There has always been a certain glamour to revolutionaries. Removed from the political realities that are part and parcel of any true uprising, the popular image of the radical heroine has endured as a figure of heady curiosity and even adulation. The camera loves an attractive, “exotic” avenging angel, whether it’s Gloria Steinem and her corset-clad reporting from inside the gilded Playboy Club; Angela Davis and the Afro she wore as a symbol of Black beauty and liberation, boosting the hairstyle’s popularity and spawning “the Angela look”; or the purple beret-wearing women of Puerto Rico’s Young Lords Party. On the reactionary side, the rise of rancid conservative figures Laura Ingraham and Tomi Lahren, as well as outright fascist neo-Nazis Lauren Southern and Brittany Pettibone, has been buoyed by their non-threatening, white conventional attractiveness—the only look their white supremacist patriarchs find acceptable.
Desirability politics, social capital, and lookism remain present in even the most conscious radical spaces, a conundrum that activist and author Janet Mock addressed in a 2017 Allure essay titled “Being Pretty Is a Privilege, But We Refuse to Acknowledge It.” Though Mock noted that the descriptor is subjective, she argued, “[T]here are shared, agreed-upon commonalities. ‘Pretty’ is most often synonymous with being thin, white, able-bodied, and cis, and the closer you are to those ideals, the more often you will be labeled pretty—and benefit from that prettiness.” There’s nothing new about women in the political arena being heavily scrutinized, and legendary anarchist and early-20th-century labor organizer Lucy Parsons weaponized her beauty in ways that amplified and benefited the movement.
The press referred to the “red-mouthed” Parsons as a “modern Cleopatra” and an “illegitimate mulatto” while the Chicago Police Department deemed her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” With her razor-sharp wit, political astuteness, and unerring militancy, Parsons was always destined to leave a mark, but beauty became an essential part of her arsenal: It commanded attention, pulled in new converts, and probably helped spare her life after her husband was executed in 1887. Lucia “Lucy” Eldine Carter was born in 1851 to a mother enslaved on a Virginia plantation. During the Civil War, they (along with her younger brother) were forced to march to Waco, Texas, where their owner resettled. As a teenager, she became involved with an older man named Oliver Benton who paid for her schooling, but the headstrong, preternaturally intelligent Lucy had other ideas.
In or around 1869, she met Albert Parsons, a newspaper editor and former Confederate soldier who renounced his military past and became deeply involved in the state Republican Party, running for office several times and organizing Black voters. Lucy and Albert fell in love, which scandalized Waco; they married in 1872 during the brief window when intermarriage between Black and white citizens was legal in Texas. When the state legislature came under Democratic control in 1873, the couple migrated to Chicago, where they were thrust into a nexus of labor unrest, class inequality, and capitalist violence. Before Lucy and Albert left Waco, they drew up a new identity for her, that of a “charming young Spanish Indian maiden.” She set out to reinvent her history, erasing her Blackness, the 14 years she spent in slavery, and even her family, with whom she severed contact once she left Waco.
In Chicago, Albert left his Republicanism behind in favor of socialism, and he and Lucy consumed volumes of socialist theory in between their respective jobs as a newspaper typesetter and a seamstress. Both became enmeshed in Chicago’s radical scene, particularly labor organizing: Albert was deeply involved with the Socialist Labor Party (and ran for office several times on their platform), while Parsons helped launch the Working Women’s Union in the mid-1870s, holding meetings in her dressmaking shop. But by 1878, both had become disillusioned with socialism’s focus on government reform and partisan politics, and they decided to embrace anarchism instead. Albert later wrote, “We are called by some Communists, or Socialists, or Anarchists. We accept all three of the terms,” signaling an ideological fluidity that would become especially apparent in Lucy’s later life.
While Parsons ran her dressmaking shop and remained active in Chicago’s labor movement—working to organize women garment workers into the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)—she also became passionate about writing and public speaking. She began writing articles for various radical newspapers, including the Socialist and the anarchist journal the Alarm, about class struggle, the violence of capitalism, the exploitation of the poor, and the subjugation of women under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. In what remains her most famous article, “To Tramps,” Lucy addresses the idea of “propaganda by the deed”—German anarchist Johann Most’s idea about political action explicitly intended as a catalyst for revolution: “Each of you hungry tramps who read these lines avail yourselves of those little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land. Learn the use of explosives!”
She wholeheartedly rejected reform in favor of action and was not shy about advocating for the use of force when necessary. Detractors were shocked by Lucy’s militancy and acceptance of violence as a tactic but conveniently forgot to consider the unspeakable violence enacted by capitalism upon the toiling classes. Soon, she started speaking in public, further captivating the audience with what one reporter described as “a perfect speaking voice. Rich, sweet, clear, and low, it carried itself without any effort on her part with 10 times the effect of 10 times greater lung power.” As reporters began coming to see her speak, Lucy’s appearance became as much a part of the story as her words. Every broadside about her speeches or articles took time out to extoll her physical virtues even as they marveled at or condemned her political views.
Her looks, considered both captivating and “exotic,” afforded her an unwanted status as an “other” in a community where she desperately wanted to be accepted
as an equal.
Her brown skin and long black hair made her appear racially ambiguous, but many in the press were all too happy to label her a “mulatto,” an “anarchist negress,” or use racial slurs to describe her skin and features. Language that reporters likely believed complimentary, or at least neutral, only served to further divorce Lucy’s image from her humanity by emphasizing her otherness and ascribing racist characteristics to the “unusually intelligent mulatto woman” and “enraged tigress” they considered her to be. As a woman of color living in the public eye and traveling in radical circles in the 19th and early-20th centuries, Lucy dwelt at an uncomfortable intersection. Her looks, considered both captivating and “exotic,” afforded her an unwanted status as an “other” in a community where she desperately wanted to be accepted as an equal. The rarity at the time of seeing a brown face standing at the podium, addressing a sea of white laborers, can’t be emphasized enough; save for Frederick Douglass, Lucy was the only person of African descent in her generation who regularly addressed large, predominantly white crowds.
White men, many of them German immigrants, dominated the broader radical political landscape. White women were seldom invited to speak at mass meetings; as the lone woman of color on the stage, Lucy truly stood alone. However, her connection to Albert afforded her access to spaces that, though progressive compared to mainstream society, would have never suffered a Black woman to take the stage—let alone hold court for hours—and she grasped that opportunity by the throat. “It has been a common experience to either be completely overlooked in favor of white women who are considered the beauty standard, or to have white folks or non-Black pocs point me out as an ‘exception’ with comments like ‘You are pretty for a Black girl’ or ‘You don’t look fully Black,’” wrote Mock in her Allure essay. “The message: Blackness does not equate to attractiveness, and therefore my mixedness puts me higher on the white cis beauty hierarchy than a Black woman with parents who are both Black.”
And Lucy sought to minimize her Blackness as much as possible. As late as 1886, her husband described her heritage to reporters as being “Indian and Spanish,” with “no African blood in her veins.” It is strange that a man who had fought for the Confederacy and then denounced it would work so hard to obscure his wife’s roots in slavery—but it seems that’s how Lucy preferred it. She stopped publicly identifying as “Spanish” when an influx of Mexican and other Latinx workers into Chicago made the ruse more difficult to maintain, but until the end of her life, Lucy privately insisted she was Spanish and Indigenous. Though she tirelessly worked to spread the gospel of anarchism and organize exploited workers, she almost entirely ignored the plight of Black workers, ascribing to a contemporary Marxist theory that Black workers are merely another cog in the overall working class rather than a specific group with unique challenges.
Lucy was a product of her time, and any solidarity that one might have expected her to feel with other Black workers was tamped down by her desire to enact full-scale working-class revolution. “Women have been trained to minimize their greatness in an effort to be more likable,” Mock wrote. “We learn that when we are complimented, especially about our looks, we must dismiss the compliment, feign self-deprecation and modesty, undermine our looks, and pretend we did absolutely nothing to contribute to them.” Lucy went even further than that, insisting that her appearance was of no importance. As she once said, “I amount to nothing to the world, and people care nothing for me; I am simply battling for a principle.” She must have known even then how false those words were, but the very utterance underlines how much effort went into erasing any part of her that didn’t fit into the idealized mold of the revolutionary heroine she sought to exemplify.
May 4, 1886, was one of the defining moments in Lucy’s life. In Haymarket Square, a few hundred workers gathered peacefully; three days earlier, Lucy, Albert, and their young children had led the first May Day march, as part of a massive workers’ strike for an eight-hour workday. Around 10:30 p.m., the police—who had been standing by in great numbers—advanced on the square and ordered the workers to disperse. Suddenly, a bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing seven policemen and at least four workers. Without a bomb-thrower to blame, the state pinned it on Albert and his comrades. Eight anarchists were accused of conspiracy and subjected to a sham trial; Lucy traveled the country raising money for an appeal, but ultimately, the case was lost, and Albert was executed. Lucy only escaped the gallows because the police assumed that women were incapable of such radical action.
Following Albert’s death, Lucy was held up as an enduring symbol of the Haymarket Martyrs’ sacrifice but also found her personal life judged. Despite new ideas about sexual freedom (or “varietism”) that swept radical circles in the 1890s, tongues still wagged when “the Widow Parsons” was seen in public with another man or moved in with a new partner. Ironically, Lucy was fiercely traditional about love, sex, and family; she wrote that women would never freely choose “free love,” saying, “We love the names of father, home, and children too well for that” and declaring if “varietism” had anything to do with anarchism, she was not an anarchist. Words like these didn’t sit well with more feminist-leaning anarchists—including famous contemporary Emma Goldman, whom Lucy kept at a frosty distance. Much as she downplayed her Blackness in service of what she assumed people wanted from her, Lucy seemed to dread having her desires slip into public view, where they could be used to discredit her.
Though she fought alongside better-known comrades Eugene Debs, William “Big Bill” Haywood, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, outside of personal tragedies, Lucy’s legacy remains underappreciated in the canon of American radical history. And yet Chicago police hounded Lucy until her death, pulling her off stages where she’d been invited to speak and arresting her for “disorderliness” when she tried to sell pamphlets and copies of her husband’s biography in the street. When she died in a house fire at age 91, police confiscated what remained of her vast radical library and personal papers. Even in death, she terrified them. Lucy’s life is a study in contradictions: the former slave who fell in love with a former Confederate soldier; the anarchist class warrior who preached unity yet quarreled with many of her radical peers; the devoted wife (then grieving widow) who publicly scorned “free love” yet enjoyed many private affairs; the working-class revolutionary who ignored the plight of Black workers; and at the center of it all, the mysterious human being trying to live freely in the midst of all the glamour and chaos of the Gilded Age.