ICYMI: From the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman

From the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman

Amanda Tewes, Interviewer/Historian

atewes@berkeley.edu

“They couldn’t believe that I could win,” Rosalind Wiener Wyman remembered about her unexpected election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1953.  Over the course of several interviews in 1977 and 1978, Wiener Wyman shared her personal and political triumphs and losses, which culminated in her oral history, “It’s a Girl”: Three Terms on the Los Angeles City Council, 1953-1965; Three Decades in the Democratic Party, 1948-1978.  Wiener Wyman’s memories as a woman politician at midcentury are part of the Oral History Center’s California Women Political Leaders Oral History Project, which documented “California women who became active in politics during the years between the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment and the…feminist movement.”

Wiener Wyman came by her passion for politics honestly.  Speaking of her parents, she reflected, “I always felt their activities and interest in politics was steeped in me. In my baby book, at two, I’m looking up at a picture of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. Most kids in their baby book are not looking at posters of FDR.”

While a student at the University of Southern California, Wiener Wyman and the campus Democratic Club  worked on Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign. But her political work began in earnest when she met her “heroine,” Helen Gahagan Douglas, then a member of Congress representing California and running an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Senate in 1950.  Wiener Wyman was disappointed in Gahagan Douglas’s showing on the campaign trail and confronted her about it. Gahagan Douglas replied, “ ‘If you know so much about a campaign, here, here’s a card. Come see this lady and get into my campaign.’ ” Wiener Wyman took up the challenge and threw herself into this work, hanging posters and driving Gahagan Douglas to her campaign stops.  Laughing, Wiener Wyman recalled, “I remember once changing my hose in the car with her in a parade. She took mine and I took hers. Crazy things a woman candidate worries about.”

Wiener Wyman began her own political career fresh out of college.  In 1953, she ran a grassroots campaign for Los Angeles City Council that relied solely upon door-to-door conversations with her constituents, without the benefit of media coverage or traditional advertising.  Her victory over established, male candidates was such a surprise that she recalls from the night of the election:

As the bulletins were handed to [Joe] Micchice, [a local radio announcer], he said, “I’m sure that the votes are on the wrong name.”  So, he, during the night, would give my vote to Nash. Finally he put his hand over the mike – we have this on a record which is so wonderful – and he said, “Is this bulletin right?”  Or, “Who the hell is Wiener?”

After a runoff election, Wiener Wyman came out on top.  Of this dark horse winner, the Los Angeles Times declared, “It’s a girl!”

Wiener Wyman stood out as the youngest member and only woman on the Los Angeles City Council from 1953 to 1965.  Notably, Wiener Wyman did not see herself as a victim of gender discrimination; rather, she saw her break with other council members in terms of age and experience.  This, despite the fact that other city council members voted to not allow her personal leave to enjoy her honeymoon. Additionally, Wiener Wyman had to contend with the fact that “the only toilet was off the council chambers and that was for the men.”  She recalled, “That became an incredible issue that got around town. Where was I going to go to the bathroom? I thought I would die over that!”

During her time in office, Wiener Wyman famously led the charge to entice the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, making it the first Major League Baseball team west of the Mississippi River.  Although the displacement of Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine and the building of Dodgers Stadium was controversial then and now, Wiener Wyman defended her support for this civic boosterism and the prestige it brought to Los Angeles.  However, she conceded of her leadership on this fight: “it probably cost me some of my popularity.”

Beyond her twelve years in elected office, Wiener Wyman’s political legacy perhaps best lies in her fundraising efforts for other Democratic candidates.  During one memorable event in the backyard of her Los Angeles home, Wiener Wyman and her husband, Eugene Wyman, hosted a dinner for Democratic congressional candidates.  They charged $5,000 a couple, an unthinkable sum in 1972.

Rosalind Wiener Wyman’s life and career point to the many ways in which California women have and continue to engage in political life, as well as the rich collection of political history at the Oral History Center.  

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, documenting the experiences of these women political leaders will become all the more important.  Here at the Oral History Center, we hope to celebrate this anniversary by supporting an oral history project to document the contributions of women activists and politicians in the Bay Area.  Recording the contributions of these impressive local women – political fundraisers, organizers, and elected officials – will help shape the national narrative about women’s historic, current, and future roles in American political life.For more information, please contact Amanda Tewes at atewes@berkeley.edu


From the Archives: The Making of Mr. Photosynthesis

by Roger Eardley-PryorIn 1926, Melvin Calvin’s high school science teacher told him, “You’ll never make a scientist because you guess too much.” At the time, Calvin was an introverted, yet inquisitive, senior at Detroit Central High School. After skipping two grades in grammar school, he was younger and smaller than his classmates. Rather than nurse young Calvin’s curiosity, his science teacher scolded, “Be quiet. You don’t know what you’re talking about, you haven’t listened to the data.” But the precocious boy never stopped asking questions, and later, the data he produced made him famous.

“I tell you,” Calvin recalled in his oral history interview, “the instructor in physics really turned me off, not on. He was one of these people, [as] I remember him, who thought of science as the gathering of data and the drawing of conclusions. And guessing didn’t play any role in the development of science.” But, as Calvin remembered it, “I was a great guesser! He would ask questions and I would guess at the answers. I was wrong half the time,” Calvin admitted, “and he simply put me down.” Thirty-five years after those put-downs, TIME magazine named Melvin Calvin Mr. Photosynthesis’ for his pioneering research unveiling the way plants wrangle sunlight, water, and air to make their food and, ultimately, power the planet. In 1961, Calvin’s search for answers to his endless questions earned him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Melvin Calvin’s oral history interview addressed, in great detail, aspects of his renowned scientific career, from his postdoctoral work with Michael Polanyi in England, to joining Berkeley’s College of Chemistry in 1937, through his efforts in the Manhattan Project, to his pioneering research on photosynthesis. But the power of Calvin’s oral history resides in the unexpected, unscientific, and personal stories that appear nowhere else. Oral histories with scientists like Melvin Calvin reveal the human and emotional side to scientific processes that, from the outside, might appear purely rational or apolitical. Much of Calvin’s oral history delved into the political and interpersonal aspects of his scientific career, including his Nobel-winning research on the biochemical pathways of plants. Yet Calvin’s earlier stories—those from before his professional life took root—shine a light on the making of Mr. Photosynthesis.

Calvin remembered the moment he decided to become a chemist. It was that same year of high school, from 1926 to 1927, and Calvin stood in the grocery store that his father strained to keep solvent. Calvin’s working-class family didn’t always make ends meet. The 1920s may have been “roaring” for some, but like today, a great and growing gap separated rich from poor. Calvin’s family was the latter. “He was struggling,” Calvin explained of his father, “and I worked in that store with him.” At the age of sixteen, Calvin recalled, “I looked around and I saw that everything in that store depended in some way on chemists, from the labels on the cans to the food inside, the ink, the paper, everything involved chemistry.” His father’s struggle for security shaped young Melvin Calvin. “I wasn’t going to do that,” he deduced. “I was going to have something that was interesting to do and would make me a living at the same time.” Like his high school teacher’s rebukes, Calvin wanted no guessing whether or not he’d have a job.

Chemistry would become Calvin’s career, but he craved more than mere science. Sports never suited him, so in high school, he joined the debate team, and he was “in the plays, you know, dramatic things. … We put on a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and I was [Nick] Bottom.” At that time, Calvin confessed, “I was round, you know … so I played Bottom for obvious reasons!” Bottom’s asinine metamorphosis brings comedy to Shakespeare’s play, but more fitting for Calvin, the part also attunes the audience to meaningful themes like the relationship between reality and imagination. Bottom’s down-to-earth character, more than any other in the play, delves deep into the forest where he transcends his working-class identity to experience nature’s magic, enchant a fairy queen, and return having had “a most rare vision … a dream, past the wit of man.” Calvin’s continual wonderment in nature’s mysteries eventually made him one of the world’s leading biochemists.

In an era that lamented growing gaps between the humanities and science, young Melvin Calvin built bridges. Upon completing high school at age 16, Calvin began engineering courses at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology on the state’s remote Upper Peninsula. “I knew my opportunities there were limited,” Calvin disclosed, “because it was what it was, an engineering school.” After his first two years there, his family’s faltering finances forced his return to Detroit. “By that time,” Calvin recalled, “I already began to realize I needed intellectual exploration … I needed some broadening.” In the evenings Calvin worked in a Detroit brass factory chemically testing metal tailings, and during the day he took classes. “After two years in engineering school I went to Wayne State [then Detroit City College] and I didn’t touch an engineering subject. I didn’t go near one. I took history and art and psychology … That was a deliberate choice.”

Calvin continued his “broadening” in both science and humanities while completing his degree at Michigan Tech, earning his PhD from the University of Minnesota, and completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Manchester, England. Inside the laboratory, Calvin analyzed radioactive elements with varied half-lives. But outside the laboratory, rather than read scientific literature, he “preferred books that had a long lifetime.” He read creative classics like Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and War and Peace. “These were novels to live in,” he remembered fondly, “you don’t live in the technical literature.” While reading War and Peace, for example, “I didn’t go to work, I didn’t do anything for about 10 days, you know, I read that book. I just got up and read it, had my lunch and read it, had my dinner, went to sleep. … I didn’t go to work. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It didn’t help much in terms of time, but I can remember doing that. I lived in that thing. … [T]hat was a very powerful experience.”

The memories Calvin explored in his oral history interview inspired a realization his scientific publications never revealed. After bringing his curiosity and creativity to Berkeley’s College of Chemistry in 1937, Calvin’s research with radioactive particles in plants earned a Nobel Prize in 1961. More than a decade after that award, Calvin reflected on the high school science teacher who told him to stop asking so many questions. “The more I learn about science in the ensuing forty years, the more I realize that guessing is the really creative part of science. That the gathering of data and the drawing of conclusions is really a computer operation. The part of it that isn’t a computer operation is the really creative part, and that’s the guessing.” Melvin Calvin’s oral history interview shows the human side of science—how the elemental and the imaginative, in conjunction, advance our knowledge of nature. The memories and insights in Mr. Photosynthesis’s interview reveal how a scientist, and how science itself, can grow.

Melvin Calvin’s oral history interview was recorded over several sessions between October 1974 and March 1978, as part of a series dealing with the development of nuclear research at Berkeley. The Oral History Center recently digitized the printed transcript of Calvin’s interview, previously available only at the Bancroft Library. The Oral History Center and archivists at the Bancroft Library are currently working to digitize the reel-to-reel audio recording of Calvin’s interview.