If you read any book from my recommended reading page, it should be Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 (Gender and American Culture) by Annelise Orleck. Don’t get me wrong, I heartily recommend everything on that page (and I’m really behind on updating it aah), but this book is just breathtaking. Not only is it eminently readable, but it disrupts mainstream notions of the “feminist wave” construction, the suffrage movement, intersectional organizing, the Jewish Lower East Side, labor history, working class women’s activism, and female same sex relationships. Plus my girl Clara Lemlich is one of the four main women used in this analysis (and man I really want to re-write that post).
If you’re Mexican, of Mexican descent, or live in a culturally Mexican area, you may know the story of La Llorona.
La Llorana is the tale of a woman named Maria who drowned her children for a chance to be with the man she loved. However, he spurned her affections, and in her heartbreak, she drowned herself in a lake. Upon ascending to the gates of heaven, St. Peter asked her, “Where are your children?” and she had no response. He sentenced her to an eternity of wandering the mortal realm unless she could find her children. Even today, the story goes, she can be found weeping on stormy nights near lakes and rivers. She is said to kidnap wandering children, or children who disobey their parents, in the hope of being able to present them as her own at the gates of heaven.
In some retellings of this story of the mother who murdered her children, Maria has a different name: La Malinche. The name La Malinche is a pejorative name used for the Nahua woman, Malintzin. She later went by the name Doña Marina, which she chose for herself before her baptism.
Malintzin—as I will be referring to her in this post—was a noble of the Nahua people. Her actions take place in the very complex historical setting of the end of Aztec hegemony in what we now refer to as Mexico, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and South America. The relationship between the Aztec Empire and its subsidiary peoples and neighboring polities—which included Mayan groups—informed Malintzin’s contextualized actions, and the actions of other Mexican peoples.
The Nahua were the group from which the Aztec emerged, and were thus privileged within the Aztec sphere of influence. As a noble, Malintzin was afforded a phenomenal education, including an in-depth language instruction. Her father died when she was still quite young, and her mother remarried and soon bore a son to her new husband. For reasons which can never be determined, but which were probably to do with issues of wealth transference, Malintzin’s mother sold her to Mayan slave traders soon after the birth of her son.
Malintzin then disappears from the historical record until a group of Spaniards purchased her in 1519—most estimates put her in her mid to late teenage years at this point. Though Cortes gave her as a gift to one of his men, he decided to keep her at his side as a translator because of her fluency in Mayan and Nahuatl. Sources from this period also speak highly of her looks, which may have also influenced Cortes’ behavior towards her. According to similar sources, she mastered the Spanish language within two weeks of the purchase of her person.
With Cortes, she helped to inform him of revolts against Spanish rule, accompanied him as an interpreter as he put down a rebellion, and acted as a translator between him and Mexican peoples hoping that he would defend them against Aztec hegemonic oppression. Indeed, Adelaida R. Del Castillo argued that the Aztec Empire fell in part as a result of a coalition of their subsidiary peoples acting in concert with the Spanish conquerors.
Cortes and Malintzin meet with Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II in 1519, from the Historia de Tlaxcala. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
In 1521, soon after the fall of the Aztec Empire to Spain, Malintzin gave birth to a son fathered by Cortes. As a mark of esteem for her within the Spanish hierarchical system, he married her to Spanish noble Juan Jaramillo before his first return to Spain. Some scholars argue that Malintzin died in 1529, however, others argue that she is alluded to as though she is alive in letters found in Spain dated 1550, and referred to as though she was deceased in letters dated 1551.
Her role as translator and helper to Hernan Cortes, the man who destroyed the Aztec Empire and began the Spanish Empire in the New World, has caused her to be remembered primarily as a traitor, a whore; the woman who handed her people over to the man who slaughtered them and destroyed their civilization. Others remember her as a woman who liberated the Mexican peoples from the oppressive rule of the Aztecs, some characterizing her as the founder the modern Mexican nation. Chicana Feminist literature beginning around the 1960’s sought to attempt to reconstruct her life separated from the actions assigned to her over the past four centuries, and the most recent attempt to reconstruct her life devoid of myth and in historical context was penned by Camilla Townsend.
A problem, however, in the reconstruction of her life and the analysis of her actions is that most of what we know of her comes from Spanish sources; sources penned by Malintzin’s buyers, sellers, owners, and conquerors. Therefore, even the very sources from which she can be reconstructed exist within a colonized context—the academic/theoretical term for the instance in which the only record of a person, or a people, was penned by their oppressor or conqueror is “subalternity,” with the study of these people, or groups, being “subaltern studies.” I use quotes not to imply that I am mocking this form of post-colonial criticism, but because I am introducing the term to those unfamiliar with it.
I chose to write about Malintzin not because I want to reconstruct her life or meditate upon her motivations, but because she is an indigenous American woman whose name has become synonymous with “whore” and “traitor.” Because the most famous indigenous women in North and South American white historical memory* are the ones who Westernized, the ones who aided Western men in their colonialist actions, the ones who were baptized, the ones who married European nobility, and the ones who spent time in Europe. They are the ones who were labeled as traitors to their people and are the ones who have layers of mythologized meanings attached to their names.
These women were acting within a context in which two or more highly complex civilizations encountered each other for the first time. Pocahontas never sat down and thought “Hmmm time to assimilate to European cultural norms and sing songs about the wind,” Sacagawea never thought “Whooo time to accelerate the process of American expansion and the destruction of the life my people have been living for hundreds of years,” and Malintzin never thought “I think I’ll destroy my civilization and betray my people today.”
Malintzin was interacting with the intricate historical circumstances in which she lived, and must be understood within that context. And within that context, I would argue that she was a highly educated, highly intelligent member of the nobility who was able to become a political actor for both Spaniards and Aztec subsidiary peoples by virtue of that intelligence.
And that is pretty fierce.
*I don’t want to drag this post across the threshold from history into post-colonial theory, however, “North and South American Europeanized historical memory” or “North and South American colonized historical memory” could work here as well. What all of these turns of phrase mean, or imply, is that these women are the ones remembered outside of American indigenous communities for a specific set of reasons, all to do with the nature of the European conquest of the Americas.
Previous Fierce Historical Ladies posts may be found on this page, alongside a few other posts about groups of historical women.
ETA: This post contains problematic elements, and for that I apologize to Latina readers. For more detail, please see this post.
This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.
The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.
For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.
German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.
The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.
I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.
So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).
Though she now knew the Portuguese to be her enemies, Njinga was shrewd enough to understand that Europeans and their perception of her were as important to her hold on the throne as Mbundu attitudes towards her person.
She was always aware of the fact—in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Mbundu—that her power was undermined by her gender. To offset these attitudes, Njinga refused to be address as queen, answering only to the title of king. She required her male consorts to present themselves as women, and she trained her ladies-in-waiting as warriors.
This subversion of gender norms did not extend to her wardrobe. Though she understood that some presentation of maleness would help to secure her rule, she also realized that she had to present herself to the Europeans in a manner with which they were comfortable in order to gain their respect. Thus, she often dressed in the high style of Baroque Europe, employing a team of seamstresses to keep her wardrobe in-line with European fashions. She was fluent in spoken and written Portuguese, and wore a crown similar to those worn by European monarchs.
As she constructed a self which would appear worthy of respect to both the Europeans and the Mbundu, she also constructed an army. This army was composed of fugitive slaves, marginalized members of court, and the Imbangala mercenary groups who had once spread terror throughout Ndongo. With her army, Njinga began her campaign against the Portuguese, making particular use of guerrilla tactics. Her training of her ladies-in-waiting was not simply for show: Njinga often personally led battles and raids against the Portuguese.
Statue of Njinga standing in Kinaxixi Square in Luanda, the Angolan capital; photo courtesy of Erik Cleves Kristensen on flickr
After claiming the city of Kavanga as her new capital, Njinga quickly established a base for slave trade in order to strengthen her economy and used the city as a center from which to conduct her operations against the Portuguese. In 1631, she integrated Matamba into her lands. There, she resettled thousands of people who had fled from the Portuguese. With the Matamba territory under her rule, and with thousands of subjects behind her, Njinga began to expand into Portuguese held Ndongo.
Her victories against the Portuguese continued as the years went on, and it seemed as though she had a permanent victory when the Dutch occupied the former Portuguese island of Luanda. The Dutch supported Njinga’s campaign because they needed access to the slave market in order to support their own colonies.
However, her luck ran out in 1648 when the Portuguese expelled the Dutch and re-asserted their authority over the land they now called “Angola.” Njinga returned to Christianity in an attempt to placate the Portuguese, and in 1656 she signed a treaty allowing Portuguese missionaries, traders, and government officials to reside in her capital; she had hoped that, with these people in her power, she would be able to control Portuguese military operations against her.
Njinga shielded the interior of Western Africa from the full brunt of the Portuguese for almost 40 years. She remained active and vigorous—even remarrying in 1658—until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. She single-handedly altered Mbundu attitudes towards female rulers, leading to the rule of several queens after her death, albeit queens who were the puppets of Portuguese governors and missionaries.
As the fabled soothsayer had predicted, Njinga grew into a proud, haughty woman. These characteristics created a brilliant ruler who defied and continues to defy the simplistic labels of “hero,” “liberator,” and “traitor.” We are left with the portrait of a fascinating, complex, and—yes—incredibly fierce woman.
Some terminology before I begin: The Ngola ruled over Ndongo where the Mbundu people resided. Later, as a result of war with Portuguese invaders, the ruler of Ndongo came to rule over Matamba as well; however, the culture remained that of the Mbundu people. To the Portuguese, these lands were called Angola.
Queen Njinga (also known/spelled as: Nzinga, Dona Ana de Souza, Ana de Souza, Zhinga, N’Zhinga, Jinga, and Ngola Ana Nzinga Mbande) of Ndongo and Matamba was born in 1582 and died in 1663. In Portuguese historiography, she is alternatively remembered as a hero, a collaborator, a heretic, and an enemy; in West African historiography (particularly within the Angolan Liberation Movement), she is remembered as a hero and a liberator who shielded the interior of Western Africa from Portuguese penetration for decades. In reality, what emerges from the life and times of Njinga is a female ruler rivaling the likes of Dowager Empress Cixi in complexity (not to set up a false dichotomy of fierceness, of course).
Portrait of Queen Njinga (clearly side-eyeing the Portuguese); source unknown (let me know if you are familiar with the artist/owner of this portrait)
Njinga was born to the Ngola Kiluanji and his consort Kangela in 1583, 168 years after the Portuguese first arrived on the West Coast of Africa. The coast and interior of Western Africa would become the base from which Portugal would launch their overseas empire, to be supported by the labor of the human capital wrested from the interior of Western Africa.
By the late sixteenth century—around the time of Njinga’s birth—the Portuguese had occupied the island of Luanda, establishing it as a slave post and using it as staging grounds for their religious and political incursions into Ndongo land. This threatened Ndongo sovereignty, and disrupted the economy as their incursions threatened the Ndongo monopoly on trade and slave routes. In the course of these invasions, the Portuguese heard the word “Ngola” and mistook it as the name of the land, rather than the title of the ruler. They thus called the land by the name “Angola.”
Tradition holds that Njinga was born against this backdrop of Portuguese incursion with the umbilical cord still wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that this daughter would grow into a proud and haughty woman. In deference to this omen, she was named Njinga after the Kimbundu verb “kujinga” meaning “to twist or turn.” These traits—though unfortunately viewed as negative ones in a woman—would serve Njinga well later in her life.
Though she recalls that she was her father’s favorite child, this favoritism altered neither the succession nor the cultural attitudes which kept women from the throne. In 1617, Njinga’s half-brother Mbande ascended the throne and immediately had all of his rivals (including Njinga’s son) assassinated. However, he had overlooked the most dangerous of these rivals: Njinga herself.
Njinga viewed herself as far more of a capable ruler than her brother, and as far more worthy of the throne. She recognized that she would need Portuguese support if she were to claim the throne for herself. Thus, she planned an ambassadorial visit to Luanda.
The official reason for this trip was to form a treaty with the Portuguese governor aimed at having a Portuguese fortress removed from Ndongo land, to have the Portuguese return certain individuals they had seized from Ndongo territory, and to force the Imbangala mercenary group to cease their constant raids into Ndongo land. She also showed the Portuguese goodwill by agreeing to allow Portuguese slavers and missionaries into Ndongo territory. Njinga’s efforts were successful, the only remaining point of disagreement being over whether or not Ndongo would accept the status of vassal.
However, her primary motivation for this meeting was to show the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Souza, that she would be a strong, dependable queen. To further push this agenda, she allowed herself to baptized. She took the Christian name Ana, and assumed the governor’s surname: de Souza. It was clear that at least, in the time of her meeting with de Souza, Njinga held the high ground.
Of this a famous story has emerged. According to this story, de Souza neglected to offer Njinga a chair when she arrived to their meeting. This deliberate action was intended to show Njinga that she was subordinate to the power represented by the governor. Understanding this and refusing to partake in de Souza’s charade, Njinga order one of her servants to get down on all fours. She conducted the meeting seated on the back of her servant, cementing her refusal to be anything but the governor’s equal.
“Queen Njinga of Ndongo Presented to the Portuguese Governor” engraving by Fortunato da Alemandini after a 1687 water color by Giovanni Cavazzi
However, once Njinga had returned to Ndongo it became clear that the Portuguese did not intend to honor the treaty. They did not remove the fortress, return the individuals, or restrain the Imbangala. In 1624, Njinga’s brother, the Ngola Mbande, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that it was murder, and others that it was suicide caused by his continued loss of power to the Portuguese. Regardless of the truth of the matter, many believed that Njinga was responsible.
After his death, Nijnga assumed power as regent to Mbande’s son. Though she was technically a regent, both the Portuguese and the Mbundu understood that she had declared herself queen in all but name.
As previously noted, the idea of a female ruler violated Mbundu cultural norms. But it went deeper than that. In Mbundu political theory, legitimate rulers could only be descended from the previous ruler. The claim of a ruler’s sibling—assuming that that sibling had been born to the same parent as the ruler—was shaky at best. Njinga, as Ngola Mbande’s half sister by a consort of his father, had a claim to the throne illegitimate in the minds of the Mbundu people. Her chief support was among those involved in matters of state—the general Mbundu people most likely did not accept her as queen.
And neither did Portugal. In fact, the Portuguese intentionally spread rumors claiming that Njinga had murdered her brother in order to further de-legitimize her rule. The Portuguese then went even further and selected a rival claimant to the throne as the recipient of their support. This person had lineage which met Portuguese approval, and had demonstrated that they would prove amenable to Portuguese colonial interests.
In response to this betrayal, Njinga renounced her Christianity, ceased to pretend that she was simply acting in the stead of her nephew, and formally asserted herself as queen.
I spent the last two weeks reading 13 books in preparation for a 20-page historiography paper about how Jewish women experienced acculturation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then writing said historiography paper. So you are all are in for at least three related posts.
In traditional Eastern European Jewish society, and specifically within the Russian Pale of Settlement (for the purposes of this post), communities were bound together by food: everyone followed the kosher laws, from the richest person to the poorest. Because of this, all members of these Jewish communities felt entitled to eat well regardless of class. Since the consumption of kosher food was divinely commanded, no one had the right to deny it to another. The poor felt as though that the wealthy owed them food, and the wealthy felt obliged to supply it.
That said, this society was hardly egalitarian; on the contrary, it was heavily stratified and class lines were rigidly upheld—one of the primary purposes of arranged marriages was to uphold these class lines. However, the attitudes towards food created a communal consciousness in which the idea that the poor somehow deserved to have a harder time in life by virtue of their poverty was not present.
This society also had a very rigid concept of proper gender roles. Men were expected to be Talmudic scholars and dedicate their lives to the study of the holy texts. Certainly not all men were or could be scholars, and not all families had the funds to allow their sons to dedicate themselves to this study, but the figure of the Talmudic scholar was the masculine ideal.
Women, on the other hand, were not allowed access to the holy texts. They were expected to venture out into the public sphere to earn a living for their families while their husbands were at home studying. Thus, young women were given a secular education to prepare them for their role as breadwinners. Some families sent their daughters to public schools, if there were any available, while others paid for a private education, or private tutors.
Because secular education was prized for women, and because nineteenth century Russia was a multi-lingual society, many of these girls were fluent in both Russian and Yiddish, and sometimes French and German as well. Over the course of their secular educations, they encountered modern and revolutionary literature written in these European languages which their male peers were not encountering in the cheder (pre-yeshiva Jewish elementary schools for boys). It was in this literature that these young girls and women, raised in communities which rejected the notion that the poor deserved to be punished for their poverty, encountered socialism. This socialism did not inform, but rather cemented the world view of these women.
As established in the Clara Lemlich Shavelson post, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Pale to America between 1880 and 1920, and most settled in New York City. The vast majority of the young women who came to America with their parents found work in the factories and workshops of the garment industry.
These young women became rapidly dissatisfied with the unsafe and unregulated conditions in which they had to work. Because of the views on class which they had learned in Russia, it never would have occurred to these women to think that they deserved to work in awful conditions by virtue of their low socio-economic status. When the management was unresponsive to their concerns, they went on strike. As these women went on to marry and become housewives, they channeled this conception of class into protests against unaffordable grocery prices, exploitative renting practices, and other such working class concerns.
These women were distinctive. They weren’t revolutionary socialists, and they weren’t American capitalists. While these women were eager to Americanize and showed great enthusiasm for consumer culture, they rejected the tenet of American capitalism which dictated that poverty was a result of personal failings. They combined the socialist class conceptions of their lives in Europe with consumerist aspects of working class America to form their own distinct reality.
Thus, I would argue that the class consciousness instigated by the necessity of observing the kosher laws in the tightly knit Jewish communities of the Pale allowed these women to take the socialism they encountered in Russian revolutionary literature, and make it their own. This socialist consciousness traveled with them across the Atlantic to America where they used that consciousness to create their own working class experience.
I do not argue that the American Jewish experience was informed by the kosher laws—in the face of Americanization, many once Orthodox families became far less zealous about their upkeep, sometimes leaving them by the wayside entirely—but that the kosher laws informed the consciousness from which the distinctive experience of pre-WWII American Jewry rose.
Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982) never backed down. She never gave up. No obstacle, from the czarist regime to the House Committee on Un-American Activities could stand in her way. I can only hope to scratch the surface of her massive contributions to American society over the course of the twentieth century in this post, and I have left out many of her contributions in the interest of brevity.
Early Years and Union Involvement
Clara was born in the Pale of Settlement, the geographic area—encompassing most of modern day Western Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine—to which Russian Jews were confined under the czarist government. Specifically, she was born in the Ukrainian village of Gorodok. The primary language spoken in the Pale was Yiddish.
Lemlich was forbidden from learning Russian by her parents. In her first act of rebellion, she studied the Russian language behind their backs, and built up a library of Russian revolutionary literature in similar secrecy. Her exposure to this socialist, revolutionary literature would determine her lifelong political trajectory.
In 1903, after a pogrom swept through a nearby village, Clara and her family emigrated to the United States—in the period between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews from the Pale would make the same journey. Clara and her family, like the vast majority of Jewish émigrés, settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There Clara and her Jewish female peers found work in the garment industry; so many female Jewish and Italian immigrants took jobs in the garment industry because New York was the center of that industry and the factories needed workers.
These female workers had to work long and unregulated hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. They had no rights as workers, and their earning abilities existed very much at the whims of their employers. Lemlich, observing her surroundings, and unwilling to simply accept them, joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A contemporary referred to her as “a pint of trouble for the bosses.”
Once in the union, she was frustrated by the sexist attitudes and general complacency of the male leadership. When they would not listen to her or take her seriously, she went over their heads to actively court female membership and involvement. She did not merely coax other women into action; she was there with them in the front lines. During a strike in 1909, she returned to a picket line after several of her ribs were broken by her employer’s hired goons.
“Come at me, bro.” (Image courtesy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University)
In November of 1909 at a meeting at Cooper Union, after listening to inconsequential male speech after inconsequential male speech, Lemlich became fed up with the inaction of the leadership. She demanded that they let her speak, took the podium, and said “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”
Over the next weeks, between 30 and 40 thousand young, female, and predominantly Jewish garment workers walked out of their jobs (this has come to be rather romantically known as the Uprising of the 20,000). The strikes were partially successful in that many Union contracts were produced as a result. However its limitations were thrown into tragic relief when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on March 25, 1911.
Suffrage and Working-Class Advocacy
Finding herself blacklisted within the garment industry after calling the industry to strike, Lemlich could no longer work effectively within the union. In its absence, she turned to the fight for female suffrage. In her eyes, the fight for the rights of working women and the fight for the female vote were one and the same.
Rejecting the middle and upper class gentile perspective of many of the female suffragists, Clara helped to found the Wage Earners League for Woman Suffrage, a group concerned with the situation of working class women. The tension between herself and the upper class suffragists came to a head when she was fired from her position as organizer in 1911, when her radical politics clashed with the more moderate views of her employers.
In 1913, Clara was married to Joe Shavelson. The two moved to Brooklyn and had three children together. Once settled, Clara continued who fight for equality, this time with the women of her working class neighborhood. This period of her life was spent fighting to better the conditions of the working class—specifically working class women—across racial, religious, and ethnic lines.
She was active throughout the teens and the twenties, and in 1926 she both joined the Communist Party and founded the United Council of Working-Class Housewives. In 1929 she co-founded the United Council of Working-Class Women—an organization which led rent strikes, anti-eviction demonstrations, price boycotts, and sit-ins and marches on Washington; and in 1935 the UCWCW’s name was changed to the Progressive Women’s Councils.
The PWC formed a coalition with other women’s organizations to alleviate issues faced by the female, working class community. This coalition organized a boycott on the high price setting of the meat industry which was so effective that it shut down 4,500 butcher shops in New York City alone. It was also instrumental in passing rent control laws. These are only two examples, but they are indicative of the PWC’s effectiveness and influence, much of which, in my opinion, may be attributed to the very force of Lemlich’s will.
The PWC was effective in alleviating some of the worst effects of the Great Depression on working class communities. The attention Clara and her coalition of housewife activists paid to the concerns of working class women laid the groundwork for the focus on the concerns of women working within the home in the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Communist Involvement and the Later Years
After the Second World War, Clara’s activism changed yet again. This time, her work was much more directly influenced by her Communist beliefs than it had been during her PWC years. She served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and was an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism while remaining a visible member of the Communist Party.
She came to the attention of the American government after her 1951 visit to the Soviet Union with the American Committee. This resulted in the revocation of her passport. Later that year she was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Her entire family was investigated and would remain under surveillance for the next 20 years.
But that didn’t stop her. In 1953 she loudly and publicly protested the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1954 she protested the US intervention in Guatemala. She spoke out against nuclear proliferation, worked with civil rights organizations, and was active in early anti-Vietnam organizing. All while living under the watch of federal surveillance.
Her husband died in 1951, the same year that she was called before the House Committee. She re-married an old union acquaintance, Abe Goldman, in 1960, and lived with him until his death in 1967. After his death she moved to California to be closer to her children.
She lived in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. There she harangued the management into joining the United Farm Worker’s Boycott of grapes and lettuce, and helped the orderlies organize a union.
She was 96 when she died.
In the Ancient Near East, religious appointments were political appointments. Thus, as the High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) was a very powerful political player in the cities of Ur and Uruk. She was appointed to the post by her father, King Sargon of Akkad, in order for him to consolidate his power in the above two cities.
And indeed, Enheduanna was a political, cultural, and literary force to be reckoned with. She was the writer of protest literature, and is recognized by Assyriologists as the creator of the theology associated with Innana; in fact, her authorship of these compositions make her the first identifiable author in world literature. Her writings were so well loved that copies of her work have been found throughout the Near East, many of them dating to hundreds of years after her death.
Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.
It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.
-Enheduanna, after her first removal from her post
After her father’s death, the throne of Akkad was taken by her brother Rimush. He was not a strong ruler, and she was expelled from her position in the turmoil surrounding his rule. Though she was eventually reinstated as High Priestess, the experience affected her enough to compose the narrative The Exaltation of Inanna.
After Rimush came the rule of her nephew, Naram-Sin. Naram-Sin, understanding the political advantages of having a daughter installed as High Priestess of Nanna, expelled Enheduanna from her post, and installed his own daughter instead. In her anger and fury over her expulsion, Enheduanna composed the Curse of Akkad, in which Naram-Sin is cursed and cast out of Akkad by Enlil.
Though we can only hear her voice through her writings, those writings give us a clear idea of the woman she was: a woman who, after losing her place in life, refused to fall quietly into obscurity, and instead struck back with a damning literary response.
She refused to allow herself to be forgotten during her life, and that refusal carried on long after her death. And today, thousands of years after her death, she is one of the earliest women in history whose name is known to us.
Through her work, Enheduanna created her own reality and her own legacy.
“We can only reason from what we know, and if an opportunity of acquiring knowledge hath been denied us, the inferiority of our sex cannot fairly be deduced from thence.”
Not only is Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) one in a long line of women throughout history who have spoken out against the gender-based double standards in their respective societies, but she used these women in her writings to support the argument that women had the same intellectual capabilities as men.
Murray grew up in Gloucester Massachusetts to a family wealthy enough to be able to provide an education to their children. She was taught to read and write and had a passable understanding of French, but she was denied the opportunity to study beyond those subjects. When her brother Winthrop, who was two years her junior, was given the opportunity to study the Classics, she became aware of how society cut off the potential of women through denying them access to a full education.
In response, Murray became self-taught. She specialized in history, and devoted herself to writing on the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and that education was the key to female empowerment and success. She put forth these ideas in her 1790 essay, On the Equality of the Sexes.
Her first essays regarding gender equality were published under a male pseudonym (typically “Mr. Vigilius”) so that her words would be taken seriously by male readers. However, her landmark 1798 three volume work, The Gleaner, was published under her own name; this work dealt with such issues as philanthropy, pacifism, and gender equality, and was purchased by such people as George Washington and John Adams.
She also made vast inroads for freedom of religion in the new American republic, and for the role of women within Universalist Christianity. Her name was included in documents used to expel the Gloucester Universalists for refusing to pay taxes to the Congregational church, and that expulsion led to the first freedom of religion ruling (by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, in this instance) in the United States of America.
After her first husband died in the West Indies, Judith married John Murray, a celebrated Universalist theologian and preacher, and the first Universalist preacher in the United States. She helped him edit and publish his books, and she is considered by historians of Universalist Christianity to be the reason why women of that denomination have always had access to leadership roles.
Most fascinating about Murray, however, is her awareness of her place within history. At the age of 23, she began to create copies of all of her letters, essays, and books in order to create a historical record of herself for future researchers and historians. These copies—comprising 20 volumes in all—were discovered in 1984. They are currently held in the collections of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and are available for researchers in microfilm form. This collection of her works is one of the few surviving collections of female writings from the Early Republic period of American history.
Because of the relative newness of the discovery of her work, scholars have only recently begun to study her impact, legacy, and contributions.
Portrait (ca. 1770-1772 by John Singleton Copley) courtesy of the Terra Foundation for American Art.
In the third century CE, between the years 235 and 283 CE, the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined weight of invasions, civil war, plague, and economic depression. By the year 258, the empire had split into three states: the Gallic Empire, the Palmyrene Empire, and the Roman Empire between them. The three were not reunited until the rule of the Emperor Aurelian.
The Roman Empire as of 271 CE; Rome is in red, the Gallic Empire is in green, and the Palmyrene Empire is in yellow.
During this period, the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were governed by a man named Septimus Odaenathus. He chose to use the legions under his command to defend the provinces he controlled instead of committing them to the defense of the Roman Empire. Though he never officially rebelled against the Roman Empire, he held the title of “King,” and by 260 CE, he was the definitive ruler of the area which would be known as the Palmyrene Empire between the years 267 and 273 CE.
Septimus Odaenathus was assassinated in 267. He was succeeded by his infant son Vaballathus, with his wife Zenobia (240-not known) ruling in their son’s stead. Zenobia quickly assumed the honorific title of Augusta.
Coin baring Zenobia’s likeness; on the left you can see her name and the title “Augusta,” and on the right you can see the word “Regina” indicating the fact that, though she used the Augusta title, she generally presented herself as a queen.
She was of Arab descent, with her immediate ancestors being primarily highly placed generals and officials within the Roman Empire. However, Zenobia styled herself as the descendant of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Cleopatra VII of Egypt, showing her strong sense of history and literature and a clear understanding of the fact that people are easily impressed by the suggestion of illustrious ancestry.
Contemporary sources describe Zenobia as beautiful and intelligent, and though ancient sources have a tendency to describe all notable women as “beautiful, intelligent, and chaste,” she was undoubtedly intelligent. In addition to her mastery of history and literature, and her understanding of the human psyche, she was fluent in Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian, Latin being her native language. She is often described as carrying herself “like a man,” and as riding, hunting and drinking with her officers; she was kind of a girlbro.
Zenobia justified her rule by claiming to be ruling to protect the interests Rome by protecting the Eastern Roman provinces from the Sassanid Empire; however, it was clear that her military operations served primarily to increase her own power at the expense of Rome. Because she was outwardly cooperative, and because Aurelian had his hands full in the Gallic Empire, he chose to recognize her authority for the time being, which allowed her to operate fairly unimpeded for about six years.
And what a six years they were. She conquered Egypt, beheading the Roman prefect and declaring herself as the Queen of Egypt in 269, and she followed that up with a conquest of Anatolia and the Levantine provinces. With these conquests came the extremely valuable trade routes embedded within those territories.
However, after finishing up in the Gallic section of the Empire in 271, Aurelian turned his eyes to the reunification of the rest of the Empire. Aurelian’s forces met Zenobia’s in Antioch, and there the Palmyrene Empire suffered a crushing defeat and was rapidly re-incorporated into the newly reunited Roman Empire.
1717 painting by Giovanni Tiepolo titled “Queen Zenobia before Emperor Aurelianus” currently on display at the Museo del Prado.
Zenobia attempted to escape down the Euphrates to the Sassasnid Empire with Vaballathus, but they were quickly intercepted by Aurelian’s troops and taken to Rome as hostages; Vaballathus died along the way. Aurelian had a great victory parade through the streets of Rome to celebrate the reunification of the Empire, and he had Zenobia march in chains through the streets as a part of this celebration.
1888 painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz titled “Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra” currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
However, Aurelian was so impressed by her dignity, intelligence, beauty, desire to be forgive for her transgressions that he not only allowed her to live*, but gifted her a villa in Tivoli. There she lived in luxury, and became a great and sought after philosopher and socialite. She remarried a Roman governor, had several daughters—all of whom married into great families—and had recorded descendants up into the fifth century.
If you’re going to rebel against the Roman Empire, that’s the way to do it.
*There is, in fact, some debate as to her actual fate. A few sources record that she died of starvation or beheading, however, the multitude of sources which suggest that she was allowed to live outweigh the sources which contain information to the contrary.
Images Courtesy of the Museo del Prado, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and romancoins.info; map courtesy of wikipedia.