Why on earth did American feminists move to Russia in the 1920s?

Nina Allender, “America First / Russia First,” from The Suffragist, March 1917

Thinking in Public, Featuring the research of Dr. Julia Mickenberg

By Saturday, March 24, 1917, word spread to the United States that the Bolsheviks had given Russian women the right to vote. American suffragettes were furious. Nina Allender’s satirical cover of The Suffragist magazine announced to Americans that while in the United States only (certain) men had the right to vote, the new Russian government had granted universal suffrage to its people. It was this policy—along with legalized abortion, simplified divorce procedures, equal pay, and socialized housework (public laundries, dining halls, and nurseries)—that inspired hundreds of American feminists to go to the “new Russia,” where they could witness and take part in the most dramatic events on the world’s stage..

Julia Mickenberg’s American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dreamtraces the journey of American girls—relief workers, journalists, performers, educators, artists, and adventurers—barging into the Red capital to witness and take part in the “new life.” Celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan arrived in 1921 to start a dance school. Photographer Margaret Bourke-White made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union in 1930, determined to document Russia’s industrial progress. Twenty-two African-American women and men, including notable Harlem Renaissance figures like Dorothy West and Langston Hughes, traveled to Moscow to act in a film showing “the first authentic picture of [American] Negro life.”

So why has this fascination with revolutionary Russia been forgotten? Partly because the “Soviet dream” became a nightmare. State violence and censorship created an environment of paranoia. By the late 1930s, these concerns could no longer be rationalized as necessary “side effects” of socialism. Unlucky Americans who tried to live out their lives there gave up their American citizenship and found themselves trapped. Some wound up in the gulag or died. Nearly all who stayed lost the idealism that initially drew them there.

The “Russian chapter” in American feminism reminds us that balancing motherhood, domestic duties, and meaningful work has never been simple. A desire for fulfilling and equal romantic relationships transcends a generation and a nation. Women risking it all to attempt to build a more just society has a long and richly textured history worth remembering.


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What on earth do an anarchist protest, a Thanksgiving-day parade, and a seamstress have in common?


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Decades before oversized balloons of Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse filled American skies during  commercially-sponsored Thanksgiving day parades, a very different object was flown–the black flag of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA). While many Americans celebrated the holiday by giving thanks and partaking in the now-traditional turkey dinner, the anarchist organization protested turn-of-the-century American industrial capitalism in the streets of Chicago. With banners reading “Shall we thank our Lords for our Misery, Destitution, and Poverty?” and  “The Turkeys and Champagne upon the Tables of our grateful Capitalists are very cheap. We paid for them!”, the organization reflected upon the plight of working class men and women.

Leaders of the IWPA protest included Albert Parsons, who would be charged with the 1886 bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. However, one of the most influential figures present was not Parsons, but his wife, Lucy. In addition to sewing these banners, Lucy Parsons championed anarchist causes through her writing and speeches. Like many anarchists (and socialists), Lucy felt American political parties represented the interests of the elite. Dismayed by the perceived government corruption, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the displacement of factory workers by machines, she searched for an alternative economic model. Lucy argued replacing the capitalism business model with voluntary trade unions–groups of people who worked together, eliminating the need for wages or profits–would better society.

Historian Jacqueline Jones’ recent biography, Goddess of Anarchy, explores Parsons’ path to becoming a national voice of American anarchists. Claiming to be the daughter of Mexican and Native American parents, Parsons was actually born to an enslaved woman in Virginia. Over time, she reinvented her identity, believing her background had little relevance, especially when she embarked on a national speaking tour. When interviewed by a reporter in Cincinnati about her past, then 35-year-old Parsons retorted, “I am not a candidate for office, and the public have no right to my past.” Parsons’ message transcended race, gender, and socioeconomic status (although she may have felt that posing Mexican and Native American lent her more credibility with a white audience).

Lucy Parsons was a woman of contradictions. As Jones describes, she was “famous and infamous. And she was prescient about what we’re facing today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the effect of technological innovation in the workplace, the inability of Democrats and Republicans to address gross injustice. The contradictions and ironies in her life make her fascinating.”

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Why on earth did working-class German men dress like this to attend political rallies in 1928?


This Thinking in Public article features the research of Dr. Sabine Hake Professor, Professor and Texas Chair of German Literature and Culture in the Department of Germanic Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

You’re a member of the working class living in a cramped urban space with at least a few other people. You’re constantly concerned about money. Frustrated with the prevailing political leadership, you decide change needs to happen and you think socialism might be the solution. For those living in the western world today, all of this might sound quite familiar. But what do the men in this postcard have to do with that sentiment?

The men in this photo are radicalized members of the German Social Democratic party who deepened their connection to their political party through choral societies. By joining together to sing songs about their experiences as workers these men found the space to express discontent, frustration, and other negative emotions associated with their worker life.

Dr. Sabine Hake explores this “politics of emotion” within German worker culture in The Proletarian Dream: Socialism, Culture, and Emotion in Germany, 1863–1933. She writes, “There are few cultural practices that attest to the emotional basis of proletarian identifications as powerfully as the act of singing in unison and, in the process, finding a voice and claiming a name – whether as worker, working man, or proletarian.”

Workers’ songs were often an hybrid of revolutionary anthems, traditional folk songs, church hymns, and bourgeois Kunstlieder (art songs). Lyrics often reflected abundant nature metaphors: the ubiquitous rays of sun, dawns of day, and storms of revolution.

Both a strength and failing of these singing groups was their deep commitment toward building all-male bonds within the worker community. This success partially came because they excluded women and children–a fact also reflected in the early history of this political movement. Women and children, who also worked in factories and mines during this period, missed out on the emotional release and support the groups offered.

Nonetheless, these singing traditions became an integral part of German working-class life, even through immigration and exile to places like Central Texas. In fact, Scholz Garten, one of the Austin, Texas’ most popular (and historic) spots to grab a beer was previously owned by one of these German singing groups! The next time you’re in town, we recommend you check out not just the beer, but think about the slightly revolutionary experience you might be in for. Prost!


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Why on earth would someone preserve this drawing in a research library?


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At first glance, this cowboy comic seems like it belongs on a refrigerator, not preserved in a research library.

This is no ordinary eight-year-old’s picture. The creator was none other than Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature. Known for complex novels about the ethics of technological progress and the uncertainty of cultural memory, Ishiguro is Japanese-born Briton who has never lived in the United States. So why would he give his papers to a public research library, the Harry Ransom Center (HRC), in Austin, Texas?

The answer has to do with how the HRC grows its collections. They practice “nodal acquisitions,” which means they acquire items that have a connections to current holdings (think six degrees of separation). Each year, British literary-tastemaking magazine Granta names the “20 Best Young British Novelists” under 40. In 1983, Kazuo Ishiguro was named on the list, as were Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. Additionally, all three have won the Man Booker Prize. It is no coincidence that all three of these authors’ collections are at the HRC. Barnes’ collection was purchased in 2002, followed by McEwan’s in 2014, and most recently Ishiguro’s in 2015. It is a common practice today for notable authors to carefully select the home of their professional papers. One of the factors they consider is the other collections housed at particular research libraries. Although authors do get compensated for their “gift,” authors like to be with their friends or friendly competition.

Ishiguro’s collection includes handwritten notes, sketched-out plots, thought bubbles, redacted drafts, and notes from his wife and editor for his nine books, including The Remains of the Day (1989). Ishiguro explains,  “For many years, I’ve been in the habit of keeping a large cardboard box under my desk into which I throw, more or less indiscriminately, all papers produced during my writing that I don’t want to file neatly and take into the next stage of composition.” Much like the untidy mess one might find in a child’s schoolroom, sorting through Ishiguro’s archive shows how creativity isn’t in perfect order. Some of the most unusual scrap paper includes guitar and piano music, scribbled lyrics, and yes, even his childhood comic Bravo. While your childhood masterpieces aren’t carefully catalogued and studied—yet—just remember: all you have to do is become a famous author, and they just might be.

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Image: Kazuo Ishiguro’s homemade comic book, titled Bronco, ca. 1962. Kazuo Ishiguro papers and manuscript collection. Courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Why on earth is there a statue of a black African saint in a cathedral in Germany?

black saint

Thinking in Public

This article features the research of Dr. Geraldine Heng, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

Imagine you’re a white, Christian pilgrim traveling in eastern Germany during the 13th century. You arrive at the Magdeburg Cathedral and kneel in supplication. As you look up, you realize there’s something different about the statue in front of you compared to the other statues you’ve seen on your journey. Instead of a European figure, there’s a black African dressed in the prestigious garb of a Roman knight. You take in distinctly African facial features combined with clear physical cues of sainthood. Perhaps you respond with astonishment—early medieval art often demonized black Africans, portraying them as heathens responsible for torturing Christ and executing John the Baptist. Or maybe you find the African patron saint intriguing.

Dr. Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages explores the idea of race in the Middle Ages through examples like St. Maurice. By discussing his position and potential contemporary responses, Dr. Heng complicates our modern understanding of race centuries before the word “race” existed.

Within the chapter, Heng describes how Maurice led the Egyptian Theban legion in the 3rd century. When the Emperor Maximian demanded the legion attack fellow Christians in Gaul or sacrifice to pagan Roman gods, Maurice and his troops refused. So the Emperor ordered the entire legion be executed. The martyrdom was first chronicled in the Passion of the Martyrs of Agaunum (443-450 A.D.) by Eucherius, bishop of Lyon. On the Roman calendar, his feast day is September 22.

In the 11th century, St. Maurice became the patron saint of Magdeburg under Emperor Henry II. For the emperor, Maurice likely represented a militarized Christianity, “blessing” the German offensive against Slavic pagans. His representation changed over the next two centuries. When the Fourth and Fifth Crusades failed to target Egypt, Maurice morphed into proof that “Christianity once triumphed [in Egypt] among its people.”

Since his institution at the Magdeburg Cathedral, St. Maurice has been depicted in over 300 pieces of art (catalogued by historian Gude Suckale-Redlefsen) located in Poland, Scandinavia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Today, St. Maurice’s statute is faded and incomplete, having survived a fire and nearly a millennium. While it is difficult and uncertain work to ask the questions St. Maurice provokes, looking at his figure reminds us of the long-term value of overturning preconceptions.

Statue of the Black St Maurice of Magdeburg. Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, 1220-1250.  The Menil Foundation, Houston; Hickey and Robertson, Houston; and Harvard University’s Image of the Black Project, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

What on earth do Beyoncé, this sphinx, and Napoléon have in common?

sphinz.pngThinking in Public

By Amy Vidor and Caroline Barta on 

They’re all featured in “Apeshit”–a music video dropped this past weekend during Beyoncé and JAY-Z Carter’s tour. The video introduced fans to Everything is Love, a collaborative album celebrating black identity and fame in 2018 America. “Apeshit” was filmed inside the Louvre museum in front of statutes like “The Great Sphinx of Tanis” and paintings like “The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon” by David. Why would two American music moguls shoot a music video glorifying blackness in an iconic French museum?

A sphinx is a ferocious, powerful mythical creature, represented with a lion’s body and a king’s head. The Great Sphinx of Tanis may date to as early as 2600 BC. Inscribed are the names of Pharaohs Ammenemes II, Merneptah, and Shoshenq I. For centuries, the Egyptian empire thrived because of their cultural advances and strategic location in Northern Africa.

The Sphinx’s current home in the Louvre reflects France’s history of imperialism. A fortress-turned-palace for the French monarchy, the museum contains 380,000 objects of art, including the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Africa.

From 1798 to 1801 General Napoléon Bonaparte led a military campaign in Egypt and Syria to “protect” trade interests. Although the campaign ultimately failed, it sparked French interest in Egyptian culture, and was a pivotal moment in Napoléon’s trajectory to Emperor. On December 2, 1804, Napoléon infamously crowned himself (traditionally the Pope would crown the monarch) during his coronation ceremony. Napoléon then turned and crowned his wife, Empress Josephine. Painter David captured this moment in a mural-sized painting.

It is no coincidence that the century following Napoléon’s reign marked the height of global imperialism and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Natural selection theorized our closest ancestors were apes. Darwin’s theory built upon previous European thought that believed races were different species, and that Africans were closer to apes than Europeans. This false claim reinforced tropes of European superiority.  Even now, “Apeshit” directly rejects this centuries-old narrative of inferiority.

In the video, Beyoncé dances in front of David’s neoclassical painting of Napoléon, clasping hands with a line of black female dancers. Their choreographed movement and body-affirming clothing functions as a bold celebration of blackness. Beyoncé redirects the viewer’s gaze away from the towering tableau, dethroning Napoléon. There is a new monarch, and her lineage is not European, but African.

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Why on earth did Julia Child collect 5,000 cookbooks?



Today, it’s probably easiest to picture Julia Child like this–towering over a stove, whipping up culinary delights, and peppering her half-hour television show with her delightful humor. Now firmly an American culinary icon, she remains popular through media like Dan Aykroyd’s SNL parody or the cooking blog/book/film Julie & Julia.

But what about Julia Child’s hidden passion: collecting cookbooks?  She began collecting seriously while living in France in the 1950s and leading cooking lessons from her home. During this time, she was also tasked with co-writing the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Child consistently referenced her growing collection while developing and refining recipes. Like nearly every endeavor Child undertook, her collection reflects her gusto and seriousness for the emerging discipline of food studies.

By the end of her life, her nearly 5,000 book collection spanned three centuries, covering major figures in modern French cuisine (17th century-present) and American cookbook history (18th century-present). There’s even a first edition of The Joy of Cooking (1931)!  If you happen to find yourself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you can go see this sizable collection at the Radcliffe Institute’s The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. Generally, the cookbooks have inscriptions or accompanying letters that explain how and when Child collected the particular book. They also can reveal the use she made of her books in her own recipe creation.

  • To see Julia Child’s collection of cookbooks, check out the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute site.
  • Check out this podcast and this blog for more!