March 06, 2006

Fascinating Women

Pearl Buck was mentioned in one of the entries in my Iran series, in an excerpt from Thomas Fleming's The New Dealers' War that discussed Buck's writing in protest of the U.S.'s viciously racist attitudes toward the Japanese during World War II. Buck spent much of her childhood in China, the daughter of missionary parents. That makes her story of more than usual interest to me: my mother was born and grew up in China, and she was also the daughter of missionary parents.

My mother was one of four daughters; all of them are now deceased. You may have heard of one of her sisters:
Molly Yard, for more than half a century an outspoken advocate for liberal causes, who came to national prominence as president of the National Organization for Women in the late 1980's, died yesterday at a nursing home in Pittsburgh. She was 93 and had resided most recently in Arlington, Va., and Washington.


Active since the 1930's in student and civil rights movements, Ms. Yard served as NOW's president from 1987 until 1991. She was previously the organization's political director.

During her tenure, NOW championed issues including abortion, gay and lesbian rights and the election of women to public office. In 1987, in one of its most vigorous campaigns, it opposed the nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Robert H. Bork, whom Ms. Yard publicly condemned as ''a Neanderthal.'' She also called for the impeachment of President Ronald Reagan over the Iran-contra affair.

Ms. Yard spent so much time pounding unforgiving marble in various corridors of power that she developed permanent nerve damage in her feet, The Washington Post reported in 1987.

Mary Alexander Yard was born in Shanghai on July 6, 1912, and raised in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, where her parents were Methodist missionaries. At her birth, one of her father's male friends presented him with a beautiful brass bowl. It was meant as a consolation prize. Ms. Yard was the family's third daughter.

Growing up in China, Ms. Yard later said, helped set her on her course as a social activist. She saw many people die of cholera. She also heard screams whose source she could not immediately identify.

"I asked my father what was going on, and he said it was a young girl whose feet are bound," Ms. Yard told The Post in 1987. "They used to unbind them at night in order for the blood to circulate."

The Yards lived in China until Ms. Yard was about 13, when her father angered church superiors by proposing that their missions in China be turned over to the Chinese. The family moved to the United States, where Mr. Yard became the director of religious activities for Northwestern University -- until he angered superiors there with his work as a civil rights and labor organizer. Through much of the Depression, Ms. Yard's mother, who ran a mail-order business selling imported Chinese goods, was the family's sole support.

Ms. Yard became politically active as a student at Swarthmore. After discovering that the sorority to which she belonged would not admit Jews, she campaigned successfully to abolish all sororities on campus. She graduated in 1933, with a bachelor's degree in political science.

In 1938, Ms. Yard married a Swarthmore classmate, Sylvester Garrett, keeping her maiden name. When the couple tried to open a joint checking account, Ms. Yard would later recall, they were told they could not do so under two different surnames. If only Ms. Yard had been Mr. Garrett's mistress, the bank told her, it would have been no problem at all.
My mother would also sometimes talk of young Chinese girls having their feet bound; it's the kind of memory that never leaves you. Growing up in China, and incidents like the one involving the bank, can turn you into a lifelong activist, as they did in Molly's case.

These thoughts came to mind because of a NYT article by Mike Meyer, who now lives in Beijing. Meyer offers a very interesting essay about Pearl Buck, and her life and work. A few excerpts:
More than 30 years after the writer's death and 75 since the publication of "The Good Earth," the saga of a farming family in pre-Communist China, Buck remains stranded between two worlds. In China she is admired but not read; in America, she is read but not admired.


Raised in China by her missionary parents, Buck began writing in her 30's, when she was trapped in a loveless marriage and unable to afford care for a daughter with mental disabilities, as Peter Conn, her most recent biographer, recounts in "Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography." Around two dozen publishers rejected her first novel, until the publishing house John Day finally said yes. "East Wind, West Wind" came out in 1930. She'd later marry the director of John Day, which nearly became her personal press.

Fifteen of her books were Book-of-the-Month Club selections. She won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Good Earth" in 1932, and in 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Buck's experiences in China transformed her view of America; on her return, she became a leading advocate for civil and women's rights, and for Amerasian — a term she coined — war orphans.

Still, American critics dismissed Buck as sentimental. William Faulkner sniffily called her "Mrs. Chinahand Buck." John Hersey, author of "Hiroshima" and himself raised in China by missionary parents, said that of Buck's 80 books, she'd written "probably 70 too many." Even Conn acknowledged, "I found her odyssey ultimately more engaging than most of her books."

But Buck's work remained popular, even as she fell from reading lists during the cold war. Maxine Hong Kingston fondly recalled being assigned "The Good Earth" in ninth grade in the 50's. "It humanized Chinese people," she said. "It is written with so much empathy that for the first time, Americans had to see Chinese as equals."

I first discovered Buck after college. Before departing for a Peace Corps assignment in China a decade ago, I asked an elderly librarian for books on the country. She walked me past the nonfiction shelves and into Buck's world of jade-green rice, sweetmeats, rainbow silks, silver mists, and turquoise and gold flashing on slim ivory hands; a China where red-skinned, milk-scented foreigners are perpetually shocked by the grace and strength of the people they meet. In Buck's novel "The Promise," an Englishman encounters a local girl: "One doesn't expect a Chinese — to —," he stammers, "Be wholly human," she finishes, brimming with rectitude.
To return to Molly for a moment: her obituary in the New York Times also contains this delightful anecdote:
Ms. Yard joined NOW in the early 1970's and for the next decade worked on its campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, to have the equal rights amendment ratified. In 1987, Eleanor Smeal, Ms. Yard's mentor and NOW's departing president, suggested she run for the position. In her mid-70's, Ms. Yard demurred at first.

"I thought if I were 10 years younger, I would love to do it," she told People magazine in 1987. "Then I remembered Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony never stopped, even in their 80's."

Ms. Yard's reputation as a forceful negotiator stood her in such good stead that she did not have to be physically present to get results. In 1987, Patricia Blau Reuss, who was the legislative director for the Women's Equity Action League at the time, told The Washington Post what it was like to lobby members of Congress with Ms. Yard as a bargaining chip:

"We would say, 'Look, you either deal with me or you have to answer to Molly,'" Ms. Reuss said. "They always relent."
I never heard Molly tell that particular story, but I heard many like it over the years. When she related such stories and other tales of craven politicians who were mortally afraid of "offending" someone (usually those who might otherwise vote for them) and how she cowed them into action, Molly would roar with laughter. She had a wonderful laugh; I can still hear it to this day. Molly always loved a good argument, and I can also still hear the very loud arguments among the grownups in our living room, when I was a child listening from upstairs. When Molly believed in a cause very strongly, as she did almost every second of every day, she was fearless, and fearsome. If you were going to disagree, you needed to be very well-armed with an encyclopedia's worth of facts. Even then, she would probably wear you down with the force and passion of her views. And most of the time, you didn't mind: she was usually right.

I'm probably unfairly biased for obvious personal reasons, but I think they were an unusually interesting group of sisters. I should write more about them one of these days.