Lucy Parsons, Revolutionary

Forth article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series

By Jadehawk – Follow her on twitter (@IAmJadehawk) and check out her blog

Lucy (Lucía) Eldine González Parsons was a woman of Hispanic, Native American, and African American heritage, married to a white Southerner who would later become one of the Haymarket Martyrs; a woman who fought against specific oppressions of women and people of color, but who also believed that class oppression was the cause of all other oppressions; a woman who, over the course of her life, would be a socialist, an anarchist, and lastly, a communist. For all these reasons, histories of social movements tend to dismiss and ignore her entirely. So perhaps it's the actions of her enemies that shows most clearly how important a figure she was: Chicago Police tended to refer to her as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters" [1], and the FBI raided her personal library, confiscating all her writings and reading material shortly after her death [2]. Clearly, she was a notable enough annoyance to those defending the status quo.

Lucy González was born in 1852 or 1853 in Texas, possibly into slavery given the "one drop rule" that applied at the time [3]. In 1871, she married a well-connected Southerner named Albert Parsons, who was involved in helping freedmen register to vote. This and other pro-African-American actions meant persecution by the Klan for the mixed-race couple, and so, in 1873, they left Texas and moved to Chicago [4]. This was a time of great social conflict in the US as a result of an economic crisis very similar to the one we've just gone through: one of the largest banks of the time collapsed, causing a depression and mass unemployment, which was then used by the rich business owners to slash wages, bust unions, fire people, and otherwise destroy the ability of working people to support themselves, all the while enriching themselves throughout the crisis [5]. Lucy and her husband settled in the poorest worker neighborhoods of Chicago, and became increasingly involved in the labor movements and politics of the time.

At first, Lucy Parson's role was limited to hosting the meetings of the union and socialist activists in her home. In 1879 however she started writing articles for the various labor and socialist papers active at that time. In these articles, she criticized the mistreatment of veterans of the Civil War by men who had stayed home and profited from the war; sharply attacked abuse of servant girls by their upper-class mistresses[6]; campaigned for the 8-hour-workday; and supported the efforts of the Working Women's Union to gain "equal pay for equal work" for women, as well as better working conditions and shorter hours – women at that time worked in conditions worse than the men, for less pay, and for more hours. She also put women’s suffrage on the Socialist Labor platform, and gained access for women to the workers' unions [7].

Her perhaps most revolutionary article, and the beginning of her more active involvement in the labor, socialist, and anarchist movements came with the article published on the front page of inaugural issue of the Alarm in 1884. Written in the aftermath of one of the coldest (and consequently deadliest for those without shelter) winters in Chicago, “A Word To Tramps", it was a call to arms (literally and figuratively) for the masses of unemployed and homeless in Chicago, to "Learn the use of Explosives" [8] rather than die from cold, starvation, or suicide. The article was reprinted as a leaflet and distributed widely. At that time, she also begun to speak at, and organize, protests. She was an excellent orator, considered "as a rule, both frightening and beautiful in her intense earnestness" [9].

As a result of their activism, Lucy Parson's husband was arrested as part of the Haymarket Affair. Lucy Parsons campaigned across the country to free the arrested men, gathering financial and moral support for the men. Everywhere she went, police barred her from entering meeting halls, arrested her, and otherwise tried very hard to prevent her from speaking, considering her a dangerous agitator [10]. And even though ultimately her campaign to free her husband and the other Haymarket Martyrs was unsuccessful, her tour across the country had contributed greatly to her efforts at organization and radicalization of American workers. It was also only the first battle she fought for the rights of political prisoners. As part of the communist International Labor Defense, Lucy Parsons worked in the 1920's and 1930's on the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine teenage boys framed for the rape of a white woman; Angelo Herndon, a black man who had led a march of 10000 in Atlanta, protesting Depression conditions; and a number of other black victims of a racist justice system [11]. In fact, during her time in the labor, socialist, anarchist, and communist movements, Lucy Parsons did not only agitate for the rights of "the worker" in general, but took on the specific oppressions affecting women and racial minorities. Through her work in the Working Women's Union she fought for the rights of women to be treated equally as workers, and she fought for women's reproductive freedoms, the freedom to divorce, and against the scourge of rape in marriage [12]. On the eve of the tragic Haymarket event, she led a march of several hundred women, demanding the eight-hour-work-day. In Freedom, the paper she begun to write and edit in 1891, she spoke out against atrocities against blacks committed in the South:

Never since the days of the Spartan Helots has history recorded such brutality as has been ever since the war and is now being perpetrated upon the Negro in the South.

Women are stripped to the skin in the presence of leering, white-skinned, black-hearted brutes and lashed into insensibility and strangled to death from the limbs of trees. A girl child of fifteen years was lynched recently by these brutal bullies. Where has justice fled? [13].

She also had the distinction of being only the 2nd woman to join the International Workers of the World (AKA the Wobblies), and was a main speaker at at the IWW's first ever convention in 1905, where she advocated a general strike of workers as a tactic in the struggle against exploitation. She was the first labor leader to do so in the US [14].

Lucy Eldine González Parsons died in 1942 as a result of a fire. She was buried, appropriately enough, next to the Haymarket Monument[15]. She was a relentless fighter for the rights of workers, women, and people of color, and she deserves to be remembered as an important contributor to social justice.

[1] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 92

[2] Ahrens, p. 181

[3] Weir, p. 571

[4] Ashbaugh, pp. 13-15

[5] Turkel, p. 116

[6] Ashbaugh, pp. 32-33

[7] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 94

[8] Parsons, p. 2

[9] Chaplin, quoted in Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 92

[10] Turkel, p. 122

[11] Ashbaugh, p. 258

[12] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 95

[13] Parsons, quoted in Ahrens, p. 70

[14] Mirandé & Enríquez, p. 94

[15] Turkel, p.123

Ahrens, G. (Ed.). (2004). Lucy Parsons: freedom, equality & solidarity – writings & speeches, 1878-1937. Chicago, IL: Charles Kerr.

Ashbaugh, C. (1976). Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary. Chicago, IL: Charles Kerr.

Mirandé, A. & Enríquez, E. (1979). La Chicana: The Mexican American Woman. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Parsons, L. (1884, Oct. 4). A Word To Tramps. The Alarm (Newspaper). Chicago Historical Society People's Exhibit 18.

Turkel, S. (2005). Heroes of the American Reconstruction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers.

Weir, R.E. (2013). Workers in America: a historical encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Her•Story: Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen

As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.

Thelma "Butterfly" McQueen (January 7, 1911 – December 22, 1995) was an American actress. Originally a dancer, the 28-year-old McQueen first appeared as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. She continued as film actress in the 1940s, then moved on to television in the 1950s. Raised a Christian, she began questioning organized religions as a child.

Early life

Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, she had planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly"—a tribute to her constantly moving hands—for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (she had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen). She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar.


McQueen's first role would become her most identifiable —as Prissy, the young maid in Gone with the Wind. Her distinctive, high-pitched voice also took people by surprise. She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women, filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester's niece and Mary Livingstone's maid in the Jack Benny radio program, for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947 she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career. From 1950 until 1952 she played Oriole, another racially stereotyped role, on the television series Beulah. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game. Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study; she received a Bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. In 1979 McQueen won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance as Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special episode The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody. She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.

Religious Views

“I’m an atheist,” she once declared, “and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry.” In 1989, the Freedom from Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. She told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (8 October 1989), “As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion.” She also lamented that humans had not put the energy on earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, for if we had there would be less hunger and homelessness. “They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. . . . When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Legacy and death

McQueen never married or had children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia during the winter. She died on December 22, 1995, at Augusta Regional Medical Center in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames. When a Christian neighbor observed the incident, however, she told the Atlanta Constitution, “I believe she [Thelma] made it into Heaven. She threw up both her hands as she was coming out of that burning house, and made it in with Jesus.” On the contrary, the atheistic McQueen had been a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation since 1981 and had included the foundation in her will. More Information: Recommended Reading Picture: of the photo from the SW FB photos

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