Ethel at 100 (part 6): Lessons for Supporting the Children of Today's Targeted Activists

This is the sixth and final blog in this 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, anti-Semitism, politicians, and the highly charged political and cultural climate influenced how people perceived my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, then and now. All of these factors are not only part of my grandparents’ case, but also our history as a nation.

As witnessed by the Proclamations in honor of my grandmother just issued by New York City Council Members and the Manhattan Borough President, clearly this case is not significant only as an historical event. There is ongoing interest in and significant new evidence (including recently released grand jury testimony) about this miscarriage of justice. In addition, I think an examination of my grandmother’s experience as a targeted activist with young children in the 1950s has important lessons for the RFC’s work with targeted activist families today. 

When I first started outlining the posts for this series, I had just given a talk at a house party to introduce potential supporters and beneficiaries to the RFC and our work. I was struck by the fact that the three stories I chose to share with people at that event about our grantees all focused on activists who are women. Although the timing and the particulars of their stories are all very different from my grandmother’s, their experiences of repression and targeting had specific gender, racial and religious components.

Here are brief summaries of the stories I discussed:

  • Three young children who received their first grant from us a few years ago have a mother who is a Physician's Assistant and certified Doula, and a reproductive justice advocate for her patients, many of whom practice African religions and customs that put them at odds with the U.S. medical system. The mom has been harassed by hospital staff and ended up in court to protect the rights of her clients; in one instance the hospital called the police when she attempted to advocate for a patient who had just lost a child. While the hospital eventually backed down, she was forced to hire an attorney to defend herself and her patient, and was barred from ever assisting with any future births at that hospital. Her young daughter has experienced significant difficulties at her public school; she was singled out for not standing for the pledge of allegiance and for wearing African clothing. An RFC grant allowed these children, then ages five to eight, to attend a progressive school that offers a nurturing environment and a strong social justice curriculum.
  • RFC support has covered childcare, after-school activities and an Attica prison visit grant to allow four children, ages two, three, nine and 11, to visit their mother in military prison. After experiencing first hand the brutality of the War in Iraq and the devastation it caused, especially for civilians, she tried to get Conscientious Objector status. When she was denied, she and her family fled to Canada where she became active in the war resisters movement. She was deported to the U.S. and sentenced to almost a year in the brig despite being pregnant with her fifth child. She gave birth behind bars, but an RFC grant allowed her husband and four children to travel thousands of miles from their home (and support system) to spend the last month of her pregnancy near her. Unfortunately, a seemingly endless series of constantly changing rules and regulations resulted in her husband missing the birth of their son. He was detained by military police at the hospital entrance despite being assured he had clearance to be there for the delivery.  While we can’t give this family back that lost bonding moment, RFC grants are continuing to provide childcare and summer camp for the older kids while the family adjusts to having a new baby and their mom back home.
  • In 2013 we made our first grant to a young woman who grew up as the child of activists. Her mother was an advocate for the environment and animal welfare, as well as civil rights. When she was a teenager, she was at home with her mom when someone fired a bullet into their house, missing her mother by inches. Two years later, their house was set on fire while they were away. The family decided to move to another state and settled in a community with a strong, arts-oriented public school. A year later the district moved to privatize it, which outraged this young woman, who became a leader in the fight to save her school. As a result, she was bullied, robbed on campus, and sexually assaulted. The administration refused to help and insisted she complete her senior year at home, claiming they could not protect her. With the support of her family, she finished high school, successfully fought the school to attend prom and walk at her graduation, and is now in college. RFC grants allowed her to buy a computer for college and paid for counseling to help her process the trauma of the last few years.

For all of these women, as for my grandmother, gender interacted with some mixture of race, religion, ethnicity, class, and the political and cultural context of their time to influence how they were treated, how they experienced that treatment and public perception of them and their experience.

This is perhaps most evident in the middle story of the soldier court martialed and imprisoned for refusing to complete her military service. Depictions of her in the press during her case included detractors who denigrated the number of children she had, made racists remarks about her decision to marry a Latino man (several of them implying that act in itself proved she wasn’t a “real American” or a “true patriot”), and questioned whether a deserter could be a good mother.

On the other side, some of her supporters connected her refusal to fight to her love for her children (and other children) and urged, in an echo of my grandmother’s defense, that as a pregnant mother of four she belonged at home with her kids, not in prison. People advocating on her behalf shared photos of her holding her children as part of a campaign to win her early release from prison.

These current examples illustrate how ideals of womanhood, what it means to be a good mother, and other gendered components of identity continue to influence how we view women who are targeted activists. Exploring the complicated role gender played in my grandmother’s arrest, trial, execution and ongoing representation may help us better understand how it continues to impact activists today. This knowledge can help inform our understanding of Ethel at 100 and influence the work of the RFC at 25.

I want to close this series with a thank you to all of you who have read these posts, shared them with others and commented on them either on this blog, on social media or by emailing me. I am so grateful for the thoughtful, supportive and fascinating feedback and insights you’ve shared with me, and look forward to continuing this discussion in the future.

*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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Dear Jenn,
I fully understand your feelings about your grandparents and your grandmother in particular. Unfortunately, I do not remember this case myself, as I was living in Austria, too young, and did not hear about it. But I will say this: if capital punishment was administered in any way like it is today, then your grandparents received the same unfair treatment as Kelly Gissendaner and Antonio Prieto. I might also mention Debra Milke who was held on Arizona's death row for 22 years before finally being found innocent. But in every case, I have been against the death penalty all my life.
Thomas Hofer

These stories are quite moving and it's great to know that my contribution supports this wonderful work!
Lenore in New York City.

Congratulations to you, the family and the RFC for finally getting acknowledgement that the trial was a cruel miscarriage of justice that ended in the state murder of an innocent woman, Ethel Rosenberg. The lessons of those dark days and the awful brutal tragedy of her murder are still important today. We are proud supporters of the work of the RFC which is inspired and informed by the struggles and injustice of the Rosenberg trial and execution. We are so happy that this vindication happened in time for Ethel's 100th birthday.
We all long for and join you in working for a time when young women and mothers are not bullied, persecuted, incarcerated and ripped from their families.
Again, congratulations and thanks for all the visionary work you all do.

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