Ethel at 100 (part 1): Ethel in the Kitchen

(Part 1 of the The RFC at 25 and Ethel Rosenberg at 100 series)

What was the cultural context of Ethel’s trial and execution? The era of the 1950's was captivated by the idea of the housewife in her kitchen. This image was used to sell a multitude of products, to remind women of their proper place, and to reassure the war-weary populace that everything was back to normal and “cooking” again.

It’s an image that has particular resonance in my grandparents’ case. Ethel gave a press conference from her kitchen in 1950 following her husband's arrest for conspiracy to commit espionage. A popular photo of Ethel from that  press conference is captured in "Unknown Secrets," the collage below by Martha Rosler, created in 1988, which I think provides a useful overview of many of the cultural and political forces which influenced my grandparents’ case.

In the central image of this collage, Ethel stands in her kitchen, "shmata” or house dress clad, towel in hand, doing the dishes. Facing forward she looks at the camera and into the eyes of the American public. Around her are the tools of the American housewife: stove, dishes, sink, and towels. A normal image, a comfortingly familiar sight….a Communist threat?

How did this image and Ethel’s attempt to defend her husband fail so profoundly? And what do the answers mean for our understanding of this case and the RFC’s work with families facing similar challenges in a different time?

By standing in her kitchen, talking to reporters and proclaiming her husband’s innocence after his arrest, I believe Ethel meant to convince readers that she was an ordinary woman, with a normal husband, who had somehow been caught up in a government mistake. This strategy was echoed several years later by defense attorney, Emmanuel Bloch, who during the trial, referred to Ethel as, "a housewife and nothing else” and insisted that the jury, “send her back to her home and her children where she belongs,” (Trial Transcript, page 190).

I admit I winced at the language employed by her attorney, but Ethel’s attempt to cloak herself in the protection, limited as it might have been, of wife and mother, made sense given both the minimal options available to her and the cultural realities of her time. Unfortunately for her, the representational power of her apron and house dress paled in comparison to the forces aligned against her.

Ethel and her attorney hoped that focusing on her identity as a young wife and mother might win sympathy. However, the dominant socio-political narrative of the time may have instead led people to feel that those aspects of Ethel’s identity made her alleged actions even more nefarious and deserving of harsh punishment than those of her husband.

In the early 1950s, the cultural subtext decreed that women should not be leaders in any realm, including at home where husbands should be firmly in charge. So the notion of a young wife not just leading her husband, but leading him into treachery of the highest order (as the government contended Ethel had done) was potent ammunition in vilifying her.

In a letter to his son explaining why he was declining clemency for Ethel, President Eisenhower implied his condemnation of her failure to stay within the bounds of acceptable female behavior. He justified his lack of mercy by writing, “the woman was the leader in everything they did.” Richard Nixon took this mindset a step further by linking the subverting of social roles, with dangerous political subversion, when he noted, “in the case of Communist couples…the wife is often more extremist than her husband.”

How do you think gender impacted my grandmother's case? I encourage you to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. And look for the second blog in this series, which will focus on the fear of communist infiltration of the home.

*Martha Rosler's collage was part of the Rosenberg Era Art Project, a collection of art about the Rosenbergs and the 1950s, which resulted in a book and film.

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Comments

Dear Jenn Meeropol,

Your grandmother and grandfather showed the highest courage a human being can attain to. No one can condemn those who, caught in the vice-grip of the US racist imperialist death machine, behave with less dignity and courage than your grandparents. Most of us do not know how we would behave under such circumstances. But your grandparents were heroes; their names can be set alongside those of Nat Turner, John Brown, Albert Parsons, Sacco and Vanzetti, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Geronimo Pratt, and countless other men and women who were murdered by American "democracy." We will never forget their sacrifice until we achieve a socialist America--the only answer to the bi-partisan death machine, with its hundreds of military bases, prisons, and concentration camps. We will fight on in the name of Ethel Rosenberg, to achieve the world of freedom and plenty for all that she wanted.
RizzieroBucci@Gmail.com

This is a moving photo however I have to agree if you are targeting an audience of younger people. The 20 - 40 year olds that have never read anything about the Rosenbergs, this would be a possible page flipper to a younger woman who considers herself the bread winner, at the least. Plus the feminist in the group, many very Progressive might question the wisdom of using that image.
I say this without knowing the visual content of the other photo's.
Dennis

This is a moving photo however I have to agree if you are targeting an audience of younger people. The 20 - 40 year olds that have never read anything about the Rosenbergs, this would be a possible page flipper to a younger woman who considers herself the bread winner, at the least. Plus the feminist in the group, many very Progressive might question the wisdom of using that image.
I say this without knowing the visual content of the other photo's.
Dennis

The contradictory nature of this image is the point of this blog essay. What did she mean by posing in an apron washing dishes? What does it say about women's roles then and now? The comments by Eisenhower and Nixon also illuminates the fascination of 1950s film noir with the femme fatale. The women defying the gender norm to fatal effect for her and the innocent entrapped male.

Nixon extended the Vietnam War by 4 years by submaring the negotiationswith a promist that "he" would give the North Vietnamese a better deal. Nothing is more vicious and evil. Nothing surprises me about that hollow man.

Of course, the straight up misogyny poured over Ms Rosenburg is simply derigur, and nothing else. Blaming the woman for evil....now where did I hear that first...was it about a serpent?

Surely, Ethel was scapegoated and vilified not only because her beliefs rested on intellectual and social challenges to the political so-called norm but also because of her remarkably courageous demeanor and unwavering conviction even when the prosecution and government used her children to undermine her position. One of my very favorite news clips of Ethel and Julius from the time is when they are allowed for just a few moments to ride in the same automobile after days or weeks or months (I forget which, but I think it was a long time) apart and Ethel throws her arms around Julius and gives him a long, passionate kiss. Her refusal to be cowed in the face of emotional torture beyond belief (including even at the end when Julius went first) must have infuriated the patriarchy. I am so glad that at least some of her jailers were kind. In my opinion, Ethel Rosenberg is the paramount icon of the mid twentieth century, and I am so grateful for this blog.

I seem to remember a photo of Ethel and Julius having a picnic somewhere. This is an
activity that is less likely to employ the old "mom in the kitchen" notion and it is one which modern
couples do often enough with their children. It also showed the Rosenbergs as normal people,
and more than simply dedicated radicals.

As someone who was a child when the government crime occured (execution), I am not so
sure that one needs to get into the issue that you focus on here. It was all about a political
story and "lesson" to those who stood for a different set of values, like peace and freedom,
and to scare all on the left to drop out of activity.....Which it did succeed in doing at least for a time.

The role of women and the attitudes of misoginy have changed, but in any case are trivial
issues in this case.

This is a terrific initiative, Jen, and I look forward to future postings in this series. Irene Phillipson's Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths was by no means the "last word".

I think I know where that kitchen was located -- in Knickerbocker Village in lower Manhattan, on Catherine Street, near the Manhattan Bridge. It was the city's first housing project, a pleasant place with small rooms but lovely gardens within the courtyard. My great-aunt and great-uncle lived across the courtyard from the Rosenbergs. Everyone who lived there was working-class, ordinary, good people. I come from that generation for whom the phrase "the Rosenbergs" could mean only those specific people: Ethel and Julius.

I have always thought that the government's case against them was stepped in anti-Semitism. The government went to great pains to seem impartial by making sure that the judge and other principal actors in the trial were Jewish.

Jenn - My mother would have been 100 this year as well. I am the same age as Robert. I clearly remember the extreme concern of my parents for the safety of your grandparents. I clearly remember their sorrow on the day of their execution. my mother put in long hours working for their release. I still remember the smell of mimeograph ink and the purple on her hands. My mother kept our family - my sister and myself - together by working full time as a proof reader while my dad was underground for 3 years. She was a strong woman. She had to be. There was no other option. She had a strong personality and was proud of her legs. The women who were friends of our family were strong women as well. They had to be. their families were constantly under the same pressures as was ours. Part of my mother's strength was in her humor. It was a dark humor. Very much like Lillian Hellman's. She related to Lillian strongly. They both were women of letters and had lives made difficult because of their political beliefs. Both stood up to the FBI and society's condemnations with their heads held high.
Thank you for this opportunity.

Dear Jenn,

I am so thrilled that you are looking at the issue of gender and sexism and how it was used
against Ethel Rosenberg. I imagine it was not trivial to her

The fact that the male dominated system did not care about the fact that she was a mom
seems very relevant to what happens to persecuted women through the world
.
I find it fascinating about the ways that she fought sexism ( some of it is described in the comments)
above ; She fought on many fronts It is equally interesting how the attempt by her and
her defense to use sexism on their behalf failed. The system was harsh . and that sexism was part of the anti-communism is important to know.

II was a very young Jewish female at the time. MY memory was distinctly of Ethel more than Julius.
I saw her as fighter - before the women's movement . Later on in my feminist years, I thought
of the issues for her around gender ...autonomy and partnership . and wondered how important issues of sexism were to her

Thank you so much. I want more

Jenn -

While your grandfather may have been involved in some petty espionage - but certainly NOT what he was arrested and murdered for - your grandmother was 100% innocent. She was a housewife, period. The feds arrested her to put pressure on your grandfather to talk. Once that didn't work, they had to demonize her to justify murdering her along with her husband.
I don't see it so much as sexism, which was certainly rampant back then, but Ethel Rosenberg being used as bait to get her husband to sing.

I am so happy you are undertaking this blog. Ethel Rosenberg has long been a role model in courage for me. As I have told your father, my parents were married the same day and year as your grandparents, only very far away from each other.
I grew up in south Florida, in a small southern town. My relatives from Romania were the first Jews in that town.
My mother passed away, due to colon cancer, at 36, January 16, 1953. I remember the day my father came home from his store, June 19, 1953, and mentioned the execution of the Rosenberg's. I was 8 years old. He was afraid and very unsympathetic to their cause.
That has led me to a life-long search to find out as much as I can about Julius and Ethel.
Trying to analyze the demonizing of her is a thoughtful subject. I know from living in Homestead, Florida, the fear and great distortion of "communism" was virulent and destructive.
It was a misogynistic time. She was an easy target, and with her chutzpah, she scared people. She broke a lot of barriers. I have the highest admiration for your grandmother.

And so it goes. If a woman is raped , somehow it is her fault. If a man falls, it is because , she fails to hold him up or pushes him over. So interesting that women are seen as week , or as all powerful , depending on who is calling the shots. In my FBI file, I am portrayed as more powerful and wielding more influence than my husband who actually held the power position in the CP. So at the time I also wore housedresses and was busy being a stay at home mom. Sign of the times in the 50s...busy mopping the floor and planning the revolution. If I sent you a picture of me in the 50s, I would look just like Ethel.

the most inhumane act in our country's history. against all the principles of our history and our culture. I am 90,was activist mother living .thru that horrible time, and will never forget . it will never leave me. or anyone who understood what nwas happening, how Ethel & julius lives and the lives of Michael & Robert were used . for whitch- hunting and cold- war mongering. this cruel technic has been used by those who want to mislead our country,but never before had they used an entire family, the FAMILY that we honor above all things preciuos .. I must get to my point.Jen, I believe it is hardly a gender issue. as important as the gender issue is, this entirely beyond, it's humanity issue. Unless we accept that women are the most important gender (biologically & socially).it may be something we'll have to face. It may not be "equality"
.Whoever in history of martyrs has been as brave and unwavering as Ethel. let me tell you no matter what one believed, there was no one, at that time or since that did not wonder & admire Ethels courage, and steadfastness and bravery..the worst injustice of all our nations history of injustices.. Nina the Nurse. say hello to Micharl

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