Lucy Parsons: African American activist who defied 19th-century conventions

Goddess of Anarchy
The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
By Jacqueline Jones Basic. 480 pp. $32

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Reviewed by Tera W. Hunter


Lucy Parsons occupies an unusual position in American history: a prominent woman noted as much for her acts of brilliance and bravery as for her evasiveness and contradictions.

Parsons spent most of her life in Chicago, where a park named in her honor calls her the first "Chicana socialist labor organizer." Born circa 1853, Parsons said she was of Mexican and Indian descent and from Texas. Elsewhere she's been recognized as "the first Black woman to play a prominent role in the American Left." All of which indicates a life that defies easy categorization.

Parsons was an anarchist, socialist, journalist, and labor organizer who commanded audiences by the thousands. Beginning in the late 1880s, she scathingly criticized the American political economy and the titans of industry for exploiting working people. She was one of the most outspoken defenders of free speech and free assembly who was relentlessly persecuted by state agents opposed to her militancy.

Despite her audacity, Parsons kept some things hidden. When pressed by a reporter to reveal her background, she demurred: "I am not a candidate for office, and the public have no right to my past. I amount to nothing to the world and people care nothing of me. I am battling for a principle."

With Goddess of Anarchy, prize-winning historian Jacqueline Jones has written the first critical, comprehensive biography of a woman with a complex life, complex marriage, and complex career. She spent her life fighting for the downtrodden but showed no interest in the plight of African Americans. She denied her African ancestry, although, according to Jones, few of her contemporaries were persuaded by her fictional origins, and they assumed she was black, as indicated by the constant references to her skin color and hair texture in skeptical newspaper accounts.

Parsons is a remarkable woman who managed to get past many barriers of race and sex. Jones' richly researched and engagingly written biography establishes Parsons' rightful place in the pantheon of American radicals. Yet it leaves open the question of her legacy among African Americans. Parsons may not have identified herself as black, but she nonetheless expanded the possibilities of what it meant to be black.


Tera W. Hunter is a professor of history and African American studies at Princeton. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.