Ethel Rosenberg: The Unnaturalization and Criminalization of a Communist Wife
On August 11, 1950 Ethel Rosenberg was arrested for conspiring to commit espionage. Her husband, Julius Rosenberg, and brother, David Greenglass, had already been arrested for the same crime. Both the Rosenbergs pleaded not guilty. Accused of recruiting spies to transmit secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, they were tried and convicted in March 1951. All pleas to save her life failed.
The charges against Ethel centered around three events. First, according to David and Ruth's testimony, Ethel enlisted Ruth to ask David to give them secret information. Second, they both testified that Ethel typed secret information obtained from David. Lastly, at a dinner party at the Rosenberg house, Julius gave David half of a Jello box, cut obliquely. The man to whom David was to transmit secret information would have the other half of the box. Julius and Ethel both took the stand and protested their innocence. They claimed that David and Ruth were lying, after claiming the benefit of the Constitutional privilege against self-incrimination before the grand jury. On cross-examination, Ethel was repeatedly asked why she pleaded the Fifth Amendment in front of the grand jury when she was protesting her innocence at trial. Ethel and Julius were found guilty and sentenced to death. After numerous appeals, throughout which they maintained their innocence, they were executed on June 19, 1953.
The social climate of the 1950s was filled with fear of communism and pursuit of domesticity. Ethel's persona did not fit well with either cultural strand. In the midst of the Cold War arms race, fear, and suspicion prevailed. The Korean War broke out shortly before the arrest of the Rosenbergs. The country was alarmed at the prospect of another world war, waged with atomic bombs on both sides. Many of the women who joined the work force during World War II stayed in their jobs, despite widespread resurgence of the notion that women belonged at home. Domesticity was seen as a form of patriotism; traditional gender roles would prevail even in thechaos of nuclear attack. Those who did not conform were considered deviant, neurotic, and poorly adjusted. They were thought to be the harbingers of society's breakdown. For many people, traditional wives and mothers formed the moral core of a stable society; women who bucked tradition were security risks. The life of Ethel Rosenberg made it easy to portray her as unstable and risky.
Unlike the stereotypical 1950s woman she was expected to be, Ethel had artistic talent, job skills, political savvy, and an aura of dignity. And she vigorously defended her life choices. She began her career hoping to be a singer and actress. Though she met with some success, the big break never came. Some saw her desire to live a life in the public spotlight as unladylike and threatening; she was viewed as attention-hungry. After finishing high school, Ethel took a stenography course, worked as a typist, and became involved with labor unions. Her work with organized labor, a subject of much suspicion during the McCarthy Era, created additional problems for her. At the time, political and social activism was outside the norm, especially for women. A woman who participated in various forms of social activism carried an unnatural aura. Someone so out of the mainstream was easily labeled as a Communist and therefore a likely spy.
Ethel had a strong personality. She was pictured as domineering--the mastermind who led her husband, brother, and sister-in-law into a web of espionage. Furthermore, she insisted on her innocence at peril of death, rather than confess, testify against others and seek her release to raise her children. Any woman who would betray her children was just as likely to be disloyal to her country. She therefore "deserved" to be executed for her crimes.
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