Ethel at 100 (part 4): Strong Woman/Weak Man?

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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What a great series! You've really opened my kitchen window on this historic national tragedy — and that's saying something: I just finished four years of heavy, heavy reading on the era, in aid of completing my thesis on the impact of anti-communism on U.S. cultural policy, and "the feminist turn" has not yet been taken by most of those historians & political scientists who've published work on the Cold War and on the Rosenberg case in particular.

Thinking of your family haunted me throughout my study, since we met at the 40th annual commemoration — that mind-blowing art exhibition in Boston… (And rooting your analysis in Martha's collage seems therefore especially poignant.) So I paid special attention whenever any of the hundreds of commentators I read touched on your grandparents' case, including those you cite. Your interpretation is of course completely consistent with theirs; but bringing the case back to the wider gender battlefront of Cold War America adds a dimension I have never seen elsewhere — though I will now be looking further...

When I think of the picture of your grandmother previously frozen in the thus-far dominant historians' gaze, it's something like that of a hard-bitten "gun moll" — to drag another dress out of J. Edgar's hidden, mother-fearing/mother-loving closets. You remind us, in what you've written, that this picture is, like, 15% of an arc — and that that arc is just part of the whole circle. Sadly, that circle was your family — broken by a nation-state furious in a battle, not for freedom, but for the base metal of "free enterprise," that recent corporate coinage that eventually brought us to our knees in the Reagan Era.

Gender studies have of course recently critiqued the Fifties Housewife in propaganda, but never have I felt the horror I feel now — connecting this post-modernism back to Ethel. She didn't stand a chance! Like the title of my thesis, she and your grandfather were reduced to the most tragic "Collateral Damage" in their imaginary Cold War.

In the five years of reading it took to write my thesis, I spent many hours reading, & writing, through my tears. I thought a lot about my own grandmother along the way: it was in her kitchen, when I was 3, that I first encountered a black person & a practicing racist; And of course every family was caught up in the fearful whirlwind of the Fifties, my own included, on both sides of every issue. But none like yours.

I bless you for once again drawing so deeply from this well — surely adding many fresh tears of your own in the process — and for bringing back such a healthy draught. We thirst for the redemption.

I can do better that that, Phillip. That hyperlink in my response leads to a downloadable PDF of the whole megillah, at

It's long (109,000 words). But there, you'll find an abstract‚ and the Table of Contents details the historic narrative which is its main structure.

And since our comments are ID'ed as "Anonymous," I'll "out" myself as Don Adams, with all best wishes.

I encourage all to internalize the slogan "Truth matters," and to follow truth no matter where it leads us. I say this in particular reference to the historical trauma we have lived through with the murder of JFK and the events of 9/11. And there are others as well. Understand that the phrase "conspiracy theory" has been used with enormous success by the CIA, especially through those they have placed in news organizations (see "operation mockingbird") to heap scorn and ridicule on honest researchers who uncover matters the CIA ( want to keep hidden.

I especially appreciate this series because it helps us to understand Ethel as a whole person. She and Julius were victims of Cold War hysteria much in the same way as Emmet Till was caught up in the hysteria of post-war racism in the South. Once they were "chosen", their real identities vanished from public view. They were seen however the hysteria wanted to make them appear. Reason went out the window. The mass psychology of fascism might be a good term for it, as it was called referring to Germany during their bout of murderous mass psychosis that immediately preceded the 1950s. Social control for ruling elites has its requirements and to secure this control, they sacrifice people.These ruling groups and their supporters are at the heart of what official history teaches. And they have a real history that helps form each succeeding generation of rulers. Military basic training is one of the basic tools of this system of control. Myths like "atom bomb secrets" and "southern womanhood" underlie the way the mass media works to preserve the system of control. The presumptions of guilt are put on people just because they are communists or black and cannot be undone with reasoning. There is a powerful social force that compels conformity, creates deep irrationality, and that cannot easily be altered. The attempt to show Ethel as a housewife was a reasonable attempt to break through this hysteria. That it did not work was not about Ethel. She was a real woman and she did have a life and role in the home. But as a sacrificial lamb, none of that mattered enough to break though.

Today, in light of the increasing awareness of the deep corruption of the NSA and its anti-democratic methods and goals, it may be time for us to destroy the distortions about Ethel that history has passed down to us. It is easier to understand now how the National Security State could have made such a flimsy, non-existent case against Ethel and Julius stick. It is perfectly clear that the NSA can have its way with the judicial system. And that those who comply with these government acts of injustice develop an investment in their lies and a resistance to seeing the truth. When mass surveillance got exposed by Snowden, it became clear to me that the very forces that killed Ethel and Julius had now defined the entire people as their enemy. It woke us up a bit. And maybe now, in this new awareness, people are going to be ready to hear about Ethel as the real person she was.

So, as far as I am concerned, your words as their grand-daughter bring more sanity to this situation than anything else. Thanks and I love what you are doing.

Paul Richards

Like Ethel, my father was also born in 1915. I have been thinking a lot about your grandparents and their comrades, such as my father, Howard "Stretch" Johnson and other members of the American Left who suffered through the McCarthy period. Your grandparents were their hope and then their despair when they saw that they could not stop the execution of the Rosenbergs. My mother, Martha Sherman Johnson, weeping on June 19th, 1953 is a memory burned into my conscience. She too was a strong woman and devoted to her principles. Like your grandparents, my parents had the courage to live their lives according to these principles and were ready to die for them. I salute this great generation and thank you Jenn for showing us that the future is in good hands and that the courage of your grandparents continues on in you.

Wendy Johnson

As a 17 year old and someone who was deeply involved in trying to help commute the death sentence for your grandparents by knocking on people's doors in my neighborhood, it is most interesting to read your blog and get a broader picture of what the press was printing at that time.
Your grandmother was not seen as manipulating Julius at all. Indeed, it was our understanding that she didn't know a lot about what was going on. Be that as it may, my parents were very affected by the communist witch hunt as were members of my extended family. They were all strong and tried to live what they believed and passed that onto me. Now, when I tell people I was a 'red diaper baby' they want to know what that is. No one seems fazed by that these days. To younger people now, that was an era long passed. But people are still targeted and it is wonderful that you are continuing your father's work with the Rosenberg Fund for Children, helping other activists children with contributions from from many of us.
Lenore Migdal
New York City

I want to thank everyone who has responded to this series of blogs by emailing me or posting a comment here. I really appreciate the thoughtful feedback, shared stories, insightful questions and engaging conversation. I've enjoyed writing these posts and am grateful that they have found such a receptive audience.

Jenn Meeropol

Gandhi said- "bring the one on the bottom up one step so all can rise."-
The song said-"Paranoia runs deep, into your heart it will creep- it starts when you're always afraid, get "out of line"and they'll take you away"-
There never was or will be anyone who was born with "Manifest Destiny" except the "Kings"of the past,[ and some politicians who think they are!]
Finding my fathers face on "Crazy Horse Mountain"started my search for Facts and Truth-[they are equal's]-in-1947-Howard Metzenbaum was Dad's attorney.
Living through the Holocaust; Second world war; Adolph's insane attempts to "own the world", was my pursuit of the "Word", {Who created everything we have ever known,} My best friend has been Noah Webster's Dictionary. This book gives me strength, and the courage it takes to "fight back"-My teacher, 1945-6-7 was Mrs. Rebecca Rosenberg I will always call "Then Mother of my mind".
Dear child, I will always remember our anguish at the insanity of "communism", and wonder why, after all this time, your grand-parents false convictions were not over-turned; expunged and exposed, as the Natives Historical convictions should be. This will always be The "Land of the Great Spirit of Truth" a grey eagle
P.S. Only two words can ever save us=="I'M SORRY"=={love to all}

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