Norwegian & American Women of Distinction: Elise Boulding
Elise Boulding (July 6, 1920–June 24, 2010)
Daughters of Norway
Among the many Norwegian-American woman who have lived lives of distinction, Elise Boulding stands out as one of the most influential because of her work as a peace activist and intellectual. She was a university professor, an author of five books, recipient of the Peace Abbey “Courage of Conscience” award, and a Quaker who dedicated her life to the peace movement, advancing the study of conflict resolution. She urged people to envision a more peaceful world, promoting the idea that such a world could only come about through commitment and action on the personal level, beginning within the family. In addition to the roles previously mentioned, her own personal action included her leadership of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and her appointment by President Jimmy Carter to serve as a member of the commission that was formed in 1981 in order to examine the formation of a peace academy, and which resulted in the founding of the United States Institute of Peace.
Behind the story of her public accomplishments exists the story of Elise Boulding as a wife and mother. On behalf of the Daughters of Norway Literary Society, member Candace Brown conducted this exclusive interview with Boulding’s son, Philip Boulding. He is an accomplished musician, writer, teacher, and poet who performs with his wife, Pam Boulding, all over the United States and abroad in their musical duo of Celtic harp and hammered dulcimer, called “Magical Strings.” He shared many deeply personal family recollections and remembers his mother with respect and love.
Candace Brown: I understand that your mother subscribed to the Norwegian American Weekly. Please tell me how she felt about her Norwegian heritage.
Philip Boulding: My mother always kept her Norwegian identity and never lost her Norwegian language. When she went to Norway, she always connected with her relatives. All her life, she spoke fluent Norwegian, and she could read Norwegian. However, she made a conscious decision never to speak Norwegian around us or teach us Norwegian in order that we wouldn’t know a language that our father didn’t know. She didn’t want us to communicate with each other behind his back, or in front of him, without him understanding what we were saying. To this day, I regret that she didn’t allow us to be bilingual.
CB: Do you think her Norwegian heritage had any bearing on her career choice?
PB: Perhaps, in a cultural sense. She grew up on a farm outside of Oslo and immigrated to this country as a fairly young girl. The Norwegian culture is somewhat more enlightened in terms of social progressive thought and economics. The fact that this was her cultural background may have had some impact on the background of her life, but as far as how she came to her own beliefs, her own deep inner convictions toward world peace, it’s hard to say. I just think it was inherent in her. The things she did were amazing, and she traveled all over the world giving these workshops and doing conferences and lectures.
CB: I watched a video of an interview she did for the George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, as part of a series of interviews called “Parents of the Field,” meaning that field of study. In the interview, your mother spoke of how, when you children reached school age, she believed you didn’t need her at home, so made the decision to become much more deeply involved in her work. However, maybe you did still need her. Was it difficult to have your parents away from home so often? How available were they to you?
PB: My mother was definitely more available to me than my father. He was gone much of the time. Being the second youngest, I think I was in a pretty unique position to just be absorbed in my sibling life. The parents didn’t matter all that much, as far as nurturing, but there were definitely issues of neglect as far as no emotional support, especially in my teenage years when I really needed someone to talk to.
CB: Where are you in the birth order in your family?
PB: I am number four out of five. I have a younger brother. My sister Christie, was in the middle, and then two older brothers.
CB: As a sociologist who dedicated her life to peacemaking, how did your mother deal with families issues, such as sibling rivalry and squabbles?
PB: Was our house completely peaceful? No. (He laughed.) My younger brother and I were archenemies until we grew up. My parents rarely got angry with us. As far as I am concerned, they dealt very well with the arguments. In some case they just weren’t aware of them, because they were away, teaching or doing whatever. We had to learn certain things on our own. She dealt with family issues a lot. She wrote a book called, One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist (Philadelphia, PA: Pendle Hill Press, 1989).
CB: You said you had something you wanted to tell me concerning her later life.
PB: She was such an intense intellectual all her life. When she began to lapse into Alzheimer’s and lose all that incredible intellectual prowess that she had, her spirit brightened. She became more lively, more innocent, in a way, and fun to be with.
I had more of a privileged glimpse of her than my other siblings did, because I was the only one who was a musician. She loved music. Somehow that kept her connected with me. Whenever I played the harp for her, she knew it was me. She knew I was there.
CB: I believe our minds create our circumstances. She was the one who dared to ask, “How would peace work? What would it look like?”
PB: I think that was the most significant part of her work. We talk about peace, and striving for peace, but we don’t even imagine what a world in peace—without war and without weapons, without a war economy—would look like and how it would work, or what we would do. She was trying to get people thinking along those lines in order to have something to shoot for rather than just shooting arrows off in the dark.
CB: Would you call that her greatest accomplishment?
PB: Yes, I think so, because it was a radical departure from the way people were doing things as well as a radical departure from just the way the world thinks. Just being a peace activist itself was swimming upstream against the cultural life of the U.S. and the world.
She was a great thinker. Her book called Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000) was a very interesting glimpse of how we can see and imagine and discover that peace actually does exist in various parts of the world but it isn’t acknowledged or talked about very much, because conflict and war is much more interesting.
She was also a very deeply spiritual person but she didn’t talk about it much and she didn’t share that much.
CB: At what point did you come to deeply appreciate your exceptional parents?
PB: The turnaround came for me in my middle high school years, when I was struggling inwardly and emotionally. During that period, she gave me a book called The Flowers of Saint Francis, and when I read those stories it absolutely just sunk deep into my soul. I realized, “Okay, my life isn’t for myself. My life is to serve others, but it’s also to develop myself.”
But there was also an incident. I was in the car with her and there was just kind of silence. I was going through a difficult time, inwardly and emotionally. Out of the blue she asked me, “So, Philip, what do you think is the meaning of life?”
It just kind of threw a curve at me, so I said something dumb like “Well, to be happy.”
She was quiet again for a while, so I said, “Well, what do you think?”
She said, “I think that the purpose of life is to try to learn how to love without needing love in return.”
That was when I began to really appreciate what my parents did. This whole thing ties into the Christian ethic, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, non-violence, the Golden Rule, everything. Even if I told no other stories, that’s the most significant one.
It was a long, long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.
Nor has Philip Boulding forgotten a visit with his mother near the end of her life, in the nursing care facility where she lived. By then, the Alzheimer’s Disease had lifted from her mind the heavy seriousness of her life’s work, leaving only the lighter-than-air joy once felt by the little girl from Norway, who would cross an ocean to leave her mark on America and the world.
“Here I am in a wheelchair, almost 90,” she said, “but I go dancing all the time! I dance in the garden, I dance in the sky, and I dance among the stars. Of course, I’m dancing in my mind, but I’m still dancing.”
Yes, Elise, you still are.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.