Women’s History Month 2016
Saving women’s stories from disregardBy Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Perhaps you’ve noticed a wave of social media posts indicating March is Women’s History Month. Well, not a wave, more akin to a ripple. I sit in my office, a rare Southern California rain overflowing the gutter to wash my glass door, and little bio blurbs of noteworthy women absent from text books pop up in my Facebook newsfeed, black and white images of intrepid activists of yore, hopeful shots of women of color in typically white male roles, feisty words of wisdom rendered cliché on t-shirts and mugs.
Women’s history certainly does not garner the volume of likes and shares, of retweets and TBT images as do women’s breasts and tushies. Nonetheless, it’s my history, and I’m rather fond of it, but so many women’s stories are fading, if not already gone, their details erased by disregard. When avoiding other things, I pause to study these women, search for the person behind the blurb.
This morning it was 19th and 20th century activist Lucy E. Parsons. She’s unfamiliar to most; known to the informed as the widow of Albert R. Parsons, one of eight radical labor activists convicted for the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Square bombing; and resurrected by a few who want her to be known and honored today. There’s a lot more to Lucy than widowhood, including, as I’ve discovered, her name. She used various combinations at various times from among Lucia Lucy Eldine Gonzalez (her mother’s name) Parsons (her husband’s) Markstall (that of her companion late in life). What’s most compelling about Lucy was her role as a radical writer and labor leader—and a perceived danger to the hegemony. She put herself at risk for the nascent labor movement, advocated to end racism and sexism, and devoted her life to social revolution.
The National Women’s History Museum (a virtual edifice raising money for a brick and mortar edition) posted Lucy’s blurb on Facebook last month. I held onto it because she intrigued me, a labor leader and a woman of color in an era when that combination could have gotten her killed. I wanted to know more, but, like so many women whose stories have been worn to shreds by time and neglect, the record of Lucy’s life was threadbare.
There is, though, a bit of information about her available, some of her labor activism was recorded in newspapers and progressive publications, but much of her biographical information is difficult to find and harder to confirm. For example, the Lucy Parsons Center, a self-described radical bookstore in Boston, declares Lucy to be of “African American, Native American, and Mexican ancestry.” The store’s website indicates “it is likely her parents were slaves.” While this is possible, Lucy reportedly denied any African American heritage. Her Chicago, Illinois, death record names her parents as Mexican natives Pedro Diez and Marires Gonzales, perhaps a typo for Marites, a more common name. But neither that data nor the center’s pronouncement confirms anything.
Some sources suggest that Lucy’s 1871 marriage in Austin, Texas, to Albert, a white man, was the source of her denial, due to the state’s anti-miscegenation law. This is unlikely, because Texas forbade whites to marry anyone but other whites, and in the State’s eyes, Lucy had three strikes against her. The couple’s eventual move to Chicago eliminated such concern because the Illinois law prohibiting marriage between blacks and whites was repealed in 1874. It’s a curious thing Lucy’s been accused of, given her radically progressive persuasions.
Albert's, too, although, born in Alabama, he fought for the South in the U.S. Civil War. But his travels through Texas broadened his political horizons, and, apparently, his intimate. He wrote of meeting Lucy in 1869: “It was during this trip through Johnson County that I first met the charming young Spanish-Indian maiden who, three years later, became my wife. She lived in a most beautiful region of country, on her uncle's ranch near Buffalo Creek.”
Lucy’s husband could be considered a reliable source of her biographical information, yet therein lies a great challenge of women’s history: our dratted reliance on records created predominantly by and for men. Even after Albert’s execution for his supposed involvement in the Haymarket Square bombing, Lucy’s focus was on preserving his history, not her own. While she continued her labor and political activism for five more decades, gave rousing speeches, helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, and operated a tea and coffee shop, she published Albert’s writings, others’ praise for him, his life’s story. What can be stated as fact about Lucy is most often from Albert’s perspective, his insights into her character. He once wrote to her while on the road: “My trip is overflowing with interest, especially to one like you, whose whole being is wrapped up in the progress of the social revolution.”
Their contemporaries reported Lucy’s devotion to Albert was legend, and he made clear his adoration of her as he faced his execution: “Ah, wife,” he wrote, “living or dead, we are as one. For you my affection is everlasting. For the people—humanity I cry out again and again in the doomed victim's cell: Liberty—Justice—Equality.”
But here’s the tricky thing about history: How much is popular recollection and how much, fact? Without more historical records, we'll never know, although Lucy might have documented much more than has been preserved online. When she died in a house fire on March 7, 1942, by then, into her eighties, the FBI absconded with her personal papers and library. Or so the story goes.
From my office that looks out on avocado groves and pocket gopher mounds, there’s little else I can learn about Lucy, other than what I’ve found in digital records—unless the FBI were to dig up the “evidence” they took from her home and make it available for posterity. There’s so much more we might know about Lucy.
In the meantime, we’ll celebrate the female of the species this month with writings for, by or about women, published Mondays and Fridays. And you might take the time to record a beloved woman’s stories, lest they disappear with her death.
Renderings and Albert quotations from The Life of Albert R. Parsons with Brief History of the Labor Movement in America, published by Lucy E. Parsons.
Photo from the National Women's History Museum Facebook page.