Ethel Rosenberg: the short life and great betrayal of an American wife and mother
Ethel Rosenberg was just 37 when she was electrocuted by the American Government for conspiracy to commit espionage following a 1951 trial which contained multiple miscarriages of justice. The Government knew they had no conclusive evidence against her – a loyal wife, devoted mother and, yes, a communist – but they thought charging her would make her husband talk. They insisted she was the leader simply because she was older than her husband.
Since her death, leaving her two small sons orphaned, there has been an outpouring of literature including novels such as The Story of Daniel by E.L Doctorow, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, plays such as Angels in America and paintings by artists such as Picasso and Warhol, collages by Martha Rosler who used satire to show how women were expected to be nothing more than ideal housewives stuck in their kitchen, and even furniture featuring the infamous electric chair and typewriter Ethel was alleged to have used in order to spy. However, in the intervening 70 years since her death she has become an American icon, a symbol of how fear and hysteria can make a government behave shamefully. Sometimes it requires artists to make sense of this catastrophic historical failure of justice and mercy.
Anne Sebba is a biographer, historian, after dinner speaker and author of eleven books. A former Reuters Foreign Correspondent, she regularly appears on television talking about her books, mostly biographies of women including Jennie Churchill, Mother Teresa and Laura Ashley. She is a former chair of the Society of Authors, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.
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