Finding “Mrs. Richard J. Walsh”: Pearl S. Buck’s Journey Back into Our HistoryJanuary 13, 2014
Most people know Pearl S. Buck (1892 –1973) as the Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author who lived in China as a missionary and whose experiences there influenced her writing. But how many know of her commitment to and work on one of the most important legislative issues for women, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)?
Referred to by her married name, “Mrs. Richard J. Walsh,” Pearl S. Buck was hidden in AAUW’s archives, allowing her work and contributions to easily go unnoticed. This is a frustrating, but not uncommon, occurrence to anyone working with women’s collections in archives!
Buck was a member of the AAUW Philadelphia (PA) Branch, and in 1942 she became active at the national level, serving on the AAUW Committee on the Economic and Legal Status of Women. As a member of this committee, Buck studied and discussed subjects such as equal pay, equal rank for women in the armed services, the fight to repeal discriminatory employment practices against married women, and the ERA.
AAUW officially adopted a position against the ERA at the 1939 National Convention. At the time, many organizations working for women’s equality opposed this amendment because of concerns that the ERA would weaken other active pieces of legislation designed to protect women. These organizations believed in legal equality for women but disagreed over the method to obtain it.
Buck was one of three members of the AAUW committee who were pro-ERA and who wrote and spoke out in favor of the amendment. Why, might you ask, would AAUW leaders select committee members who were at odds with the official position? As educated women, they strove for a balanced representation of opinion and debated and reconsidered every issue, especially the controversial ones.
Buck’s work did not end with the ERA. In 1941, concerned about the rise of fascism in Europe and its limiting effects on the position of women, Buck wrote Of Men and Women, a collection of nine essays about gender relations in America. In this work, she lamented that American women too often allowed themselves to be relegated to the home and let their intellectual curiosity and desire to learn die. For Buck, it was time for women to step up and demand the same opportunities as men. She wrote that a woman “may sit upon a throne and rule a nation, she may sit upon the bench and be a judge, she may be the foreman in a mill, and she could be a bridge builder or a machinist or anything else.” The only obstacle to this was tradition to which Buck admonished women, “Break it.”
AAUW leaders quickly realized the potency of this message and how it would resonate with their members. In 1942 AAUW arranged for a special edition printing of the book for AAUW members at a cost of 50 cents a copy. Introducing the book in the AAUW Journal, the editor wrote, “This book is for the citizen who knows that if our democracy is to stand we must recognize the place of women, afford them proper opportunity for service, and advance the cooperation between men and women.”
Buck’s relationship with AAUW continued after her committee tenure ended. In 1948, she invited AAUW Director Kathryn McHale to a meeting of the East and West Association, a recently formed organization designed to foster understanding between Asia and America. She also continued writing prolifically, and she established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Asian American children.
In the future, I will have my eyes open for “Mrs. Richard J. Walsh” (and the many other women with hidden identities). She will not be overlooked. She is now the Pearl S. Buck and will always occupy an important place in AAUW’s history.