Lucy Parsons

Ambiguous Anarchist – Unambiguous Opponent of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement

Contributed by Lawrence Glynn, Professor Emeritus, Delta College, University Center, Michigan

Who was this mysterious woman whose enigmatic beliefs and behaviors were a puzzle to friends and foes alike? Lucy Parsons (1886-1937) began her speeches: “I Am an Anarchist!” Yet, she never hurled a bomb or threatened harm to any of her self-selected enemies.

Lucia Taliaferro was born enslaved in Virginia in 1851. In 1872 she became Lucy Parsons when she married a former Confederate soldier, Albert Parsons, in Texas. Albert helped to implement Reconstruction [1866- 1872] in Texas. When Texas Democrats regained power and passed an anti-miscegenation law in 1873, Albert and Lucy moved to Chicago. They had two children by 1881.

Black and white portrait photograph of Lucy Parsons wearing a hat, circa 1886.
Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division. Author: August Braunach or Brauneck, New York.

Albert, as a Socialist Party candidate, personally attempted to run for local and state offices three times and failed each time. In 1881, as a couple, they abandoned “ballot-box politics” and became active anarchists. After six years of anarchistic agitation, Albert and three other anarchists were executed on November 11, 1887 as part of the Haymarket affair. Lucy considered their fate judicial murder. History has validated her claim that the Haymarket Square trial was unjust. Thereafter, Lucy’s career as an avenging angel of their martyrdom began.

Lucy Parsons had a limited formal education, but was a lifelong learner. She achieved recognition as an entrepreneur, women’s union organizer, writer, editor, publisher, orator and agitator for revolution. Parsons tried a variety of anarchisms – socialist, Marxist and syndicalist. After 50 years of mutations in her agitation for change, she gave up on anarchism as a means to achieve her mission.

Parsons criticized the woman’s suffrage movement and mocked suffragists as “dupes.” She was no friend of the legendary champions of woman’s suffrage. However, Parsons did not become a supporter of the “antis” in the National Association of Women Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage or the auxiliary, the Men’s Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Her cooperation with the suffragist, Jane Addams, confounded many of her fellow anarchists. Parsons admired Addams’ commitments to women, children and immigrants at Hull House. Parsons and Addams were in sync on anti-imperialism. Both women fought for equal legal rights and economic opportunities for women. Addams’ staunch public defense of the constitutional rights of free speech, press and assembly for all Americans included anarchists. Addams believed that democracy and social ethics were symbiotic. Parsons was not convinced. She continued to subvert the woman’s suffrage movement and criticize capitalists.

Parsons was no fan of electoral politics and considered the “sacred franchise” that most Americans revered, to be foolish and futile. She was merciless in condemning union leaders who made alliances with political parties. Parsons said this about the political methods of capitalists in “The Humbug Ballot” (September 10, 1905): “The fact is money and not votes is what rules the people. And the capitalists no longer care to buy the voters, they simply buy the ‘servants’ after they had been elected to ‘serve’. The idea that the poor man’s vote amounts to anything is the veriest delusion. The ballot is only the paper veil that hides the tricks.” Parsons had a coterie of acolytes who recited her speeches against capitalists and church and state leaders. They echoed her grievances on the venality of politics and the false faith of voters in the ballot.

After her funeral on March 13, 1942, Parsons’ reputation began to fade. She was almost forgotten except by her most devoted admirers. However, by the 1970s, Parsons’ reputation began to be re-contextualized. In 1976, Carolyn Ashbaugh’s book, Lucy Parsons, American Revolutionary and Marjorie Woodruff’s “Spiral,” a 1995 public art exhibit in Chicago, brought a re-examination of Lucy Parsons’ career.

In 2004, City of Chicago officials made a commitment to build a pocket park near Parsons’ last neighborhood. It was completed in 2012. A plaque was unveiled with the title, “Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons Park.” It listed her many accomplishments in Chicago from 1873-1942. On May 1, 2017, an historical street marker, “Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons Honorary Way” was erected near the Avondale neighborhood where Parsons and her companion of 34 years, George Markstall, had lived.

Later, in December 2017, evidence emerged from Jacqueline Jones’ book, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical, that no such real person existed with the name Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons. Parsons had fabricated an origins story about being a Mexican American with a lineage to the pre-Columbian Aztecs.

Parsons had used prevarications and put-ons as well as brave tactics to advance her cause. Yet, by the time of her death on March 7, 1942, she had not succeeded. She failed to get a majority of Americans to assent or vote for her quixotic goal, restoration of “paradise” on earth. Moreover, her hubris provoked this nemesis: only a minority of zealots believed her prediction of glory days after the revolution. Most Americans were unambiguous. They refused to join her gospel chorus for revolution.


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