Virginia Carter

“The bottom line is I have had a very, very full and happy and well-adjusted, delighted life.”

Filmed and interviewed by Martha Wheelock, VFA Board, 2013

VC:  When I was in the last year of high school, my mother persuaded me that I should become a nurse because she saw I was quite bright. For women in those days, back in the early ’50s, becoming a nurse was a high aspiration. They had just started a degree at McGill called a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. I had to switch out of the other courses that I was taking and fill them in with courses in science, because that was required. I was now headed for McGill. I was behind. They had started the science curriculum in my high school in the ninth grade and I was in the 11th grade at this point and I had no science training at all.

My father sat me down at the kitchen table two weekends in a row and taught me all the science I was ever going to need right up to my first year of college. My father was a gifted teacher and a gifted engineer, and he was able to speak very clearly to me so that I understood every single word and I picked it up one shot through. I was just thrilled with what I was learning. All the basics about how the world works. What happens when you push a doorbell? There’s different perspectives when you close each eye, what’s that all about? That’s what gives you three dimensions.

I was enthralled with all of that because it was basic stuff about the world around me. I caught fire with that and was going to go into science, then science and nursing, and then off I went. When I got to McGill, I took, in my freshman year, a course in biological sciences and I hated it. It was just a matter of memorizing everything. There was no logic, you just had to memorize this and then memorize that, then memorize this and then memorize that. I got the hell out of that as fast as I could and went into straight physics and math at McGill. And I aced it, I loved it, it was easy.

MW: Did you graduate with a degree in physics from McGill?

VC:  I graduated with honors from McGill with a double major in math and physics and I had a wonderful time – I loved it.

MW:  After McGill, what paths did you take using your science education?

VC:  After McGill, I thought I probably had to go to work. That was certainly my parents’ point of view, you get your degree. Both of my parents had degrees from Queens University in Ontario, so I thought I had to go to work. I applied to get jobs and all the fellows in my class from McGill got wonderful jobs. Because I was a woman, the best job offer I got was to be a clerk at the Bell Telephone Company, which was underwhelming in the extreme. I wasn’t about to become a clerk at the Bell Telephone Company.

Somewhere along the line in my senior year my parents abandoned me and moved to the United States. It was a goal my mother had had all her married life, to persuade my father to move to the United States. She believed, and I subsequently discovered, that life was rather freer and more open in the United States. They left me in my senior year. I had to live in a girls residence at McGill, which was very strict. I now had all kinds of rules and regulations that I had to live by when my parents never put any regulations on me whatsoever.

They let me get a car in my senior year of high school, I was only kid in the entire school with my own car. The first day I drove up to the high school in my final year, all the kids hung out the windows of the school, staring at me in my new car, it was a Volkswagen. I was so swaggery and swank with that, I suddenly went from being totally unpopular to being completely popular, all because I had a car and could go where I wanted. Until then I just commuted from my home on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, across a big bridge, and into Montreal Island and up to McGill.

When I moved into the women’s residence I couldn’t have a car. I had to come and go according to how good my grades were and my grades were excellent, so I got to stay out as late as 10:00 at night. But I had to sign in and out and tell people where I was going. I was so unhappy in my senior year all I wanted was out of there. My parents gave me, as a graduation present, the right not to attend the graduation ceremony. You had to pay to not attend. Mother came up and got me and we drove down to the states together while the graduation ceremonies were going on. I cackled with glee when I got across the border.

MW:  How did you end up at Aerospace?

VC:  I got down to the states and decided the only real thing I knew how to do was to go to school, so I enrolled at the University of Southern California and went to graduate school there. I had applied to UCLA and because I would be a foreign student, I wrote questions to UCLA about going there and what would happen and what the regulations were. They sent me a calendar of school courses. I wrote to USC with the same questions and got a personal answer. I didn’t know the difference between UCLA and USC.

In Canada, the universities are all rated very high at pretty much all. But in the United States there’s a difference between what school you go to as some were higher on the status list than others. I only got answers from USC, so I went there for graduate school. I’d saved up a little bit of money before I came down so I could pay my own expenses for a year or two in graduate school. I didn’t really like graduate school, all I got to study was math and physics. At McGill if you were majoring in science and majored in math and physics, you also took all kinds of other classes that were fascinating. I took geology and anthropology and English literature, and I just loved it. But when I was only studying math and physics, I was bored to tears.

At the end of the master’s degree, I went and got a job and that’s how I got to the Aerospace Corporation. It was a think tank for the United States government. I was a foreigner to the United States, I was on a green card. Because aerospace did all kinds of classified stuff, I had to wait until my clearance came through, which took a long time. They actually went up to Canada and asked my neighbors if I was in any way a subversive or somebody that the United States should worry about. They didn’t have to worry, I’m an up-standing citizen.

The first job I got of any consequence was to work at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California. I went in to a section of aerospace called Space Physics Lab, and my assignment was to design an experiment that would measure the density of the atmosphere above the Earth. That was to help the “war lords” design their weaponry so that they could accurately target the destinations. Our enemy at the time was supposedly Russia, and they wanted to be able to put a missile through the front door of the Kremlin. That meant they had to know the density of the atmosphere as a function of altitude and solar activity.

I designed an experiment to do precisely that, to measure the atmosphere’s density as a function of altitude and solar activity. I had fun doing that. I took the model of the experiment up to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where it would be launched on a satellite, and I bolted it to the satellite itself. There were no other women there, this was strictly a man’s environment, I was the only woman involved in this whatsoever. At the end of the day I realized I hadn’t made it to a washroom the entire day because there wasn’t one for me. I had to make tracks when I finished the calibration of the satellite experiment.

I have in my hand the model that sat on the satellite until I put the real experiment on, and the final calibration took place and then launch took place. I went to the launch; it was very exciting. I didn’t believe a launching rocket could make that much noise, and up it went. It was so thrilling. I drove quickly to the place where the signal from my experiment would be sent down to the ground for analysis. I got to that place at about midnight and the satellite came over and I could listen to it coming, it went: bing, bing, biNG, bING, BING, BING, BING when it was right overhead and then BING, BINGg, BIng, Bing, Bing, bing, bing, bing, more slowly as it went away from me. And down came the signal, it was thrilling.

I rushed to my laboratory at Aerospace and analyzed the data and was thrilled. It was the first data to come out of the experiments that Aerospace had launched that year. I took it down to my boss, the laboratory director, and showed it to him. There was a gathering of all the scientists at Aerospace to hear the results of this wonderful satellite experiment. He presented them all and never once mentioned my name and I was the sole experimenter; I was the one. But he didn’t tell anybody that it was me. When that happened, I went to his office later and told him how profoundly annoyed I was. I got an apology, but it was really too late.

In thinking back on my attempted career at the Aerospace Corporation, I realize in hindsight that as a woman, if I could accomplish something at the Aerospace Corporation, it meant what I was accomplishing was inconsequential. A woman does this and therefore it can’t be very hard, it can’t be very complex. It’s just something a woman can do. In thinking about what I should have done to progress faster in my field of study, physics and math, I’m sometimes told, advised or think myself that I should have been more aggressive. I should have gone in and said to my bosses, I’m doing this excellent research, I should be promoted more rapidly. I should be being paid more. I really deserve it; I’m really gifted here.

The trouble with all of that is that I am a woman, not a man, and I tend not to put myself forward in such an aggressive way. It probably would help if I had, it probably would help me now if I were more aggressive, although I don’t need any help now. But it’s just not a style that comes naturally to most of the women I know. They tend to collaborate; they tend to be noncompetitive to a greater extent than men do. It ought not to be necessary for me to stride into my boss’s office and say, “I’ve done this wonderful job, you should be paying me more, what’s wrong with you?” I shouldn’t have to do that.

Somebody should know, looking at my results, looking at how I’m getting on and expanding my research circle and publishing in more technical journals, somebody should notice. Surely my boss, what is his job after all? Surely he or she should notice that I’m doing these things. I’m not going to ever be the kind of person who stands up and says, “Look at me, I’m important, I’m great, give me more money, give me more power.” I can’t do that. It’s not in my female nature. Some women can do that, but many women can’t, and I happen to be one of them.

When I realized that my prospects for making a high salary and advancing in the ranks at Aerospace were very slight indeed, I was somewhat discouraged, to say the least. One day I read in the popular press that there had been formed an organization called the National Organization for Women. I thought that sounds like something I should know more about. I went to the first meeting I could get to, which was at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and when I walked in there were mostly women, maybe 40 or 50, a few guys.

I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes. There were these people, quite a number of them, who had encountered and were encountering the same sort of discrimination from which I suffered. I caught fire, I just loved these people, I couldn’t get enough of it. I went to every meeting I could get to. I met an elderly woman who said, “Girls if you wish to ferment a social revolution, you simply must learn how to speak publicly.” And she then gave speech lessons and I went to them.

I began very badly. She asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves and I stood up and forgot to mention my name. By the time she was finished with me, I was voted the most improved speaker in the group. I lost my fear, I could stand up without sweaty palms and without a dry mouth and say what I had to say. The impact of that for my life was quite incredible.

One day a woman called me from New York at a time when long distance phone calls weren’t really very commonplace. I was shocked to have a call from New York. She said, “I want you to meet my husband.” I said, “Who’s your husband?” And she said, “Norman Lear.” I’d never heard of him, but I said I would meet with him. When I came home that night I looked at Time Magazine and he was the cover story. He was doing all kinds of wonderful things with a new and rather abrasive half hour program called All in the Family. So, this guy is a bigwig in Hollywood and I’m a very caring and educated physicist. What could I possibly have to say to him?

I drove up to his office on a street called Avenue of the Stars, which all by itself made me somewhat embarrassed and uncertain. I went up to his office and I’d never met a man like that before in my entire life. I only knew scientists, really and my dad and brother. There I was with this man who knew nothing about physics, and I knew nothing about showbusiness. You could take our respective knowledge and fit it in a thimble and still not be able to find it.

We had to talk about something where we had some common ground and I had just had an encounter with death because I had breast cancer, which was scary. He was a pacifist and I couldn’t quite understand that. The two issues that we were both caring about, my recent struggle to survive breast cancer and his interest in pacifism, had us going tooth and nail. We talked and talked and then we talked some more. When that was over, he called me and said, “I want to talk to you again. Come in and see me.” I couldn’t be rude, so I agreed to come.

As I drove up to his office on Avenue of the Stars, I thought, you don’t suppose he’s going to offer me a job, that can’t be. But suppose he does, what on earth will I say? I’ll say I’m a physicist and I am the highest paid woman at the Aerospace Corporation, which didn’t mean much. I made $18,000. a year. I thought, if he tries to hire me, what is the biggest number I could possibly hand to him that would just make him choke on it? I’ll say twenty-five thousand dollars a year is my required salary.

When he offered me the job I was so stunned, I stammered around a bit and then I said, “But Norman, I need an awful lot of money.” He said, “How much?” And I said, “$25,000. a year. He said, “That’s no problem.” I said, “But I’ve got a six-week vacation coming up. I’m about to leave for Japan with my mother, who was born in Japan. I’m excited about this trip and I won’t even be here for six weeks.” He said, “That’s no problem.” I thought, I’m going to do it, I’m going to take a big jump. I said, “Ok I’ll call you when I get back.”

MW:  What was he going to hire you as?

VC:  I asked him, “What on earth would I do?” And he said, “I don’t really know, but you come and take an office beside mine and sit in on my meetings and we’ll figure it out.” I took a one-year leave of absence from the Aerospace Corporation because I knew I was going back to Aerospace at the end of a year. But at the end of a year I went in and said to Norman, “I’ve been here the year that I took a leave of absence for, I think I’m probably going to be leaving you now.” He said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re here and I want you here.” I was having so much fun, I couldn’t say no to him. Didn’t matter about the money, it was just the most wonderful job. I sat in on all his meetings and at the end of the first year, I was going to a lot of meetings in his place.

MW:  Which shows did you develop and movies?

VC:  At the time he had All in the Family and Maude, and he was just starting The Jefferson’s and he couldn’t cover them all, he was only one man. When they were doing the readings and the first run throughs, he had three shows going and he could only get to one and then maybe see a bit of it and then on to the other. I stepped in. First of all, I watched everything he did, went to every meeting he had, and pretty soon I was going to run throughs in his place. I had to learn so much so fast it makes my head swim to think about it.

I had been trained in the Canadian Air Force as an officer. Officers don’t ask, they tell, they say I want this done and I want it done on this schedule and you are going to do it and that’s that. In show business it doesn’t work that way at all. You have to make the person you’re talking to want to do what you want them to do and it requires a whole different mindset. I had to learn quickly, or I would have been out of there so fast. I learned quickly and it was a joy.

Norman wanted content in his shows, he wanted them to be about something. He knew he had to make very funny shows, the audience had to love them, or they wouldn’t be tuning in. After he hooked an audience, he could do shows about things. He could give Edith Bunker a scare about breast cancer. I had had breast cancer, that’s probably why that came to Norman’s mind. He could do things about manic depression; he gave Maude a case of manic depression. He could do all kinds of things. He could tell people in his shows to go get your blood pressure checked, when the bloodmobiles came through.

He could fit all those things in, but only if he had a hit show. He wrote the funny stuff and occasionally I would suggest to him that I’d just been talking to the American Heart Association, because they learned to come to my office, not his. It would be a good idea if we tried to work something in, so he’d give Archie high blood pressure, or he’d give Maude manic depression. We could make the shows matter. I began to screen the shows for various organizations so that they’d know we were trying and then they would send me ideas for things they’d love to have incorporated in the shows.

I’d be careful how I selected, but I’d suggest to Norman various ideas. Norman was open and willing, and we liked each other so we talked to each other a lot. I had one or two donnybrooks with Norman where I would suggest something, and he’d say we’ll handle it this way. For example, Maude in the running storyline wanted to run for public office, that’s because it was true about one of the writers on the show. His wife wanted to run for public office, and he didn’t want her to leave the home and leave him for that period of time and shift her focus that much. We made Maude want to run for public office.

One of the worst times Norman and I had together was I thought Maude should run and lose because people who run for public office first time out usually lose, that’s fair. Norman thought Maude ought not to run, she ought to give it up because of Walter her husband begging her to. I said to Norman, if Maude gives it up because her husband begs her to, the audience won’t think, what a shame she really should have run, which is Norman’s position. They’ll think, she loves her husband, that’s good she gave it up. We actually sat in his office and fought. There were a couple of writers following Norman around at the time and they were part of watching this happen.

We fought until about 10:00 at night and when I drove home that night, I thought I’m going to have to quit because I’m not going to be part of an organization that doesn’t let Maude run for public office. I won’t be. I’m leaving. The next morning, I came in all ready to quit and Norman hugged me and said, “I’ve changed my mind – she’s going to run.” That was one of the greatest and happiest moments of my life.

While I was working with Norman, it became obvious to numbers of groups around the country and causes around the country that Norman was dealing with social issues as well as entertaining a huge audience. They would come to Norman’s office wanting to ask him to incorporate their social issue into his shows and those people all got shunted over to my office. One day this absolutely messianic man came to my office saying that he was concerned about the population in the world, it was growing at this escalating rate.

He told me that the earth sustainably could hold two billion people. At that time, we were up around six billion people so we were using up resources: clean water, forests, clean air at a terrible rate and we should be concerned about population. We were using up resources faster than they could be replaced and this is a source of major concern to people who are thinking about it and I got that. I managed to stay in touch with the man who came to talk to Norman about this, his name was David Poindexter. He was a Methodist missionary with a cause, and he wanted to do something about the world’s population.

I recognized that this was terribly important and could have a devastating effect on women, because if women have more children than they can educate and feed, that’s pretty terrible. I stayed in touch with David Poindexter and after a while, walking down the street together one day to go to lunch, he asked me if I would join their board of the Population Media Center, and I was keen to do that. It’s an enormously important issue, the population of the world, we have more people than we can hold right now.

I got active on the board of the Population Media Center and I met some super neat people there. I’m still very active with the Population Media Center, I care about them a lot, the people on the board are very bright. I’m on the executive board at this point and there are three of us that chart the destiny of the Population Media Center. I’ve traveled around the world for them, going to countries where the population is just burgeoning out of control, talking to people there. Meeting the movers and shakers, trying to make things clear, which is easily done, that things need to change.

The Population Media Center recognizes that people don’t do things because they’re told to do them, especially when it involves their families and their private lives. At the Population Media Center, we help countries that we travel to by invitation, design radio and television soap operas that model family behavior. We have a set of characters that model the prosocial behaviors: small family size, status of women, and educating both girl and boy children. Then we have negative characters that do the opposite: they say women aren’t worth a pile of anything and that they’re just there to serve the men.

Then we have a set of characters that model the audience. They don’t quite know which direction to go. Should we educate our girl children, or should we save the money and just educate our boy children? Gradually over time, we help the countries we’re working in create very passionate, hot, sexy soap operas. Most of the time they’re on radio because we’re in low economic countries and those radio soap operas are just wonderful. They tell really juicy stories and the audiences get totally hooked. Gradually we shift the people in the characters in the middle of these soap operas towards positive social values.

Instead of being uncertain whether they should have 12 children or two children, the mother in law is saying, you’d better have 12 children or look as if you’re not attending to your husband properly. The prosocial character argues that you should have just the number of children that you can feed and educate. We do soap operas that make that entirely clear: families that follow the prosocial behaviors wind up succeeding, they have children that are educated, and fed well, and go to school, and have limited family size, and whatever the equivalent of going to Disneyland is in Papua New Guinea, that’s what we do.

They have them succeed in ways that make sense to the local population and we monitor what the people’s beliefs are. Before we go in with our soap opera, we get demographic analysis done and then we broadcast for one or two or three or four or 12 years and we measure the change in the people’s attitudes along the way. We are enormously powerful and successful at that and I’m so proud of the Population Media Center.

We’re born homosexual. I don’t believe for a minute we’re trained to be homosexual. We’re born that way, like being born Black or Chinese. I’m homosexual – I always have been. There’s nothing I can do about it, nothing I want to do about it. I think we should recognize how grateful we should be for finding peace. Well we don’t exactly have peace, but it is an exciting environment and stable. If you look at our 48 years, it’s been pretty stable.

In thinking back on my life, now at the ripe old age of 77, I realize that I should have been bolder, I should have been less satisfied with the job I wasn’t happy in. Less satisfied with employment where I didn’t have the kind of input that would have made me feel satisfied. I should have changed my way of being sooner than I did. I didn’t know. I was conventional. I came from a middle class, relatively conventional, loving, stable family. I thought if things came along that were hard to do or didn’t suit me totally, I should just get over it and do my best anyway.

My thought now is if I had the brain I have now back when I was much younger, I would change more readily. I would insist on being happy or try to insist on being happy. I’d want to be able to say to myself, I’ll be OK. If I lose this job, I’ll be OK. I’ll just go and find a better one. I’m not going to put up with this. I want to be happy in my life. I insist upon it. And to the extent I can manage it, I will. The bottom line is I have had a very, very full and happy and well-adjusted, delighted life. I sing in the shower.

MW:  Well said.

VC:  Thank you, Martha. I just have to say what I have to say. I sometimes think I have been surrounded in greater numbers than I would have wished by a bunch of fuckers.