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Nancy Hewitt, Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds
Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching
Carolyn Ashbaugh, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary
Hannah Rodums on Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds, by Nancy Hewitt
One of the first lessons I learned in my First
Year Studies course was that of the individual's relationship to the larger
world around them. While not a complete dismissal of free will, the historicized
individual's actions were to be understood within the framework of their contemporary
moment. We are always interacting with and shaping the world around us; and
in return are shaped by the contemporary events in ways unique to us only.
Tonight I am here to talk about Amy Kirby
Post, an individual from the specific historical moment of the American nineteenth
century. As the title of Nancy Hewitt's Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and
Her Activist Worlds suggests, Amy was affiliated with multiple activist
movements throughout her life. Amy's intentionality - or sense of purpose -
in relating her various worlds was that of advocating for the equality of women
and men in all spheres of life, the emancipation of the individual from all
forms of repressive institutions. In light of what I learned from my First Year
Studies, I attempt to tease out the complicated relationship between Amy's fundamentalist
approach to activism and the challenge individual female agency presented to
her historical moment. I am also cognizant however that individual intent is
but one part of making history - and that through a collaboration of intentionalites
does change begin to precipitate, and then crystalize itself in the historical
We all come to our contemporary moment with our own particular pasts and experiences; they are what relate us to it. In the case of Amy, her worldview was heavily informed by the Quaker religion, of which she had been born into. As Hewitt notes, Quakerism of the early nineteenth century presented a unique perspective on the relationship of the individual to other individuals, faith, and purpose. The Spirit of God resided in each individual; and it, rather than a religious authority, was the primary means of religious truth and personal conviction. In light of the United State's inherited history of slavery, Quaker principle decreed that all persons be free of bondage. Wives were regarded as spiritual equals to their husbands, and sometimes considered the chief religious and moral authority of the Quaker household - a position that throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century was held by the male. Men and women together met monthly in meeting houses with other Friends, and when only compelled by their inner light spoke. Hewitt suggests that the individual emphasis of both men and women's spiritually in particular impacted the young Amy tremendously in how she understood her relationship to the men, freed slaves, and other women she daily came into contact with.
Quakerism's fiercely individualist understanding
of spirituality however was in conflict with the institution of Quaker religion
as a whole, which imposed on its members strict disciplinary codes and forbade
the involvement of Quakers with the affairs of the Non-Quaker world. In the
context of Amy's historical moment, this meant that while she personally could
condemn slavery as an immoral and unchristian practice (as her religion taught),
she could not participate in the nascent abolitionist organizations forming
in the Northeast. Societal understanding of the woman's place within the private
sphere doubly condemned any notion of public speaking, never mind outright activism
in a world of men. A budding radical herself, Amy had a choice to make: sacrifice
her individual religious and moral convictions and conform to the institutions
of religion and womanhood, or risk separating herself from her Quaker family,
of whom she was very close to. The decision, Hewitt notes, wasn't an easy one,
in the end Amy and her husband/equal, Isaac, switched from orthodox Quakerism
to Hicksite Quakerism, the more radical of the two in its sympathizing with
the abolitionist cause. Ultimately Amy and Isaac would stop attending Monthlies
with Friends from either sect of Quakerism altogether, instead vouching form
their own Waterloo Friends of Human Progress meeting with other disenchanted
Quakers like themselves.
To recognize one's individual purpose is one
thing: but that individual purpose is squandered by the larger authorities which
haunt our lives if it cannot find an outlet to express itself. As her radical
worlds broadened to encompass the blooming abolitionist and women's rights scenes
in Rochester, New York, she (as well as other women radicals within her circles,
including the likes of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton), exposed the
connections between the larger institutions of marriage, law, and slavery that
inhibited individual - and especially individual women's - emancipation. Hence
followed a flurry of activist activity as Amy erected and engaged with a myriad
of organizations: The American Anti-Slavery Society, the Western New York Anti-Slavery
Society, The Yearly Meeting of Congregational Friends, the National Woman Suffrage
Assocation, to name but a few. In these organizations women asserted their agency
by electing members to held positions, openly discussing issues of women's oppression
via American culture and slavery, and forming communities of women that operated
outside the institutions men had excluded them from. In this light, recognition
of the female as individual agent of her own destiny challenged the male-dominated
institutional structures of the law, religion, and the family that otherwise
dictated the intentionalities of the nineteenth-century woman.
Complimentary to the many activist groups
Amy was in, the Post house on Sophia Street was a destination on the Underground
Railroad, opened to all slaves escaping to Canada; it was a meeting place for
women's groups and meetings, and a resting place for extended family members
(and friends that were considered family, such as Frederick Douglass and his
wife Rosa) who too were a part of the activist network. It was also home to
the flash-in-the-pan Spiritualist movement of the Antebellum era; in fact Amy
and Isaac held séances and contacted many of their deceased relatives
via mediums, a practice their Quaker relatives looked upon with skepticism.
Ann Braude notes in Radical Spirits that the fundamental basis of Quakerism
and Spiritual shared a similarity in their belief that "individuals should
look within themselves and act according to the convictions placed there by
the creator" (Braude, 62), rather than accept a higher authority. In the
context of spiritualism, the harsh reality of death, paired with the Puritan/Calvinist
beliefs of the predestination of the soul, constituted the overarching religious
view. Via contacting the dead through a medium, spiritualism "usurped the
authority of God by interfering with the authority of a moral agent" (Braude
88); and through usurping God usurped His representatives, other known as the
Bible, nineteenth-century values of womanhood, and the United States' institutions
created by men and oppressed all women. Here could the agency of the female
individual be recognized in all of its power; and through contacting the spirits
of former slaveowners who had in the afterlife renounced slavery, Spiritualism
became another vehicle through which Amy and her activist friends could utilize
individual female agency to push forward contemporary issues of social justice,
in the context of a world dominated by nineteenth-century middle-class social
values, law, and taboos.
Amy, however, is not a storybook character
who marches from one conflict to the next, completely unconnected from her contemporaries
like many protagonists tend to be. Perhaps it is a hold-over from the way nineteenth-century
historians rendered history as a linear progression form the "backward"
past to the "forward" present, and the inevitable "modern"
future: we fail to see the connections between individuals, their actions, and
the other historical actors walking alongside them, as if every moment is a
separate chapter in the story of history. One individual's purpose alone cannot
account for everything the American abolitionist movement as a whole accomplished
within the nineteenth century.
As I've hinted at, Amy had a plethora of activist
friends that called Rochester their home; and like each one of us those activists
had their own individual purposes which influenced the way they interacted with
their world, and with each other. One of Amy's closest radical friends, Frederick
Douglass, joined the abolitionist movement in the Garrisonian belief that slavery
was a moral sin against the nation; as he matured however he refined his intentionality
to focus more on abolition as a political cause, vouching for the emancipation
and legal enfranchisement of enslaved black men. The specific purpose he had
written for abolitionism clashed with Amy's conviction of slavery as moral flaw,
and extending well beyond slaves that were daily exploited and discriminated
against; that however did not stop Amy from supporting Douglass's North Star
publication, nor did it prevent Douglass from attending women's rights conventions
that Amy organized. Should one have offended the other with their particular
sense of what the proper course of action was (as Amy once did in relation to
Douglass's North Star becoming too politically oriented), the two forgave each
other; and set their minds on the collective effort of the abolition of slavery,
and all forms of bondage.
The same can be said for Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose relationship to Amy Hewitt characterizes as
ambivalent. By the dawn of the Civil War the two women's rights advocates had
abandoned religious and moral convictions of woman's freedom in favor of legally
enfranchising and granting the rights of women. After the war it evolved into
an elitist and racist stance on granting only white women suffrage, ignoring
the prominent - and critical - voices black women's activists such as Sojourner
Truth and Ellen Frances Watkins Harper. Indeed their intentionality staunchly
differed from Post's inclusive view of emancipating all individuals,
one which recognized the complex nuances of race and gender that made them all
but inseparable in the cause for individual female emancipation. Amy however
collaborated with Stanton and Anthony's specific intentionalities by attending
specific women's rights conventions held by them, and attempting to have herself
registered to vote in Rochester elections. Done alone, and perhaps neither Amy
nor Douglass, Stanton, or Anthony would have gotten anywhere; but through the
collaboration of their individual intentionalities could they together forge
a path ultimately changing the unique historical moment they had in common.
Hewitt stresses Post's "fundamentalist
approach" (Hewitt, 179) as the defining motive behind her activism - never
whittled down to one faction of oppressed individuals, but deeply aware of the
ways abolition, women's rights, and peace were intertwined with one another.
Her reputation was of someone who crossed the boundaries of race, class, and
gender the nineteenth century had identified as "rigid" - a jack of
all trades, if you will, and approachable to many people that hailed from diverse
groups and interests. That her goal of emancipation for all individuals affected
the historical narrative, I agree; but where I see the individual purpose in
Post's life I also see a woman intimately connected the members of her activist
worlds, pushing together rather than separately against the stubborn institutions
and social values inhibiting them. Like the throwing of a stone into a pond
the individual act is a singular event dropped into the narrative; its ripples
however interact in their own with other historical actors and phenomena, and
through their collaboration influence the larger superstructure of their own
historical moment, and echo well into the moments occurring well after it.
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Kathryn Brantley on Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching by Crystal N. Feimster
In Crystal Feimster's work, Southern Horrors, the reality of the United States during Reconstruction is exposed by comparing the activist journeys of two southern women from very different backgrounds. Feimster works to shed light on the assaults performed against black citizens that have been sanitized, covered up, and left unpunished and unatoned for. The acts that she describes are, indeed, horrors. However, even difficult histories need to be learned from; victims need to be honored and perpetrators held accountable, even if only through text. Beyond the atrocities described in the pages of Southern Horrors, Feimster discusses the lynchings of the Reconstructed South through the pens of two women of startlingly different views. Ida B. Wells, the esteemed teacher, journalist, and activist who spoke against lynchings in the south in no uncertain terms, is compared and contrasted with Rebecca Felton, a white writer from Georgia who advocated for lynchings of black men to continue under the argument that they were necessary for the protection of white women. In the pages of her text, Feimster describes (and shows her readers through pictures) horrors that are nearly unimaginable.
Feimster opens her text by discussing the incredible differences that existed between Wells and Felton. Although they were contemporaries, existing in the same generation and in similar areas of the United States, the experiences that Wells and Felton had, experiences that would shape them into the women and activists that they became, were disparate in the extreme. Wells, born the daughter of slaves in Mississippi, and Felton, born the daughter of a slaveholding family in Georgia, both would end up as activists, Wells fighting against lynchings and Felton fighting for what she perceived as the continued protection of white women. In order to better explain how Wells and Felton would end up with such diametrically opposing views, Feimster dedicates the first portion of her book to describing the differences in how both Felton and Wells were raised, and the journey each took to their respective careers as activists. From the perspective of modernity, it's hard to understand how Feimster can write, "From different sides of the color line, Felton and Wells were women's rights pioneers who negotiated and challenged the racial and sexual politics of the New South" (1), when the position that Felton took was so utterly repulsive. However, Feimster, not only by describing in such stark terms how Wells and Felton ended up activists and pioneers for such radically different movements and positions, but also by holding a mirror up to her readers, forces us to meditate upon the ideals and perspectives that each of us was steeped in growing up.
From the beginning of her text, Feimster urges her readers to acknowledge the common ground that surprisingly existed between Wells and Felton. On the surface it would seem that a daughter of slaves and a daughter of slaveowners would hold little in common in terms of morals and ideals, Felton points out that Wells and Felton shared ideologies in regards to the unreigned sexuality of southern white men, they both took to the public sphere to voice their opinions on both race and sex when it was still uncommon for women to exist in the public sphere in this manner, and they each, "albeit in very different ways, laid the groundwork that would eventually allow southern black and white women to come together in the fight against lynching." (6) Feimster does not ignore, however, the incredibly different ways that Wells and Felton grew up. Feimster works diligently, giving background to both Felton and Wells' childhoods, the places they inhabited, and the way they learned to interact with the world around them. Felton's childhood as the daughter of slaveowners, groomed to manage a household of slaves, raised by a "Mammy" and bound to the social order of the elite slave-owning south, is disparate from Wells childhood as the daughter of slaves, later freed, who grew into a fiercely independent and vibrant author and activist.
In the chapter titled "The Horrors
of War," Feimster uses descriptions of Felton's early years as a way to
frame the atmosphere that women of her class were raised in. Reflecting upon
later chapters, when Felton's activism is explored, her terror at the idea of
sexual assault on white women, and her willingness to sacrifice as many innocent
black men as necessary to "protect" white women, it is clear to see
where these seeds were planted. Feimster writes on how, in the Civil War era
south, white women and their accompanying virtues were treated with the utmost
care, and the loss of any virtue, especially at the hands of either a Yankee
soldier or a black man, was feared incredibly. One quote stands out in particular,
ascribed to a young woman named Cordelia Lewis Scales from Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Writing to a friend, Cordelia said: "I
wish you could see me now with my hair parted on the side with my black velvet
zouave on & pistol by my side & riding with my fine colt, Beula. I know
you would take me on for a Guerilla. Quite warlike, you see." (19) This
attitude of defiance, the willingness to fight to the death if necessary to
protect one's virtue, of course would bleed over into the activism of Felton
in her later years.
After discussing the origins of Rebecca Felton, Feimster outlines the way that Wells was raised, comparing her upbringing with that of Felton's and using it to create context in the way that women of Wells' background and Felton's background experienced the world around them. She describes the way that Wells was raised, how her parents, both of whom were raised as slaves, focused so intently on raising their daughter to be exposed to politics and to pursue her education. The world that Wells was raised in was quite different that the world that Felton grew up in and inhabited. While both were raised in the south during the time of slavery (although Wells was a generation younger than Felton), the experience that Wells had was diametrically opposed to Felton's. While both Felton and Wells were taught of the violence, sexual and otherwise, that existed in their overlapping southern worlds, Feimster writes of how Wells' parents taught her about the world she inhabited. "Ida's childhood also included powerful lessons about the racial and sexual politics of the antebellum South." (39) Feimster goes on to write of how Wells was taught about the "hard times" that her mother encountered as a slave (taken as meaning violence, sexual and otherwise), and how she was told of other hardships, encounters with brutalities sexual and otherwise that her extended family, friends, and community at large experienced. However, instead of the narrative of sexual abuse and hardship in the south that Felton was taught, the views that Wells would have heard and seen did not center white women as the sole victims of abuse and hardship in the south, but as perpetrators of violence against black men and women.
The point that Feimster makes in writing of the childhoods and upbringings of both Wells and Felton is to illustrate how the respective upbringings of both Felton and Wells would shape the way that they interacted with the world as activists later on in their lifetimes. Immediately after showing how Wells and Felton experienced their formative years, Feimster goes on to write about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed, and how the anti-rape movement, helmed by white southern women, began. Feimster is careful to note that, although they had greatly differing views expressed in similar manners, both Wells and Felton were women who stepped outside of the bounds typically prescribed to women of their time and place. "Instead, armed with painful lessons from their past and motivated by hopes for the future, they seized upon women's postwar concern with protection of body and property and forcefully entered into the violent racial and sexual politics of the 'New South.'" (62) It must be discussed that, as a modern spectator of the New South, one can be loath to acknowledge Felton's accomplishments, seeing as they came on the backs and through the blood of innocent black men. One must give credit to Feimster for removing her lens of modernity with such dedication in acknowledging Felton for the work that she did.
However, despite the similarities that Felton and Wells had in their activism and breaking outside of the roles that the south, even the New South, would steadily prescribe to them, the way that their activism was expressed and the accomplishments that they hoped to achieve differed greatly. In the first few chapters of Southern Horrors, Feimster writes of how both Wells and Felton worked to make the changes that they sought in the south. Felton, Feimster explains, did work to help reduce sexual assault in the south, and this surprisingly expressed itself in bucking the traditional view of the time that black women should be sexually available to white men, and seeking instead to acknowledge their sexual availability and protect them from assault at the hands of white men. "Felton used her husband's political position and the influence of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to broaden her concern with protection to include black women and poor white women." (63) Including black women in her goals for protection, however, did not keep her from playing up the hysteria that led to the torture and destruction of so many black men.
In contrast, Wells would, in the course of her career, become an outspoken activist against the lynchings of black men, and would specifically decry the excuses and accusations of rape as a cover-up for the more commonly economically motivated lynchings of black men. Feimster writes about this, stating that at first, even the black community had difficulty decrying lynchings when rape was given as the reason why. Rape was seen as morally reprehensible within their communities, and lynching was seen, Feimster implies, as a justifiable punishment for such an offense. However, when faced with the surge of lynchings and racially based violence in the early 1890s, it became clear that other reasons, such as "preventing black political and economic mobility," (87) was more of a driving factor behind lynchings than punishment for sexual violence was. Feimster gives multiple examples, each horrific, of lynchings that were described as punishments for rape, when really economic factors could have been behind them. This political landscape was the one in which Ida Wells would come into her own as an author and activist in, and would shape the way she acted as an activist and journalist for the rest of her career.
Feimster also writes of Wells's work, Southern Horrors, and how it came to define the movement against the rash of racially motivated violence in New South. This work, Feimster discusses, would win Wells many enemies and allies, and would alienate her from both the white and black presses because she was a woman delivering this message. Beyond her own activism, Wells would go on to inspire the next generation of female black activists. The reach of her activism was far and impactful. This was due to the power of her arguments against racially based violence and lynchings, the way that she used her words to decry and topple the reasoning given for such unspeakable acts. "Wells argued that the rape/lynch narrative depended on a variety of racialized gender constructions: the chaste and dependent white woman; the sexually violent black man; the immoral and unredeemable black woman; and the honorable and civilized white man." (103) Wells's work in breaking down these beliefs, although so many of the walls wouldn't fall until after her time (and many of these stereotypes sadly persist into today), was crucial. Wells inspired a generation of black women activists who came behind her.
The activism that Wells and those like her inspired was not, however, without its qualms. Other activists, especially those within the National Federation of Afro-American Women (which became the National Association of Colored Women, or NACW) were less radical and more in favor of less radical activism than Wells (now Wells-Barnett) desired. Wells was an advocate of armed resistance and agitation against the racialized violence that the black community was experiencing. The aforementioned organizations, however, were more apt to advocate for participating in what we would now call respectability politics. "Emphasizing domesticity, club-women sought to improve family life, health, and morality in the black community." (114) This approach mirrored the beliefs that white society placed upon black communities when they painted them as less moral, advanced, or dignified than white communities.
Despite the activism of groups like NACW and individuals like Ida B. Wells, the New South was full of white women like Felton who used race as a way to make progress on their own issues, using the black community as leverage to secure their own advancement. Feimster writes of how white women in the New South sketched out their platforms, campaigning for prison reform, calling for returns to chivalry on the part of white men, advocating for temperance prohibition. An interesting note that Feimster makes here is that despite the image that women activists in the New South painted for themselves, many of them participated in mob violence "in the name of 'home protection' and white supremacy." (125) As Feimster writes, "They laid claim to their rights to legal and/or extralegal protection and expressed their desire to move freely without fear of sexual violence. In so doing, they transformed the 'problem'of black rape into a discussion about white women's rights." (125) This attitude and approach would continue to shape the way that women in the New South would face the legitimate problems they had as women. By placing blame on black men (and black individuals in general) instead of simply fighting for their own rights, they would, though, play a crucial role in the devastating violence put upon the black community in the New South and beyond in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras.
The issues that Wells fought against, discrimination and lynchings and the violence that the black community suffered through, would continue to plague the south for years and years to come. While black men were primarily targeted, black women suffered as well. Feimster writes, "Between 1880 and 1930 lynch mobs murdered at least 130 black women. Many more were tortured, mutilated, tarred and feathered, shot, burned, stabbed, dragged, whipped, or raped by angry mobs all over the South." (159) The atmosphere of fear that so many black southerners lived in was one intentionally stoked by activists like Felton, where the safety of innocent citizens was put in jeopardy in order to move forward the progress of white southern women. Feimster dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the horrors that faced black southerners during the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction era, detailing horrific stories of abuse, murder, and gut-churning violence. One point that Feimster does make, is that while racial violence made up the majority of lynchings, white women, almost always women of lower social classes, women who were sex workers, or otherwise "undesirable citizens," were lynched as well. (Pg. 183-184)
In the final chapter of her book, titled "The Gender and Racial Politics of the Anti-Lynching Movement," Feimster brings together the parallel themes of Wells and Felton, the way their lives in some ways mirrored, and in other ways repelled each other, to discuss the culmination of both their life works. In 1922, both Felton and Wells (with Wells accompanied by a "delegation of black clubwomen" (212) traveled to Washington, D.C. The Dyer Bill, the first anti-lynching law to reach the U.S. Senate, was being voted on, and Wells had traveled with her fellow clubwomen to try and convince President Warren Harding of the bill's importance. Felton, however, spoke out against the bill in no uncertain terms. Using her connections and social standing, Felton continued to speak in favor of lynching, deeming it necessary for the protection of white women in the New South. Felton was active politically, even going as far as to serve as the first female senator in the history of the U.S., albeit for only one day. Along with others who shared her views, Felton fought to have the Dyer Bill fail, and surely enough, it failed to advance in the 67th Congress.
This, however, was not the end for the anti-lynching movement that Ida B. Wells-Barnett put into motion. Despite Felton and others like her fighting against their calls for justice and ceasing of violence against the black community, many women in the south, black and white alike, would continue to fight against lynchings in the New South. The foundation of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930 signaled the beginnings of a shift in the social structure of the south. Women of all races came together to continue the legacy that Wells had put into motion, and they rejected the notion that protection of white women was the reason to carry on lynchings. The Association declared, "Public opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they were acting solely in defense of womanhood. In the light of facts, we dare no longer permit this claim to pass unchallenged We solemnly pledge ourselves to create a new public opinion in the South, which will not condone, for any reason whatever, acts of mobs or lynchers." (231-2) This legacy of working towards justice would carry on, and finally, in June 2005, decades after the lives and deaths of both Rebecca Felton and Ida B. Wells, the 199th Congress would pass a resolution apologizing for lynching, the lack of failure on their part, and the treatment of black men and women in the New South. They also apologized for not passing legislation to protect black communities sooner.
In conclusion, although the lives of Ida B. Wells and Rebecca Felton resulted in differing values, opinions, and manners of thought, Feimster weaves these two disparate lives together in a way that makes it possible to see how they worked together, even in ways unseen at the time, to build a future in which lynchings would be decried and punished instead of supported. One cannot, however, study this history without meditating on the present.
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O'Brien on Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, by Carolyn Ashbaugh
Carolyn Ashbaugh opens her book, Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, with the prefatory statement: "Lucy Parsons was black, a woman, and working class-three reasons people are often excluded from history" (6). These words hint at a book very different from the one Ashbaugh has written. Despite censuring the editors of Notable American Women for excluding Parsons from their three volume publication on the grounds that she was "largely propelled by her husband's fate" (6), Ashbaugh spends the first half of her text dealing only nominally with the life of Lucy Parsons. Instead, she focuses on Parsons's husband, Albert. With Albert's death two thirds of the way through the book, Ashbaugh is forced to take up the subject of Parsons's life more directly, but even so, she manages to betray her stated aims and largely avoid discussing, in any nuanced or at all comprehensive way, the roles race, sex, and class played in Parsons's personal and political lives. This book stands in contrast to Nell Painter's portrait of Sojourner Truth, for example, which painstakingly establishes the full subjectivity of a woman to whom this was denied in both her own time and in the historical record.
I'll start by discussing the inadequacy of Ashbaugh's initial sketch of Parsons. We meet Parsons, then Lucy Gathings, only after she has met Albert in Waco, Texas at age nineteen. We never conceive of a Lucy separate from Albert. "Little is known of Lucy's origins" (14), Ashbaugh explains, yet she fails to acknowledge the gaping holes this creates in her text. For example, Parsons's radical agenda focused on overthrowing capitalism. She believed this was the only way to establish racial and gender equality, and up to the end of her life she stood with the most oppressed members of society: foreigners, sex workers, and child laborers. Hercommitment is admirable. That a person would feel drawn to end hunger and injustice is not inconceivable. But the question still looms, why?
One prominent element of the excerpts from the writings of revolutionary Russian women Barbara Alpern Engels collects in Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar is the connection between class and education. Only two of the five women whose writing she includes in the collection, Vera Figner and Olga Liubatovich are born into unambiguously bourgeois families. Yet all five women are far more educated than virtually all members of the rural and urban working classes whom they attempt to radicalize. Even Elizaveta Kovalskaia, born a serf, ultimately fails to productively radicalize the urban workers of Kiev owing to an unbridgeable difference in worldviews. She recounts with disbelief that the workers were certain the assassination of the Tsar, carried out by her revolutionary cohort, was actually committed by fellow members of the ruling class. The gulf between the revolutionaries in this particular context and the working class seemed to exist due to class difference, partially, but also differing levels of education. In Russia the term for radicals like Kovalskaia and others was revolutionary intelligentsia-these people renounced whatever material wealth they were born with and chose instead to study and spread revolutionary ideas.
Was Parsons a member of the American
intelligentsia? Ashbaugh argues she was not. She stood on the practical side
of revolutionary lines, prizing action above theory. Yet it is notable that
the Russian women in Engel's collection strive to locate the origin of their
identification with the working class either in witnessing the mistreatment
of serfs, being on the receiving end of such mistreatment, or desiring a more
adventurous life than that afforded to women at this time. The women disentangle
their relationship to class structures through an analysis of their own interactions
with class. Since we don't know who Parsons's parents were, it is difficult
to situate her within the American class structure. We know she was highly educated;
dark-skinned, yes, but not automatically a member of society's lowest strata.
Consider, for instance, the differing public receptions of Ida B. Wells, and
Sojourner Truth in their respective historical contexts.
Lucy Parsons was, however, married
to a white son of the bourgeoisie. Like most of the women in Engel's collection,
Albert was born to a wealthy and politically prominent family. Also like them,
he renounced his wealth and took up a working-class job as a union typographer.
When Albert devoted himself entirely to spreading revolution, Parsons opened
shop as a dressmaker to support the family. Though the couple always lived in
working-class neighborhoods, the nature of Lucy Parsons's work, conducted from
home and for wealthier clients, stands in contrast to the work of sewing girls
in sweatshops. Parsons could charge $20 for the same cloak that factory workers
would make for $0.75 tobe sold in stores for $12. Parsons never did "go
to the people" in the Russian sense of this term, but this might be because
while her level of education set her apart from the workers she hoped to radicalize,
the color of her skin sometimes placed her in a separate category from educated
Ashbaugh seldom touches on this.
She points out that Emma Goldman, also a woman and anarchist, "could study
in Europe and travel in educated circles, opportunities which Parsons' dark
skin precluded for her" (200), and that Parsons was forced to work alongside
openly racist radicals at newspapers, and to deal with unions seeking to exclude
Black people and immigrants. Parsons denied being Black herself, but stood up
for the rights of Black Americans on principle throughout her life. Ashbaugh
attributes this to the racism of her time. However, so many questions remain
about the possible ways in which race and class informed Parsons's revolutionary
It is worth noting that Parsons does
not belong in the same category as the revolutionary women we have studied this
semester. Those women fought bitterly against intense opposition for ideas that
were ahead of their time, gender and racial equality. Their right to speak at
all was questioned, they were ridiculed and critiqued, but aside from Louise
Michel, they never feared death or unlawful imprisonment as the result of their
activities. Parsons did not just call for revolution; she called for violent
revolution. "Dynamite," she said, "was the only voice the oppressors
of the people could understand" (66). Parsons's husband was sentenced to
hang for a crime there was no proof he committed. His radical belief in propaganda
of the deed is what landed him on the scaffold. If the court weren't convinced
of women's inherent inferiority, Parsons likely would have hung, too. The stakes
were incredibly high.
And something more was at play, something that continues to disproportionately affect Black Americans to this day: police corruption and brutality. In her memoir, Russian revolutionary Vera Figner recalls dreaming of a Russia with a democratic government and freedom of speech, as in the United States or Switzerland. The extent to which revolutionary activity needed to be hidden using well orchestrated conspiratorial practices was astriking feature of all of the recollections in Engel's collection. Yet placing Engel's book alongside Ashbaugh's there's some irony in Figner's idealization of American democracy. Parsons fought first and foremost to overthrow capitalism, but much of her leg work was done on the battlefield of free speech.
It is true, her husband went to his death a man who was not proved guilty. But this was not the worst or most pernicious result of police corruption in Chicago. In the decades following the Haymarket massacre, Parsons was arrested dozens of times before speaking engagements. She was also arrested twice for selling anarchist pamphlets. Capitalists were paying the Chicago police to oppose labor organizing violently-unions and anarchists bore the brunt of this. Police, acting independently of the government, squashed peaceful demonstrations routinely. This was not the America Vera Figner dreamed of. But at this point the repression of the anarchists was not state sponsored. That came later. The 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act made opposition of all governments a federal offense.
Perhaps the brutality of the Chicago
police alone was enough to spur Parsons to violent action. It is clear from
Ashbaugh's narrative that the oppressive hand of the state was more aggressively
present in Parsons's life than it was in the lives of many of her counterparts.
Even upon her death in 1942, her 5,000 volume library was seized by an FBI that
refuses to admit it did this. We are left with little information about Parsons's
life. This might have been her own doing. Parsons felt that "the life of
the reformer was totally insignificant" (30). And, indeed, a lifetime of
revolutionary actions speaks for her. Yet she spent a good portion of her life
peddling a volume of her husband's collected writing. Were someone to rigorously
examine Lucy Parsons's life in the context of the race, gender, and class constructions
that stood in her way and shaped her world, we might learn a lot about how to
find intersections and cross boundaries building the revolutionary organizations
of the future.
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