Jewish Anarchist Women of the Early 1900s: An Interview With Elaine Leeder

Elaine Leeder was a member of the 1970s anarcha-feminist movement before becoming a sociology professor. She is the author of six books, including The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist & Labor Organizer and My Life with Lifers, about her educational work in San Quentin prison. Her upcoming Zoom talk at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research covers interviews she did with eight Jewish women active in the anarchist movement between the 1920s and 1950s. They cover the roles of sexual freedom, family, communal living, education, economic independence, and the role of Jewish ethnicity in their lives.  “Jewish Anarchist Women 1920­–1950: The Politics of Sexuality” will be live on June 10, 2021 at 1PM EST and is free, but advance registration is required. (The talk will also be available on YouTube afterward).

Spencer Sunshine caught up with Leeder and asked her a few questions about her upcoming talk.

Spencer Sunshine: What is a story that stands out from your interviews?

Elaine Leeder: My favorite story is that told by Clara Rotberg Larson. She was an anarchist with the ILGWU and a long time activist and agitator. Late in life, she was chosen to represent Russian immigrants at the opening of Ellis Island museum. She was in a wheelchair and Dan Quayle (then U.S. Vice President) was there. He came over to her and put his hand on her shoulder in a rather patronizing manner. She looked up at him, shook her fist and said, in a thick Yiddish accent: “Gay Aveck—go away—you are a goddamn Republican and I want nothing to do with you!”

Spencer: How do the politics of the women you interviewed fit into the broader context of both the anarchist and Jewish politics of their times?

Elaine: The women I will cover were active in all the anarchist and Jewish issues of their times. They wrote for anarchist journals, worked at labor organizing, raised their children in anarchist oriented schools, lived in anarchist communities, engaged in non-traditional marriages and sexual relations. Some of their husbands (or partners) went to fight in the Spanish Civil War while they stayed home and continued their agitational work. They remained dedicated to anarchist ideology and actions for their entire lives.

Spencer: You were part of a fairly significant U.S. anarcha-feminist scene in the 1970s, including your work with Anarcha-Feminist Notes. Today, there is a lot of interest in the intersection between feminism and anarchism, so why have the 1970s anarcha-feminists been so overlooked—by both feminists and anarchists?

Elaine: Anarchist feminism was never a large movement within the women’s liberation movement. Some called themselves radical feminists, but the Marxist feminists dominated the conversation. As anarchist feminists, we organized at the grassroots level and did not get much attention. A few of us (Peggy Kornegger, Carol Ehrlich, and others) wrote about the connection between feminism and anarchism, but for the few anarchists who wanted to hear what we had to say, no one quoted us or made much of what we were saying. Anarchism has always been marginalized; so too with anarcha-feminism. I am heartened by the younger generation of anarchist feminists today who are making the linkages.

Spencer: What was the relationship of the 1970s anarcha-feminist to the politics of these women? What are the biggest differences and similarities?

Elaine: The women I will cover were a transitional generation from the activism of the 1920s to the feminists of the 1970s. These women were not feminists and did not associate with other women’s organizations or actions. They were busy doing labor organizing, writing, and raising families.

Spencer: What did being Jewish mean to these women? How did their ideas of being Jewish relate to others in the Jewish community, as well as to how non-Jews see the Jewish world (i.e. generally as a religious group)?

Elaine: Being Jewish was an important component of their identities. Many of them were raised Orthodox and were born in Eastern Europe. When they got to the United States they were immersed in Yiddish culture; some of them continued to practice some ritual (I had Shabbat dinner with two of them). They related to other Jews in the organizing, but they also worked with Italians and other anarchists. Within the anarchist world they were well-respected as organizers and writers. I actually do not know what their experience was like with non-political people. We did not cover that in the interviews.

Spencer: Did your anarcha-feminist politics influence your more recent work on restorative justice?

Elaine: My anarcha-feminist politics are strongly attached to my restorative justice work. Since I have been imbued with anarchist values (and Jewish values of Tzedeka—justice) my latest work doing victim/offender dialogues with people who were harmed and those who did the harm are deeply informed by these values. I am still committed to freedom and justice. Working in prisons shows me the systemic racism that is alive and well;  it is my commitment to challenge it as long as I live. I work with prisoners and their victims—they talk through the crimes and the impact on both parties.  I work with them toward forgiveness and repairing the harm done. It is deeply rewarding and profound work; I am honored to be with them through the process.

Spencer: When did you conduct the interviews, and will you make a publication based on them?

Elaine: The interviews were done in the 1980s after I completed my book on Rose Pesotta (anarchist, Jewish, and Vice President of the ILGWU). I had met so many remarkable Jewish anarchists during that time that I felt compelled to tell their stories. I had grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Ithaca College which allowed me to travel to meet these women. I have not yet published this work, but would be happy to do so, should someone be interested in publishing it.

Spencer: What are the most important lessons from these interviews for people today?

Elaine: These women taught me that one cannot give up one’s ideology and commitment  to social justice, even in the face of grave opposition. These women were active during the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and other repressive times. Yet they continued to do their organizing, writing, and agitational work. They never lost their commitment even as they aged; they were a transitional generation of activists and they kept the torch alive to pass on to the next generation of activists. I was honored to meet them and hear their stories.

Elaine Leeder is a retired dean and professor at Sonoma State University; she is the author of six books, two of which are being used at universities around the country. Her first book The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer, was published by SUNY PRESS. She was the author of a number of articles on anarchist-feminism in the 1980s. Currently she works in prisons doing restorative justice facilitating dialogues between victims and those who committed the crimes in California prisons. She is the recipient of the Real Hero Award from the American Red Cross for her work in prisons, is listed in Who’s Who of American Teachers, and Who’s Who in America, and was a visiting scholar at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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