UPDATE: A recently declassified grand jury testimony by Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, has cast doubt on her role in the conspiracy. To learn more, head over to The New York Times and read an op-ed on the issue by Michael and Robert Meeropol, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Exonerate Our Mother, Ethel Rosenberg.
By Jenn Meeropol
If she were alive today, Ethel Rosenberg would turn 100 on September 28th. That month will also mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. The foundation was started by her son (and the author’s father) Robert Meeropol to honor his parents’ memory—and their resistance—by providing for the educational and emotional needs of children whose lives have been compromised by their parents’ activism. Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius were charged at the height of the McCarthy era with conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the former Soviet Union. Parents of two young sons, they were smeared, branded as Communists and anti-American. Convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage—but not of actually spying—they were sentenced to death. Despite worldwide outcry—from the president of France to Albert Einstein—they were executed on June 19, 1953. As the 100th anniversary of Ethel Rosenberg’s birth approaches, Jenn Meeropol, her granddaughter, has been thinking about her grandmother and what questions and lessons her experience raises for our understanding of gender roles today.
What was the cultural context of Ethel Rosenberg’s trial and execution? The media in the 1950s was captivated by the idea of the housewife in her kitchen. This image was relentlessly used by advertisers to remind women of their proper place and to reassure a war-weary populace that everything was back to normal— “cooking” on all burners again.
There is a specific image that has particular resonance in my grandparents’ case. Ethel held a press conference in her kitchen in 1950 in the three-week window between my grandfather’s arrest and her own. A popular photo of Ethel from that press conference is captured in Unknown Secrets, a 1988 work by Martha Rosler, which provides a useful overview of many of the cultural and political forces that influenced my grandparents’ case.
In the center of the collage, Ethel stands in her kitchen doing the dishes. She seems to be looking straight into the eyes of the American public, surrounded by the trappings of the idealized American housewife.
By talking to reporters and proclaiming her husband’s innocence in the centerpiece of the American home, Ethel was trying to convey that she was an ordinary woman, with an ordinary husband, leading an ordinary life. The mother of two boys, then seven and three, she was attempting to signal that the couple had somehow been caught up in a government mistake. This strategy was echoed by my grandparents’ attorney Emmanuel Bloch, who characterized her during the trial as “a housewife and nothing else” and insisted that the jury “send her back to her home and her children where she belongs.”
I winced when I read that description. Still, this attempt to cloak my grandmother in the protection—limited as it might have been—of wife and mother made sense given her options and the cultural realities of the times. Focusing on her identity as a young wife and mother was designed to win her sympathy. In the early 1950s society dictated that women should not be leaders in any realm; even at home, husbands were the deciders.
Unfortunately, an apron and housedress were no match for the forces aligned against her. 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 with which to disparage her. In a letter to his son, explaining why he was declining clemency for the mother of two young sons (from which the artist Rosler included an excerpt on the dish towel in her collage), President Eisenhower expressed contempt for my grandmother. “The woman was the leader in everything they did,” he wrote, vilifying her for failing to stay within the bounds of acceptable female behavior. Vice President Richard Nixon took this mindset further, linking subverting social roles with dangerous political subversion. “In the case of Communist couples,” he noted, “the wife is often more extremist than her husband.”
Eisenhower and Nixon were not alone in their belief in a connection between housewives led astray and Communists. Historian Virginia Carmichael, who studied the Rosenberg case with a special focus on public perception of Ethel, noted in her 1993 book, Framing History: The Rosenberg Story and the Cold War, that “a linkage between communist conspiracy and women’s reform groups had been established in the public mind in the 1920s by representations of women committed to social reform as part of a spider web conspiracy directed by Moscow to subvert the family and traditional American values.”
The idea that subversion might start with women meeting inside their homes was especially alarming to many people in the 1950s. Indeed, Rosler’s collage ironically suggests that the outside Communist threat had worked its way inside: according to Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy (whose image surrounds Ethel in the collage), it had worked its ways inside the borders of the country; inside the entertainment industry; and even inside Congress. Within this context it is easy to understand the widespread fear that the so-called threat may have also moved inside the American home.
The prosecution and the popular press exploited the public’s fear of this threat, portraying Ethel as using the kitchen to drag relatives into a spy ring. After Ethel’s arrest, Myles Lane, chief assistant U.S. attorney, declared hyperbolically, “If the crime with which she is charged had not occurred, perhaps we would not have the current situation in Korea.” No surprise that the next day’s newspapers included headlines like this one from the front page of the August 12, 1950, New York Times: “Atomic Energy Plot is Laid to Woman.”
An additional image surrounding Ethel in the Rosler collage is of another female icon of the 1950s: a mother and child. In this case, she’s a well-dressed woman in a white apron, with a young boy clutching her legs. Woman’s Day, Seventeen, Vanity Fair and similar publications all paid homage to this ideal in the covers and stories they published in the early fifties. In 1951, of the 12 Woman’s Day covers, eight featured photos of children (most with their mother). Titles for a regular section called “How to Be a Girl” ranged from “Keep Your Emotions in Proportion” (Feb. 1951) to “Dressing for His Football Games” (Oct. 1953).
Like today, these magazines were selling a very specific representation of white, middle-class womanhood, in this case focused on a postwar idealization of the hearth and home. While reviewing the images of smiling children, happy homemakers, and chipper dogs, I found myself most intrigued not by what the publications were pushing women toward, but what they were pushing them away from. The magazines deliberately constructed a narrative of the “proper” roles for women, partially out of fear that women might be drawn to improper ones. In addition to offering advice on cooking, fashion and child-rearing, articles endlessly cautioned women against being too smart, too flirtatious, too demanding.
Of course we recognize today that most of the 1950s messages were pure fantasy. For one thing, in addition to the average 1950s woman not being a spy, many also were not full-time housewives. By the end of 1959, there were twice as many working women as in 1940, and the proportion of working wives had also doubled, as Brett Harvey reported in The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History.
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, one of several popular films dramatizing how 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 central to the prosecution’s case against her. Throughout the trial, the prosecution “helped popularize the characterization of Ethel Rosenberg as dominant and Julius as submissive,” Robert Meeropol said. This depiction of their relationship was evident in media coverage of the case, with the press frequently expounding upon the strong woman/ weak man theme.
In its June 29, 1953 issue, Time described the Rosenbergs’ final appeal this way: “For the sixth time the mousy little engineer and his wife petitioned the highest tribunal.” 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.”
The ways in which popular culture, the prosecution, the media, politicians, and other key opinion shapers influenced the public’s understanding of my grandmother is part of U.S. history and part of the history of my grandparents’ case. But is their story only of historical significance or does it have meaning for us today? I gave a talk recently about three families whose children received support from the Rosenberg Fund for Children. All had mothers who were activists—women whose experience of repression had specific gender (as well as racial and religious) components. As with my grandmother, in the case of these three women—a war resister, a doula/advocate for reproductive rights, and an environmental and education organizer—gender interacted with race, religion, ethnicity, and class. These factors, along with the political and cultural context of the times, influenced how they were treated, how they experienced that treatment, and public perception of the women and their choices.
This reality is perhaps most evident for the war resister, a soldier court martialed and subsequently imprisoned for refusing to complete her military service after witnessing atrocities. Mainstream media depictions of her story included detractors who denigrated the number of children she had, made racist remarks about her decision to marry a Latino man (several stories implied this “proved” she was not patriotic), and questioned whether, as a deserter, she could be a good mother. On the other side, supporters connected her refusal to fight to her love for her children (and other people’s children); urged, in an echo of my grandmother’s defense, that as a pregnant mother of four she belonged at home with her kids; and shared photos of her holding her children as part of a campaign to win her early release from prison.
The experiences of today’s targeted activists whose children are supported by the Rosenberg Fund for Children illustrate how ideals of womanhood, what it means to be a good mother, and other gendered components of identity continue to influence how the public views women. Exploring the complicated role gender played in my grandmother’s arrest, trial, execution—and her ongoing representation in the media—may help us better understand how it continues to impact activists today. This perspective also can help inform our understanding of Ethel Rosenberg at 100, and in the years ahead influence the work of activist organizations, like the foundation that bears my grandparents’ name.
Jenn Meeropol is executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, succeeding her father, RFC founder Robert Meeropol, in 2013. The RFC is a public foundation created to honor Jenn’s grandparents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, by aiding children in the U.S. whose parents have been attacked while struggling to wage peace, preserve civil liberties, safeguard the environment, combat racism, and organize on behalf of workers, political prisoners, the LGBTQ community, and others whose rights are under threat. Since its inception in 1990, the RFC has awarded grants totaling more than $5.6 million and helps hundreds of young people. Learn more at www.rfc.org. Members of “Save the Rosenbergs” delegations took to the streets around the world, demonstrating on behalf of the Rosenbergs.