This is my fourth blog in a series which uses "Unknown Secrets," a collage by Martha Rosler, as an organizing principle to explore how the popular press, the prosecution, the defense, supporters, politicians, and the highly charged political and cultural climate influenced how people perceived my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, then and now.
The first three blogs explored housewives, communists in the kitchen, and representations of women in magazines. Another intriguing image from Rosler’s collage shows an attractive couple in a role reversal: he wears the apron as she helps him lace up the back. This image of the woman tying the strings to the man's frilly apron is reminiscent of James Dean's parents in Rebel Without A Cause, which was one of several popular films of the time period to dramatize the idea that the disruption of traditional gender roles leads to serious behavioral and psychological problems for children, particularly when they become teenagers.
The representation of Ethel as a strong woman to be feared was an absolutely central piece of the prosecution's case against my grandmother. Throughout the trial, coverage often characterized Ethel as dominant and Julius as meek or submissive. An article in Time magazine, published on June 29, 1953 (just ten days after the executions), described the Rosenbergs' final appeal in the following terms: "For the sixth time the mousy little engineer and his wife petitioned the highest tribunal,” (page 23).
This depiction of Ethel as stronger or more powerful than her husband was echoed by the judge, who in his sentencing speech said that she, “was older than her husband and should have known better.” President Eisenhower also bought into this representation of Ethel, writing in a letter to his son explaining why he was declining clemency for a young mother: “the woman was the leader in everything they did.”
Emily Alman, who with her husband founded the Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case (which later became the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case) remembered a very different reality. When I interviewed her in December 1992, she shared the following:
“In all the pictures in the media of the time she was always bigger than Julie. She was three years older than Julie and that was a crime in those days, an older woman with a younger man. I always thought it was funny, everyone thought she was in control but she had no control. She made decisions about the kids and he decided everything else. She played the good wife role, the nurturing mother ideal was very strong in her.”
Ironically, this mis-characterization of Ethel also found its way into sympathetic representations of the Rosenberg case. Among the artwork in the Rosenberg Era Art Project (consisting of art created by people affected strongly by the case, which included the Rosler collage discussed in this blog series) Ethel is often portrayed as more powerful, even taller than her husband. (In fact, Ethel was more than six inches shorter than Julius.)
Despite this mis-representation of Ethel, the degree to which she was manipulated by both the prosecution and the government-influenced media was evidence of her actual reality: she was in many ways a supporting character in her own trial. This is perhaps best illustrated by the list of questions developed by the government to ask the Julius in the event that they took the government's deal and agreed to talk in return for the commutation of their death sentences. Question six on list read, “Was your wife cognizant of your activities?" (as quoted in Radosh and Milton, The Rosenberg File, p. 417.). What could be a clearer illustration of the prosecutions’ actual read of the power relations between the Rosenbergs: they asked Julius if his wife knew about his spying, while not even considering Ethel important enough to have her own list of potential questions.
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