In Memorial: Clara Carlson


Clara A. Carlson, 102, whose death in January was reported last month, had been a member of the Foundation since 1981. She and recently-retired Anne Gaylor, Foundation president emerita, in particular carried on a regular correspondence for more than 30 years Clara would enclose carefully-clipped news items with notes personally cheery, but impersonally indignant over injustice. Clara monitored local state/church violations and the media, and also was invited several times to address students at her local high school on issues of freethought and the First Amendment. One of her last longer messages was a letter, copied by hand in her remarkably clear and firm cursive, which she had sent to her local paper, “No Glory in War” (see below).

In November 1986, Freethought Today printed a “Getting Acquainted with Clara Carlson” article.

The piece described how Clara was descended from a Dutch pioneer, Elizabeth Stout, who had come to this land in 1640, was scalped and wounded by Indians, but lived to be 110, had ten children and 510 living descendants! Clara’s grandmother led a wagon train across the plains, arriving in Washington Territory in 1858. Clara came from “stout” stock!

Clara recalled her parents’ churchgoing as “perfunctory.” But, like most freethinkers, she came to reject religious claims on her own. As early as high school, Clara had “decided I couldn’t accept the ‘facts’ of traditional dogma ‘on faith,’ because so many things didn’t make sense and I felt if there were no answers to my questions, than the ‘factual’ statements had to be suspect. I decided traditional religion was a dictatorship, and I couldn’t subscribe to it.”

When 18-year-old Clara enrolled in nursing school, her skepticism had shocked her born-again roommate: “She said God could strike me dead for the things I said. (It didn’t happen.)”

Clara added, “In common with most freethinking people, [I found] the road is never a smooth one, because the religionists seem to be there waiting around every turn to harass, pressure and proselytize.”

The road was even rockier for young women of that era. Clara wrote a short reminiscence, “Recalling Illegal Abortion” (reprinted this page) about her experience as a young married woman seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. Clara attained an R.N. in 1927, the year she married Ralph Carlson. They had three daughters. After Ralph’s retirement, he and Clara bought a Volkswagon and traveled for a year in 18 European countries. They eventually settled in Port Angeles, Wash. Ralph, a nominal believer, predeceased Clara, dying in 2004 at age 101. Their longevity and more than 70 wedding anniversaries celebrated together made them the toast of the local media, which published their photograph and recipe for happiness: chocolate, champagne and laughter.

Clara was also a Humanist, and stayed active in many feminist causes. She belonged to a group of eight feminists who called themselves the Wavemakers. She had volunteered with a safe house/rape relief program and a child abuse program. She worked with the League of Women Voters, National Organization for Women, Women’s Political Caucus and Washington Women United. Well into her 90s, Clara traveled by herself cross-country to attend a national FFRF convention. The regular hand-addressed notes to our office continued right up until her death. Clara is sorely missed.

No Glory in War

This was one of Clara’s last public letters, submitted to the Peninsula Daily News, Port Angeles, Wash., in response to a request from Veterans for Peace.

I’ve been counting the wars the United States has been engaged in since the first one during which, as a colony, we were separated from England.

The Revolution was the first, then came the War of 1812, followed by the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Persian Gulf and Iraq.

Unless I have overlooked something, that totals 13 wars. But, as I count, I see thousands of people dead.

I see countrysides despoiled and crops ruined.

I see people hungry and homeless.

I see historical treasures lost and destroyed.

And how do you value tears and broken hearts?

My conclusion is: This is enough.

It is time to leave behind the barbarity of primitive thinking.

There is no glory in war.

Civilization teaches us to live together as reasonable people, to understand and appreciate each other.

Let’s have a world at peace.

Clara A. Carlson
Port Angeles, Washington

Recalling Illegal Abortion

This was originally published in Freethought Today in November 1986, when Clara was 80.

By Clara Carlson

Over 50 years ago I had an abortion. Of course, at that time it was illegal, but there was no public protest or self-righteous moralizing, either, as there is today. At that time, birth control information was as hard to obtain as abortion information, even from doctors.

There was a nightmare quality to the fear of finding oneself pregnant when not wanting a pregnancy. I have a friend, well past menopause, who says she still sometimes starts from sleep with that feeling of dreaded entrapment.

In my case, the reason for seeking an abortion was that, having had two spontaneous miscarriages at the seventh month period, facing another pregnancy so soon was insupportable. A delivery at seven months is not too different from a full-term delivery. There is the same labor, trauma of delivery and period of recovery. Those who performed abortions did so very secretly and, if discovered, were arrested and sent to jail. The label abortionist carried great stigma.

Considering these facts, it is rather surprising that it was relatively easy to learn where an abortion could be obtained. The information we needed came from someone at my husband’s work place, and the recommended place was said to be reliable. And so it proved to be.

I made a visit to the "clinic" to be interviewed and registered. Naturally, I went alone and without the knowledge of anyone. At the appointed date, I went to the place, which was in one of San Francisco’s many old row houses, in a quiet, edge-of-town area.

The operation was performed in a room that, while not hospital-like, was clean and spacious. Everything about the procedure and place had the appearance of being sanitary and carefully arranged.

The man who did the abortion wore a hood over his head, so I never would have been able to identify him. The nurse who attended him wore nothing over her face.

Afterward I was allowed to rest in a clean and comfortable bed for about an hour, when I was released to go home, on the streetcar.

In light of today’s antiabortion uproar, it seemed an easy, uneventful experience. It is my opinion many of those who make the loudest and most vocal protest have little knowledge about the subject. Someone leads and they rise up and follow. One has to wonder, also, if some of those are motivated by an uneasy conscience.

At any rate, I had no feeling of guilt at the time, nor have I ever regretted the decision, which was unequivocally mine to make.

Freedom From Religion Foundation