Sex, Politics and Anarchism

Sex, Politics and Anarchism

From The Commoner by Elaine Leeder

American Jewish Anarchist Women, 1920-1950

INTRODUCTION

In the summer of 1986, I had the opportunity to interview eight women who were then between the ages of seventy-three and one hundred years old. Some of the women had identified as anarchists for fifty years. In a series of discussions, I spoke with them about their lives, their values, their relationships, and their political work. With remarkable candour they shared with me intimate details, starting with their childhoods, working their way through the most personal of issues — including family life — and finally covering their final years. These stories can be called the ‘politics of sexuality’ because their interpersonal relationships were strongly connected to their political ideologies, embodied on the day-to-day level.

ANARCHIST THEORY AND FREEDOM

Those who espouse anarchism have long argued for complete and total freedom, whether it is from the State, from religion, in the workplace or in personal relationships. Anarchist theory, beginning with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropokin, articulated the view that any form of domination from any institution inhibits freedom, and that the ideal society must strive for the abolition of any form of domination and control. Progenitors of this concept go even further back, into the writings of Lao-Tse, the apostles of Jesus Christ, the Anabaptists, Sir Thomas More, Diderot, and William Godwin, to name just a few.

With the belief in freedom comes the idea that no one person or group of people should have power over any other, and that individuals can best decide how to live. Anarchists want to abolish all structured relationships of domination and powerlessness; they aim to create a society based on equality, mutuality, and reciprocity in which each person is valued and respected as an individual (Ackelsberg, 1991). Unlike Marxists, who believe primarily in the economic restructuring of society and the division of labour in that economy, anarchists go beyond this narrow view, arguing against all forms of hierarchical and authority relationships.

Anarchists argue ‘that people can organize and associate themselves on the basis of need, that individuals or small groups can initiate social action, and that centralized political coordination is not only harmful but also unnecessary’ (Ackelsberg, 19). Social theorists and most of the public believe that any organisation implies hierarchy, and that with that dynamic comes leaders and followers; that it would be ‘chaos’ if no one is in charge. Anarchists believe, and show through example, that this need not be the case. Because they believe that hierarchies ‘foster alienated and exploitative relationships among those who participate in them, disempowering people and distancing them from their own reality’ (Ackelsberg, 19), anarchists attempt to live lives apart from such oppressive social constructions while maintaining social order.

Anarchism, as an ideology, is an extremist position. It has often been called the left of the left. Those who follow it often live outside the confines of conventionally accepted moral behaviour; they frequently stretch the norms of the social order in which they live. Anarchists believe that ‘the means are the ends’ and that people must create the new society themselves in a leaderless and self-directed manner. Both in the public and private spheres, one can use anarchism as a useful theory to explain conditions for women in the context of domination and control.

Although not explicitly a feminist doctrine, the seeds of complete equality for women exist within this school of thought. Anarchist women have long challenged female subordination and believe that women’s lack of systemic power comes from an obsolete status quo of sexual and family relationships (Marsh, 5). From the beginning, they attacked the nature of marriage and urged complete sexual freedom. They argued that men and women are erotic beings, with desires for an outlet for their sexuality; with that came the belief that sexual relationships concern only those involved and are heedless of moral imposition from the rest of society. Thus, neither the State nor the church should be involved in blessing or licencing such unions (Marsh, 69). Some called themselves ‘free lovers,’ believing that adults should decide what type of sexual association they want, and should choose the nature and duration of the association (Marsh, 70). Some did not believe in monogamy, and a few engaged in same-sex relationships.

Anarchist women often insisted on both economic and psychological independence and even sometimes denied maternal responsibility. They argued for complete sexual autonomy as a crucial component for sexual equality, believing that achieving legal or political rights would not inherently create equal conditions for women’s achievement of freedom. Other gender liberation discussions at the time focused more on women’s ostensible superiority based on motherhood and other womanly qualities. In response, anarchist women said that true liberation would mean complete equality of the sexes and economic independence for women, with motherhood just one choice among many (Marsh, 44).

As a result of these beliefs, sometimes anarchist women, although appearing to follow conventional gender standards, maintained attitudes and relationships that were unconventional for their times. Anarchist women argued for the abolition of the institution of marriage and the nuclear family itself. Some argued for ‘sexual varietism,' or non-exclusive sexual relationships. Today, we would call this ‘non-monogamy’ or even 'polyamory.’ They wanted women to be completely self-supporting, some raising children communally and living in cooperative households as living situations. Some even believed that heterosexual lovers should never live together because of how men treated women. Others saw homosexuality as a legitimate sexual alternative (Marsh, 90).

ANARCHIST WOMEN: 1920-1950

The women in my study were anarchists who were active from 1920-1950. They followed many of the attitudes of anarchist women who preceded them. Although most of them married, the internal workings of their intimate interactions did not emulate women in broader society. Often, they supported their husbands economically as the primary breadwinners in their families. Some did not actually have legal marriages, instead living together with their significant others for long periods of time. Some of the women had additional lovers while they were married, while others did not live with their partners. All of them raised their children communally at some point, educated their children in alternative schools, and most were vegetarians. In their home lives, they tried to live out their beliefs while flaunting the semblance of conventionality to the outside world.

The women I interviewed during the Summer of 1986 were mostly Jewish in ethnicity, but they did not adhere to the expectations for Jewish women of their era. Many of them were immigrants who had been raised Orthodox in the old country (often Eastern Europe and Russia). When they came to the United States, they gave up their religion, becoming atheists. However, they did not give up their ethnic identities, identifying with Jewish causes and culture. All continued to speak Yiddish throughout their lives. One of the women married outside of Judaism and was ostracized from her family as a result. They ‘sat shiva’ for her, as if she had died. Another never settled down with one man, but had a series of long-term, live-in relationships with anarchist men. Clearly, these women went outside the confines of behaviour expected for Jewish women of their times.

These anarchist women who were active from 1920-1950 challenged the assumptions of conventional mores and norms that they saw as stifling. They might have been wives and mothers, but they saw those roles as too confining. They acted out their beliefs in everyday behaviour. They believed that they should be self-supporting. At a time when most middle-class women were at home tending to the hearth, anarchist women were out working. Most of them were trade unionists who were active in their locals, believing in the revolutionary potential of workers. They tried to change home life to include political activity as part of their daily lives.

More conventional women, like the suffragists before them, had tried to make women’s issues public issues by doing public health or social work. They tried to put women’s issues on the public policy agenda. Those women were mostly middle-class. The anarchist women I interviewed were ruggedly eccentric and idiosyncratic and did not join such activities. They were working-class women focused on survival issues. Nor were they engaged in electoral politics; they did not believe in the electoral system and put their emphasis on workplace organising instead. They did not adhere to the concept put forth by more conventional thinkers that women deserve equality because of their womanly and maternal qualities. Further, anarchist women did not believe that government could grant them the freedom inherently deserved to all human beings. Because they were quick to point out flaws in mainstream arguments for women’s equality, they did not form close relationships with non-anarchist women.

Margaret Marsh argues that to understand these self-proclaimed revolutionaries, one needs to understand how women of their era who were not anarchists behaved. Where the anarchist women left a vacuum, non-anarchist women filled it as wives and mothers, since that was the cultural expectation of women of this era (Marsh, 88). The women I studied challenged these cultural assumptions, living their ideologies of freedom in day-to-day personal interactions. They effected their ideology in their workplace, sexuality, and family relationships.

THE ERA IN WHICH THEY LIVED

Conditions for anarchists from 1920-1950 were problematic. Emma Goldman was deported in 1919 to the Soviet Union as a result of the Red Scare, the FBI was on the rise, and J. Edgar Hoover was spreading anti-communist fear. Anarchism at this time was in decline. Repression at the hand of the State was virulent; thus, anarchists were fearful of reprisal because of their beliefs and actions. The Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia, and those in power in the US were fearful of the threat to capitalism. This led to a backlash against those who posed any opposition to the dominant economic system. There were a number of anarchist organisations which did survive, but they were small and greatly diminished in numbers. The anarchists were in touch with each other and produced various small journals like Road to Freedom, or the decades-running Fraye Arbeter Shtime, as well as mutual aid societies for financial assistance. Some of the women I interviewed wrote for these papers.

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The Road to Freedom, a US based anarchist journal contributed to by some of the women interviewed in this piece.

Some anarchists were extremely active in the labour movement during the 1920s and 1930s in the US. They were dedicated trade unionists, particularly in the garment industry, who hoped that workplace organising and politics could bring about the revolution they believed was just around the corner. Some anarchists, both men and women, were active in the battle against the Marxist Communists in the International Garment Workers Union in the 1920s and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which developed in 1935.

Anarchists also formed a number of schools in which they put their beliefs into action, sending their children to learn in an anarchist pedagogy in hopes of raising another generation of radicals. These were called Modern Schools based on the teachings of the Spanish martyr Francisco Ferrer. They were among the few places that anarchists could try to create, during an ‘era of war, social ferment and government oppression, [...] not only a new type of schools, but also a new culture, a new life, a new world’ (Avrich, 1980). It was in these settings that United States-based anarchist women found a place within which to live their ideals.

JEWISH CULTURE IN THE ANARCHIST MOVEMENT

Ethnicity played an important role in the lives of the women I studied. As Paul Avrich noted in 1995, 'anarchists, cherishing diversity against standardization and uniformity, have always provided the difference among peoples — cultural, linguistic, historical — quite as much as common bonds' (Avrich, 315). Most of the anarchists during this era were immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, and England. Many of the women I spoke to had Russian Jewish ancestry. Although basically atheistic in religious terms, they strongly identified with being Jewish in a cultural sense, even for Wanetta, who was not Jewish herself. There was a distinction between practising Judaism as a religion and being Jewish as an ethnicity.

The Jewish anarchists in the US followed a long tradition of dissent while still remaining firmly a part of Jewish culture. In a unique blend, Jewish anarchists were able to synthesise the dissenting qualities of both American and Jewish culture while still being able to incorporate aspects of both cultures. The blend was uniquely American, Jewish, and anarchist. For example, as described in one of the interviews I conducted, the anarchists held Yom Kippur balls on the highest of all holy days. They even served ham sandwiches at these balls, pork being unkosher to begin with and doubly rebellious because it is tradition to fast on Yom Kippur. The practice was both creative and bold, while still being rooted in and yet reactive to Jewish culture.

Hegemonic Jewish society at this time expected women to be chaste before marriage. They were also expected to adhere to roles as married women with children. Orthodox women were often the breadwinners, while their husbands studied Torah and pursued religious knowledge as one of their highest goals in life. Yet despite this differential in earnings, power was not in the economic sector. Instead, it came from gaining knowledge by dissecting and debating religious texts and rules. Women were taught that they should support their communities, engage in charity, and care for their families. They were not allowed to read from the Torah, nor participate in the study of the Talmud (oral law). The values of economic self-sufficiency, responsibility for others, debate over detail set the stage for the creation of a unique blend of values which Jewish anarchist women were to develop in their personal lives. Conversely, the confining nature of religious expectations for women were an ideal structure for these burgeoning libertarians to rebel against.

Jewish women used the labour movement as a means to achieve freedom from that which had not been available to them in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. The women I interviewed worked through their unions to develop skills of public speaking, organising workplaces, strategy development, and writing. They used the education that unions provided to attain the freedom they sought. There was a belief that women could work, be activists, and, if they chose, have families. They were living in a culture that allowed them to explore the extremes of non-conformity, while still appearing to conform to what Jewish women were doing in their day.

ANARCHISM AND SEXUALITY

In the 1860s and 1870s, such anarchist free lovers as Ezra Haywood, Lois Waisbrooker, and later Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre, claimed that sexual varietism led to the development of higher moral standards. Haywood critiqued celibacy, arguing that a variety of sexual partners was helpful in developing a full and rich life. Waisbrooker was more spiritualist and claimed that sexuality would ultimately provide human beings with a key to immortality (Marsh, 73).

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Emma Goldman addressing a crowd in Union Square, New York.

In the 1880s, free love anarchists began to define sexuality in three areas: the role of women in sexual relationships, the role of contraception, and an analysis of the evils of marriage (Marsh, 75). It was argued in this era that marriage made women too dependent on men and did not allow for women’s economic independence. New social and sexual arrangements were needed to implement the free love concept. Florence Finch Kelly, for example, wrote that sexual liberty was a woman’s right, that a woman should be free to choose how she expresses her own sexuality, and that no externally imposed moral code should inhibit any woman (Marsh, 79).

By the second decade of the twentieth century, anarchists were at the forefront of activity agitating for birth control and the right to free sexuality of all types, including homosexuality. They argued for the abolition of the nuclear family, complete economic freedom of women from men, as well as psychological self-sufficiency for all. They believed that every type of relationship should be considered. In fact, Emma Goldman is on record as having at least one lesbian relationship in her life (Falk, 1984; Wexler, 1989).

THE WOMEN

The women I interviewed were private individuals, although they opened up to me about many parts of their lives, including their sex lives, their families, and their relationships. I have chosen to disguise their identities per their request. To speak about sexuality during their lifetimes was indiscreet. . Some of the women I spoke to did not discuss their sexuality at all, focusing mainly on their labour-organising activities. One refused to even be fully interviewed, saying that she did not want anyone else to benefit from her story and that she would tell it herself someday. The interviews were taped but, to date, never transcribed. The following information is based on extensive notes taken during these many hours of hearing their stories. Summarised here are three women who best exemplify the themes that emerged from the interviews, along with a brief description of Rose Pesotta, who I did not interview but about whom I wrote a biography.

WANETTA S.

When interviewed in July of 1986, Wanetta was eighty-six years old. She had come to the United States as a Russian immigrant in 1925 at the age of twenty-six with her anarchist Jewish husband. Raised by strict Catholic parents, by eighteen she was an atheist and became a revolutionist as soon as she knew what that was. She attributed her spirit to having been raised in a constricting upbringing, tracing this repression all the way back to having been tightly swaddled as an infant. Her family lost everything during the Russian Revolution, but not before she had been educated as far as her first year in college. She met her husband when he returned to Russia to help rebuild after the Revolution. He had been born there, but immigrated to the US years before. It was through her husband that she learned anarchist ideology; when the anarchists were purged by the Bolsheviks, he was forced to escape, running back to the United States. After two years he sent for her, and she joined him in Los Angeles soon after. Although she never converted, she spent much of her life among Jewish anarchists, marrying one and living with another.

Wanetta obtained her bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was while she was an undergraduate that her husband insisted that she quit school to help him run his dry-cleaning business. Rather than submit to his demands, she got a trial separation, and within a year moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in Child Development at Columbia University. She met her second husband while working in a kitchen to make ends meet. In 1930 they began a relationship that lasted for forty-one years. This man was also an anarchist. For most of her working life, Wanetta was employed by the civil service, acting as a social worker in the Bureau of Child Welfare. She had two children and was the primary breadwinner in her family. In the early years her second husband stayed home to care for the children. In his spare time, he was a carpenter and painter. Wanetta believed in a clear division between one’s gender and the labour one engaged in. She was not a housewife, and she expected that men share the duties with her, yet her second husband felt that he had to be the head of household. She never mentioned to him that she was the sole wage-earner in the home, making his claim as pater familias even more tenuous. Instead, when the children got older, she simply hired help to care for the children and clean while she worked.

Wanetta argued fervently for equality in marriage, both in her personal life as well as in theory. She was monogamous but believed in free love and saw other anarchist couples trying to work out the details of those beliefs. She said she never found anyone she wanted to get involved with other than her husband, although the freedom would have been there to do so.

Wanetta remained politically active while working. She volunteered on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, helped to raise money to bring Holocaust survivors to the US after WWII, and helped Russian fraternal organisations to raise money for those who had escaped slave-labour camps. Later, she wrote for Russian-language newspapers. Her poetry became widely read throughout many Russian journals.

Upon the death of her second husband, she married yet another anarchist. When interviewed, she was still living with this man. She was also still a vegetarian with a passion for naturopathy and radical politics. An articulate, intelligent, fiery, and tiny woman, she continued to maintain enormous energy into her eighties. The only regret that Wanetta reports about her entire life was that she had raised a son who had become a ‘petit-bourgeois bureaucrat’ who had entered local electoral politics. Wanetta kept an open and free mind about her sexuality and that of others. Her worldview was integrated into the very fibre of her identity; her political fervour permeated all aspects of her life.

BETSIE G.

Betsie G. was born of Orthodox Jewish parents in the Kiev region of Russia in 1891. Her family was from a long line of great rabbis in the area. She came to the US in 1912 with her twenty year-old sister, who was a nurse; they maintained an observant lifestyle while living together. Perhaps her greatest influence was her maternal grandmother, who was already in the US. This woman had been a non-observant Jew who was anything but provincial, having dealt with the outside world through commerce and trade. Betsie quickly went to work in the garment industry, staying in the trade until she finally retired at seventy-nine years old.

In 1914 Betsie moved to Chicago from New York City, where she involved herself in a literary crowd that frequented a Russian restaurant. There, at fifteen and sixteen years old, she associated herself with the anarchists who offered her education and lectures. She was also taken with the idea of anarchism because she saw that the government was a corrupting institution and liked the libertarian alternative. From then on, she developed life-long alliances with anarchists, including the Yiddish Fraye Arbeter Stimme group. She also went to Emma Goldman’s lectures and joined an anarchist cooperative. There, she met her husband, having three daughters through that union.

Wherever Betsie and her family went, she felt that they were outsiders. Because of her radical politics, organising efforts, and unusual marital situation, she never felt that she fit in. Despite the appearance of a nuclear family, Betsie and her husband also practised free love and non-monogamy alongside family life.

Motherhood was also a secondary concern for Betsy. She was not involved with the day-to-day activities with her children because she was busy organising seamstresses to strike for better conditions. Her children joined the Vanguard Juniors, which was an anarchist youth organisation that produced a newspaper with an anti-authoritarian orientation. That was an unusual and unique activity for teenagers to be involved in. Betsie’s lifestyle was truly unconventional for women of that era. As a result, her daughters felt quite angry for most of their lives that their mother had rejected traditional maternal roles to be an organiser. Consequently, her children became more conservative in politics and lifestyle. In her conversation with me, she said that she believed they pivoted toward conservatism as adults in reaction to her own radical politics and her and her husband’s promiscuity.

After ten years of marriage, Betsie divorced her husband and began living together with an Italian anarchist. She had an off-and-on relationship with him for over forty years, while still carrying on a seven-year relationship with the noted anarchist agitator, Sam Dolgoff (who was also married at the time). While maintaining these relationships and raising her children, she lived for a time at the Mohegan Colony in Westchester, New York. The colony was founded in 1923 as a part of the Modern School movement. At its height, it had 300 families, all dedicated to progressive thinking. This included having a school organised and largely self-managed by children. Betsie often visited other anarchist communities, as well. Since she was open to radical ideas, she became a lifetime vegetarian and explored the practice of naturopathy.

Like Wanetta, Betsie clearly believed that one’s ideology deeply influenced all aspects of one’s life. This was apparent in whom she chose to relate to as friends, how she carried on her sex life, whom she married, how she raised her children, and how she organised politically and at work.

Looking back on her past, she told me that she had led a rebellious life. She told me, 'My life was lived as I liked it.' She never settled on one husband, but rather considered herself a pioneer in progressive thinking and living. She sometimes wondered if her children had suffered as a result. For one thing, she raised her children as atheists, never taking them to synagogue. They saw other children doing so, and she feared that they resented missing out. Nonetheless, by the end of her life, Betsie was proud of her iconoclasm and the fact that she rarely compromised on the values she held so dearly.

CLARA L.

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A photo of Clara.

Perhaps the most colourful of my interviewees was Clara. Clara had been a close friend of the famous anarchist feminist organiser, Rose Pesotta. I came to interview her for my book on Pesotta, but as I got to know her, I realized that she needed attention for her own remarkable life. By the time I met her, Clara was in her nineties, walked with a cane, and was in failing health. She had also been born in the Russian Empire, this time in Ukraine. She was one of fifteen children raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. Her father was a rabbinic scholar, but she was given no education religious or otherwise because she was female. In 1913, at the age of thirteen, she came to the US alone in steerage. A rich American woman befriended her on the ship, and when her brother failed to meet her at the dock, Clara was taken to the woman’s home for three days until the family was found.

By her late teens, Clara was working in the clothing industry as a seamstress. She quickly came to the attention of the union leadership who sent her to a labour school in Arkansas on a scholarship. There, she learned to be a public speaker, to lead strikes, and to do union organising. With those skills, she went on to lead countless strikes over a number of decades. For fifty years, she organised for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) where Rose Pesotta served as Vice President. Even upon her retirement, she worked in union headquarters as a friendly visitor (a person who visits those who are in need who belong to the union) through their internal social service programme.

Because of her political activities, Clara was often arrested. She was proud of the fact that she was one of the first women prisoners in the New York Women’s House of Detention. In one story she told, she remembered being arrested for demonstrating in front of a sweatshop and being taken to the local police station. There on the wall of the precinct was a photo of her as a most wanted criminal. Yet the police did not recognize her, so she simply gave a different name and was released. She was then arrested a few days later and once again gave a fake name. In Yiddish she said to one of her fellow arrestees, ‘Gabe a kuk!’ (Take a look), as she pointed amusedly at her picture on the wall on her way out.

In 1926, Clara met a Danish sailor at an anarchist community centre in NYC on the first night he was in port. Eager to marry him, she attempted to get him American citizenship. Unfortunately, her notoriety prevented him from getting approval from the government. Eventually, David Dubinsky (president of the ILGWU) used his influence to finally allow the sailor naturalise in 1938. Her family conducted a shiva (service for the dead) after she married him, believing as religious Jews that marrying outside of the faith labelled her dead to the entire family.

Their love affair began that first night in 1926 and continued for over forty years. She maintained a home for them in NYC, although he shipped out regularly, returning to their home whenever he was in port. Clara proudly said that she was too busy with her union activities to go on a honeymoon with him. Instead, she sent her best friend with her husband while she continued her union organising.

Clara and her husband were often separated for long periods of time, each busy with their careers. But when they were together, they would travel to anarchist communities. Although they never had children, they were members of a large anarchist network. They lived at Mohegan (like Betsie) in the 1950s, where they engaged in the collectivist activities of an intentional living situation. Her husband was a ‘Wobbly,’ a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which is to this day a worker-led, direct action and workplace democracy-oriented industrial union. He did his organising on the ships on which he sailed. After he ceased going to sea, he became a house painter, settling down with Clara in New York. Frequently, the two would travel, and even bought a car to tour the United States. They did so for over a year and a half, visiting other anarchists as they went from community to community.

Clara’s politics kept her active in the Road to Freedom group, an anarchist journal, and later she joined the Fraye Arbeter Stimme Yiddish anarchist newspaper. At the same time, she organised, attended lectures, hosted parties, and did administrative work to keep the newspaper going. She might lead a strike by day, then run to a meeting, and finally head to a lecture or concert after that with her countless friends. Clara seemed to be present wherever anarchism was happening. Active in the Sacco and Vanzetti defence, she was proud to say that she was one of the few actually permitted to attend their funeral. She had visited them in prison and was allowed to watch the cremation after their deaths—a rare privilege extended to few supporters.

Clara often accompanied Emma Goldman on her lecture tour stops around the country. Clara told me how Goldman was expected to be given the best bed in the house, even if it was the marital bed of the people hosting her. Goldman also demanded that red roses be placed on the podium where she would be speaking. Clara was in awe of Goldman as an activist, but was put off by the privileges she demanded from her hosts.

Clara was also part of a small group of people who sent money to anarchists who were in exile in Mexico. Her friend Mollie Steimer was an anarchist who was arrested in 1918 under the Sedition Act for distributing leaflets against the US intervention against the Bolshevik revolution. She was deported in 1921, but Clara and others provided support for the rest of Steimer’s life.

At the 1976 re-opening of Ellis Island, the National Historic Site through which many immigrated to the United States, Clara was chosen to represent Russian immigrants. Now frail and in failing health, Clara was in a wheelchair but still as feisty as ever. Dan Quayle, then the conservative Republican Vice President of the United States, was there to represent the government. He came up to Clara and patted her patronisingly on the shoulder, telling her how glad he was to meet her. She looked up at him from her chair, clenched her fist, raised her arm, and shouted, first in Yiddish and then in English, ‘Gay avec fun mir — get away from me! You are a god-damned Republican and I want nothing to do with you. You have done nothing good in this country.’ Clara died years later, ever the dedicated anarchist.

ROSE PESOTTA

The final anarchist woman I was not able to interview because she died prior to my undertaking this project. However, I was able to delve into the archives to unearth many details of her life (Leeder 1993). Pesotta was born in Russia in 1896 to a Jewish family. As a child, she attended a private girls’ school. As a young teen she carried radical pamphlets under her clothing to help educate others on anti-tsarist ideas. When she was seventeen, she came to the United States on a ship with her grandmother in order to escape an arranged marriage.

Soon thereafter, she became a seamstress for the ILGWU local 25 and quickly became active in their union. She also became involved with a group of anarchists and even fell in love with one of them: Theodore Kushnarev. Kushnarev was deported in 1919 along with Emma Goldman because of his own radical activities. At about the same time, her father was killed in a pogrom in Russia.

Because Rose was quite bright, she, like Clara, soon came to the attention of the union leadership. In 1922 she was sent to Bryn Mawr summer school, a women’s leadership programme that taught students public speaking, how to write well, and basic education. She was sent to Brookwood Labor College for similar training in 1921 and 1926. As late as 1930, she was sent to the Wisconsin Summer School for training in labour organising.

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Pesotta addresses the floor at the 1965 ILGWU convention.

Alongside her educational activities, she became involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti defence, speaking on their behalf around the country. She was so active that she visited them in prison, befriending Vanzetti especially. In fact, before he died, he gave her a carved ivory pen holder that she kept with her until she passed away.

Pesotta became well known in libertarian circles, writing for the anarchist journal Road to Freedom and attending many lectures and for a run by anarchists. She even had a close friendship with Emma Goldman, sparked when Goldman returned for a speaking tour of the United States in 1934. They maintained a friendship until the elder anarchist died in 1940.

Pesotta promoted colourful organising tactics, including having women seamstresses picket wearing the clothing they sewed while holding signs saying they could not afford to buy the dresses they had made. She even had children picket with their mothers, thus helping to attract the press. Once, Pesotta was attacked by anti-union thugs and was cut by a knife, leaving a lifelong scar on her face. This did not deter her from future labour organising.

Because she was so effective, the union sent her to Seattle; Buffalo; Los Angeles; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Montreal, Canada (to name just a few places) to organise union shops. Her successes led to her being elected as the third woman vice president of the ILGWU. She was the only woman on the board, which led to problems after a few years. As an anarchist and the only woman, she often ran afoul of David Dubinsky and the other men on the board, clashing with some of their ideas while being marginalised as a woman.

Pesotta’s love life was as colourful as her union activities. She had many lovers, including Powers Hapgood, a married man and mine worker who was noted for being a trade union organiser and a socialist leader. He and Pesotta were sent to help the rubber workers in a strike in 1936. She remained involved with him for many years until he died unexpectedly in 1949. Rose was also briefly married to Albert Martin (otherwise known as Frank Lopez), whom she met while working years earlier on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Although little is known about Martin, he is notorious for having been deported, jumping off the ship in the New York Harbor, and swimming back to shore. He disappeared after that with little evidence that Rose saw him again.

Pesotta remained active in her union and as a VP until 1944, when she resigned because of her problems with union leadership. When she resigned, she did a rather unusual thing: she went back to being a seamstress in the same shop where she had begun her career.

After leaving her leadership position, Pesotta took a job for a short time with the Anti-Defamation League, travelling to Europe to see the devastation as a result of WWII. She also went to Israel to see the new Jewish state and its ongoing work finding homes for survivors of the Holocaust. By 1949 she had worked briefly for the American Trade Union League in the Midwest. Yet despite her exciting labour organising activities, throughout her life she kept returning to the sewing machine whenever she needed to work and make a living.

Pesotta wrote two autobiographies, Bread upon the Waters and Days of our Lives, both of which were read by people active in her union. After many years, Pesotta left New York City and moved to Miami, Florida, where she died in 1965. She is buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in New Jersey.

When I interviewed her sister shortly before her death in the 1980s, her sister said, ‘Rose believed in anarchism the way an Orthodox Jew believes in God.’

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

The women I have described in this brief overview were dedicated anarchists who came to the movement in their youth and remained active participants until their deaths. They lived among other anarchists, working hard to manifest their ideologies on a day-to-day level. They valued freedom and equality above all else. Sometimes, they had to compromise on being true to their beliefs, but they always strived to do so. They closely allied themselves with other anarchists, working hard on the radical issues of their days. They belonged to anarchist organisations, publicly challenging the norms and values of their times. They did not adhere to what was expected of Jewish women or homemakers. Instead, they attempted to liberate themselves from the constriction that confined others during that era.

They were certainly flawed, showing contradictions in their behaviours that undermined adherence to their beliefs. Nonetheless, they were colourful and delightful characters who believed in the struggle beyond the public sphere of what is traditionally known as politics. If anything, they prefigured the Second Wave feminist idea that ‘the personal is political’ long before that became a catch-phrase for the women’s movement. These anarchist women kept an ideology alive, living it fully until others came along to pick up the ideas and bring them more fully into the public domain in the 1980s. For this, we can appreciate their sense of freedom and independence at a time of conformity and repression and continue their fight for self-emancipation today.

This research was produced through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar: The History of Women Through Social Movements, SUNY Binghamton 1996 and a Summer Research Grant. Ithaca College, 1985; Presentation given at YIVO, 2021.

ENDNOTES

Ackelsberg, Martha A. Free Women of Spain. (United Kingdom: Indiana University Press). 1991.

Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). 1995.

Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press). 1980.

Falk, Candace. Love, Anarchy and Emma Goldman: A Biography. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston). 1984.

Leeder, Elaine. The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer. (New York: SUNY Press). 1993.

Marsh, Margaret. Anarchist Women: 1870-1920. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press). 1981

Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman in Exile: From the Russian Revolution to Spanish Civil War. (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press). 1989.

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