits and quilts and watches American Idol on TV. I would rather set my hair on fire than do any of that. She was abandoned by her creep of a husband while in the hospital recovering from the birth of her second child. My parents helped, and after a few years dispatched her and the kids to me in Los Angeles where they thought she had a better chance of making a life. What luck! As it turned out it was the dawn of the computer age and Jean-Ellen, now calling herself Joan, had a real knack for that. She took classes at UCLA in the new field of computing and instantly got a job at Computer Sciences Corporation. It was a tiny company which grew into a giant, taking over Social Security and IRS records during her 30 some years there. She made a good life in her own home just 10 minutes from mine. It was at the right time, she was the right age and had the right gifts to be able to jump right in. Joan and I are together often. I love her dearly.
My brother Tom (known to all as Bud) was born 8 years after me. A beautiful blend of our Mom & Dad, he , too , is very dear to me. Now retired , he made his living as an engineer and lives about 10 minutes from my home. He might have joined the family sooner but Dad, at the age of 32, was sent to Southern India in late 1939 by the Aluminum Company of Canada -- a direct result of Mom's boredom living the traditional wife's role in a small town in Quebec. She had circled the globe twice by age 17, traveling with her parents as they came back to North America on sabbatical from Japan. Life in a small town did not go well with her. She urged Dad to find work some place interesting, and Alcan was happy to send him to India to build the first Aluminum Plant in support of the war effort. I have often told the story of the day my Mother got so dejected in that tiny environment that she went to their bedroom, lay down, and did not join us for two days. Then she arose and went back to the life she had committed to. She was a wonderful Mom and my best friend. The hole she left in my life when she died is impossible to fill. I use that story when talking to groups in distant places about how to create a pro-social soap opera. The point is that just about every family has drama all around them and good soap operas come from honest stuff.
Dad went to India to prepare the way for us . Mother arranged to have clothing made for us suitable for the Indian climate. We got immunization shots and were set to go, but the visa process dragged on. The problem was that Mother had been born in Japan, a country with which we were at war. Before those visa's were issued Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and all travel across the Pacific was closed. We couldn't go any other way because the Atlantic was closed, too, as war raged in Europe. Mother was pissed. She eventually arranged visa's for us to travel to the United States to visit her brother in Los Angeles, hoping to wait for Dad to come home via the Pacific, when and if.
We left in November, a really bad weather month in Quebec. In Los Angeles the sun shone and for the first time I saw Royal Palm Trees, the Ocean, and adults eating coffee cake for breakfast – and there was no rationing in L.A. Mother kept us on oatmeal and rationed brown sugar knowing we would have to go home sooner or later. If we had a nickel (a week's allowance) we could buy a Coke at the local gas station.
In L.A. I discovered Heaven without having to die. I was in the first grade and could hardly believe it when the teacher dismissed us and sent us home because it had begun to rain. The comparison to life in Quebec was so amazing that Los Angeles was thereafter my ultimate destination of choice . That explains why I did my graduate work at the University of Southern California and have made a home here. I'm no fool.
Dad worked for Alcan as a senior electrical engineer. Making aluminum is about having enough electricity to do so. Water power was cheap and plentiful in Quebec. Still is. He had graduated from Queens University in Kingston Ontario in 1932. Times were very hard at the height of the Great Depression. Dad was the first in his family to go to college, thanks to his mom. She was determined that Dad got an education and be able to raise his family out of subsistence farming when he married.
My Father was the quintessential engineer. He could build or fix anything. We hit it off big time when I was in my last year of High School. I had taken the Latin curriculum but switched to the science track in the hope that it would open career choices when I got to college and into the work world. Dad taught me the 3 years of High School science I was missing in one weekend. He made it all so clear I could not miss.
Dad's ancestors had been United Empire Loyalists, which means that they had fled to Canada and been given land grants during the American revolution. Those damn Yankees had been disloyal to King George III, but by god no one in Dad's family had ever rebelled against their sovereign. My whole family still holds the British Royal Family in high regard and every Christmas we listen to Queen Elizabeth give her annual speech. In our view she is the living symbol of her Commonwealth, representing the flag and with no more power than a flag, which in certain circumstances is quite considerable. Dad's parents did what they could to cover some of his college expenses, giving up tea among other things, to squirrel away money to pay his tuition. He was a stern kind of fellow who took work and duty seriously, but he also loved to laugh and boasted about his family endlessly. He thought we were the greatest .In his later years his eyes would get misty, and he'd say "Look Jean, look what we have done!" He was raised by his parents in Canfield, Ontario, the tiniest of towns. His parents ran the Post Office there and farmed a small plot of rented land.
My Mother's story is very different. She was born and raised in Japan by missionary parents, fervent Presbyterians who rose from the breakfast table every day and trooped into the living room with servants in tow, where they sank to their knees with their heads buried in the seats of the chairs and prayed for 20 minutes before starting their day. Mother was raised by servants who taught her to speak Japanese several years before she learned English. One day a servant mentioned in passing that my Mother had said something funny. Her parents had no idea she could talk and were astounded to find that she was fluent in Japanese. Soon she began to translate for them.
Everyone in Mother's family went to college, including men and women back two generations. Always to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. Everyone that is but me. I chose McGill University in Montreal where I majored in Math and Physics, not subjects of my deepest interest, but they were what I did easily. It was a good choice because of the demanding mental training. After my freshman year I was often the only woman in the class. At McGill professors came from all over the world to deliver lectures in their specialties. I could audit any class, so I dropped into lots of them. I remember one advanced literature course where the Professor translated Milton's Areopagitica from English to Greek to Latin pointing to the shifts in subtle shades of meaning resulting in each change of language. At the opposite end of my intellectual wandering I slipped into a Med School dissection lab where the class was working on real bodies. The smell almost knocked me down, but I hung in until I was absolutely certain I did not want to go to Med school --despite my Mother's fondest wishes. I did not suffer discrimination at McGill. Our test papers and final exams were submitted without our names on them. We were graded by number and the results posted that way.
While at McGill I enlisted in the University Reserve Training Program. Think ROTC. It was a profound experience because it trained me to be an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. As an office in the British Forces one is respected for one’s rank. Any failure to salute or show deference was unimaginable. Our shoes were shined for us, we ate at the Officers' Mess and were served at tables with white linen and silverware. We were taught to command in our work space and on the parade square shouting orders. That may sound elitist, but truth is for a woman it was a deeply empowering experience and one that has served me well in the world of work.
I loved sports and played everything available. In Canada basketball, volleyball, badminton, and track drew me in during my high school days. At McGill I was center forward on the McGill intercollegiate basketball team and played volley ball, squash and badminton.
When I graduated from McGill and went job hunting in 1958 life hit me in face. The guys from my classes all got wonderful job offers. The best offer I got was to be a clerk at the Bell Telephone Company. I fled to the United States - to Los Angeles of course, remembering our sojourn there when I was a kid. I applied for a job and when asked how much money I wanted I named a figure and was told "We don't pay that little here." I took the job and 5 years later applied for citizenship. In a way it was hard to give up my Canadian citizenship. In my heart I am Canadian. I thought about it and decided if the country was offering me a better life then I should be part of it, and that meant voting. So, I became a naturalized US citizen. During the oral test required for citizenship I was asked what a jury was. I replied that it was a group of one's peers that sat in judgment during a trial. I was told with reproof that in the United States there was no peerage. I apologized and stood corrected.
I hold a BSc degree from McGill University in Math and Physics, an MSc degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and an Honorary Doctorate in Science from McGill. My career consists of 12 years at the Aerospace Corporation (a think tank for the US Government) where I did experimental physics. That was the time of my awakening to the problem of discrimination against women. I am the first woman to fly a satellite experiment. It measured in-track air density as a function of altitude, longitude, latitude and solar activity. My results were important and were reported by the head of my laboratory (Space Physics Laboratory, at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, CA) without ever mentioning my name. How about that! In a way that didn’t surprise me because I was becoming acutely aware of the persistent discrimination against women as they struggled against what appeared to be failure in their chosen fields.
I joined the National Organization for Women sometime around then and became president of the Los Angeles chapter within a year. That experience was a huge learning process. It was a volunteer organization. I could not command. I had to learn to bring people along in my direction....or not. I met some truly fantastic people - from judges to prostitutes. I found that my life had been very sheltered. Time to grow up.
Looking back I see that life at Aerospace was my first encounter with failure. I had excelled in High School winning a math prize, and playing on every sports team, captaining many of them. At McGill things went much the same way. I was named a University Scholar, given a financial scholarship and won a jersey as a University athlete.
After seeing my research results reported without any mention of me I was so pissed that when I found the Feminist Movement I jumped right in and discovered I was not alone. It was the most incredible relief to be among Feminists. That year, 1972, my life changed completely. Not only did I find the Movement but I met a woman there named Frances Lear. She introduced me to her husband Norman, a TV producer who had just put "All In The Family" on the air. He was the cover story in Time Magazine that week.
Norman and I had absolutely nothing in common. He knew no physics whatsoever, and you could put in a thimble what I knew about Show Business. In that meeting, absent any ability to discuss our specialties, we fell back to basics and talked about human feelings, life and death, love, the quest for success and so on. We liked each other. I went home thinking I could enjoy the memory of that meeting for years. He called me the following week and asked if I would meet with him again. I thought that was a bit much, I was a busy physicist -- but his wife was a friend and I did not want to offend her. As I drove to his office on Avenue of the Stars (for goodness sakes even the street name was an embarrassment) I began to wonder why he wanted to see me again. Surely he would not offer me a job, and if he did, what could I say? If he should be so nutty as to say come work with him I would ask for an impossible salary.
But when he did say "come work with me" and I asked for a huge salary (almost double what I was making at Aerospace) and he said "No problem". I called my parents and said "I have decided to quit my job and work with Norman Lear in Hollywood" My Mom said "OH VIRGINIA! I wasn't sure if she was happy or appalled. Turned out she was happy and had been unimpressed with me spending my life in physics. Mom had an honors degree in Biology and Psychology and loved the world of Ideas. She felt I could do better in work less likely to be turned to the war effort. She was right, some of my work in studies of the high atmosphere might well have been useful in improving missile targeting.
I took a one year leave from Aerospace in case this was some crazy dream and went to work in Hollywood. I was given a huge office right next to Norman's and asked to sit in on all his meetings. I read every script and gave notes (my reactions, suggestions for change and so on), at first just on All in the Family (AITF), but soon he had Maude, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Facts Of Life broadcasting weekly. The work load was considerable. One of the memories that makes me chortle -- we were given Turkey tickets, which meant that we could go to a grocery store and get up to 20 lbs in free turkey. When I joined Norman the holiday meant bonuses, in the first year I was given $5,000. Ten years later it was a whole lot more than that!?
I began to supervise some of the shows, at first in small steps and then ever greater ones. I had to learn fast. One of my learning curves had to do with the fact that I had served in the Canadian Air Force University Reserve Training Program. Put in US terms it was like the ROTC. In the Canadian Air Force, officers (even those in training) give orders, they don't ask for collaboration or agreement. That's fine for the armed forces but it doesn't work in Show Business. The Producers, Directors and Casts have to be brought along gently. I learned...fast! I never went back to Aerospace.
My deepest interest in the Norman ‘s shows was to find ways to introduce positive values. There was never any doubt that the shows had to be extremely entertaining , but once we had an audience we could put information into them that would be helpful to all. I had had breast cancer the year before, so we gave Edith on AITF a breast cancer scare (she found a lump in her breast) and we had the chance to let the audience learn about breast self examination. We gave Archie on AITF high blood pressure and were able to measure how many citizens used publicly available BP testers as a result. And so on.
I had a running battle with the producers over using the word "Broad" as a synonym for woman. They said "What's wrong with it, my wife doesn't mind?" Yah sure. I won most of the time, partly because of my powers of persuasion and partly because of that office next to Norman's. ??
When Norman left show business to retire I left too. It was too painful to stay in this most powerful media where no one seemed to care about anything but ratings. I came home to my partner Judith Osmer (47 years and counting) who had her own rapidly growing business. A solid state chemist , she had figured out how to grow ruby in the lab in much the same way as Nature does. Ruby was coming out of her furnaces so much like the Natural thing that the Gem Institute of America asked her to do something to make it distinguishable from the rubies that grew in the earth. She kept her rubies off the market until she could figure out how . Her ruby is now on sale all over the world under the name Ramaura™ Cultured Ruby. Ramaura comes from Rama (a god or king) and aura. You can read about it at www.Ramaura.com.
I joined Judith at her J.O. Crystal Co. operating out of a building we owned in Long Beach, California. She ran the laboratory and I ran the office . We closed the lab when I turned 66 because I whined that it was time to play. It did give us some time to travel the world. Truth is we are running out of new places to go -- but not completely. In April we went to the Adriatic for a few weeks.
Now at this wonderful age of 76 I serve on the executive boards of the Population Media Center (PMC) and the Population Institute (PI). The focus of these groups is largely on elevating the status of women. It is understood that if the status of women is raised the desired family size falls and things get better for everyone. PI does it by working with government entities. PMC does it by accepting invitations to travel to countries which are struggling with rapid population growth. It is easy to see that if a population grows too fast the infrastructure can't keep up, kids go hungry, there aren't enough schools, hospitals, decent roads and on and on. I and others travel overseas and teach our hosts to design and shoot soap operas that model pro social values, eg small family size, access to medical care and education for women, preservation of habitat and so on. I love this work. My next trip for this cause is shaping up now and it looks like I will be to Baku, Azerbaijan. Back home I fill my time reading, writing and plotting next steps. I get away to Alaska to fish now and then. My life is a joy importantly because my partner of 47 years is a joy. I have been spoiled by life and I know it. Onward!
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