Reviewed: Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism

The Unending Climb for Labor Equality in the United States

by Christopher Mengel

Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson eds. (2017). Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 247 pp., glossary, contributors, index, $28.00 (paper).

Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism is a collection of essays that gives new relevance to the historiography of American labor history. The foundations of Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism and  that of social history methodologies of E.P. Thompson, clearly shaped and influenced the direction of these essays and  the interpretations of United States labor history. Laying  of labor versus capital in the Critique of Capitalism, the essays in Against Labor are permeated with Marxist theory and solidify their arguments by incorporating modern research, sources and case studies. The essays in Against Labor explore hegemonic Marxist concepts between U.S. employers and unions, and build a theatrical framework on Marx’s materialist doctrine, which he simplifies as: “[classes] dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.”.[1]

Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson’s Introduction to Against Labor incorporates numerous sources from the last decade to demonstrate the history of United States employers’ actions to curb the influential power of United States unions to act on behalf of the working-class.[2] Additionally, Peter Rachleff’s essay, “Capital and Labor in the 21st Century: The End of History?,” expertly summarizes the examples of class conflicts discussed in Against Labor to bolster the use of the materialistic doctrine as a theoretical tool to analyze U.S. labor history in the modern era.[3] Along these lines of the analysis,  Rachleff’s interpretation of modern U.S. class conflict introduces two significant historiographical contributions to Marx’s historical materialism in which he explores the emergence of a capitalist-class consciousness in the United States  and analyzes Marxist deficiencies of race by considering hegemonic racial relationships inherent in the United States working-class.

Mars argues that the historical significance of the relationship between materialism and productive means is considered to be: “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society…which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.”[4] Furthermore, in Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, he theorizes the economic, legal, and political means used by the capitalist class to maintain its hegemony, however, Rachleff’s chapter affirms that Marx’s allusion to consciousness among the capitalist class lacks evidence and clarity.[5] Additionally it could be argued that Marx’s treatment of racial divisions within the working class has no historical relevance In passing, Marx alludes that the cost of production is systemically tied to the means of subsistence for the benefit of one’s race.[6] However, Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger’s essay, “Scientific Management, Racist Science, and Race Management” describes the historical intentional use of racial animosities as a program to foster contention amongst the working-class as a benefit to U.S. employers.[7] Esch and Roediger expand upon Marxist theory: “If we take seriously Marx’s observation that capital implied the capitalist himself…serious study of how race thinking informed the capitalist personalities embodied in various level of management must occur.” Esch and Roediger are not disavowing themselves from Marxist theory but are challenging Marx’s tendency to ignore race in his construct of historical materialism.[8]

Fuerer and Pearson’s Introduction in Against Labor establishes the theoretical backbone by defining a class consciousness amongst United States employers in their concerted efforts to destabilize the legitimacy and power of U.S. unions. In recognizing that “antiunionism [sic] was a unifying theme for all types of U.S. employers,” Fuerer and Pearson argue that anti-unionism was a “central tenant” which became “a project of a self-aware class rather than the instrument of big or small employers.”[9] Additionally, Fuerer and Pearson further support their arguments by analyzing Antebellum slave-dependent U.S. labor markets  concluding that: “[U.S. employers] organized as a class in specific locales to recruit and manage the spectrum of free and unfree labor. Here is where they first acted together to shape labor-market regimes capable of controlling the political economy.”[10]

Howard R. Stranger’s essay “A Moderate Employer’s Association in a “House Divided”: The Case of the Employing Printers of Columbus, Ohio 1887-1987” continues to advance the theme of a capitalist class consciousness in the United States. Stranger skillfully uses the actions and communications of two employer associations, the United Typothetae of America, and the Printing Arts Association of Columbus, to demonstrate a collaborative effort to advance the hegemonic power structure of its respective members. Akin to E.P. Thompson’s social history methodologies, Stranger’s meticulous research illustrates a unified employer class consciousness to deflect the growing influences of the working-class.[11]

Thomas A. Klug’s essay, “Employer’s Path to Open Shop in Detroit 1903-07,” builds upon the theoretical construct  of a United States employer-class consciousness. Klug freely admits that the accidental discovery of the minutes of the “Employers Association of Detroit” presented a unique opportunity  to refute the positive narratives dictated by the powerful as it relates to ownership-employee relationships.  but his invaluable analysis of these rarely disclosed meetings clearly denotes a deliberate collaboration amongst the U.S. employer class determined to impart its influence in the political discourse of United States labor policy.[12]

Lastly, as a continuation of Marxist methodological influences, Michael Dennis’s essay, “Litigating for Profit: Business, Law, and Labor in the New Economy South,” exemplifies Marx’s exploration of capitalist competition and how it adversely affected the collective labor power of the working class in the United States. Mirroring Marx’s theoretical analysis, Dennis encapsulates capitalist competition as it adversely affects  working-class wages. Dennis’s case study discusses the attempt of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to organize grocery workers in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. His research unequivocally demonstrates Marx’s theoretical contention that there is a direct relationship between lowering the cost of production and a decrease in wages for the working-class.[13] In fact, Dennis’s evidentiary inclusion of local newspaper reporting to rebut Michael Julian false proclamations confirms his arguments of capitalist-class collusion to contain labor costs as a strategic method to increase investor profits.

The compendium of essays in Against Labor demonstrates the influence of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. The authors


Feurer, Rosemary and Chad Pearson, Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York, Norton, 1978.

Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class. New York, Vintage Books, 1966.








[1]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Theses of Feuerbach,” in Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker. (New York, Norton, 1978), 144.

[2]Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. “Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism”. Eds, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 8-15.

[3]Peter Rachleff, “Capital and Labor in the 21st Century” in Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, eds. Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 237.  ”The case studies in this volume – tightly argued and well documented – have sketched a set of shared themes: (1) capitalists in the United State have never accepted labor’s right to organize; (2) capitalists’ resistance to workers’ organizing efforts has relied upon political power and ideological legerdemain as well as economic muscle; (3) despite capitalists’ allegiance to market economies and scorn for government intervention, in critical situations, they have leveraged the state for their own advantage”.

[4]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “Marx on the History of his Opinions,” in Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker. (New York, Norton, 1978), 4.

[5]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed., ed. Robert C. Tucker. (New York, Norton, 1978), 475-477.

[6]Marx. Manifesto, 479.

[7]Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger. “Scientific Management, Racist Science, and Race Management,” in eds. Rosemary Fuerer and Chad Pearson, “Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism”. Eds, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 30.

[8]Ibid. 29.

[9]Fuerer and Pearson. 5.

[10]Ibid. 8.

[11]Howard R. Stranger. “A Moderate Employer’s Association in a “House Divided”: The Case of the Employing Printers of Columbus, Ohio, 1887-1987“, in eds. Rosemary Fuerer and Chad Pearson, “Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism,” eds, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 184-193. “The homegrown business class preferred stability and slow growth and did not want Columbus to blue-collar (read unionized) city.”

[12]Thomas Klug. “Employers’ Path to the Open Shop in Detroit, 1903-7,” in eds. Rosemary Fuerer and Chad Pearson, “Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism,” eds, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 78-83.

[13]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel, Marx states: “Hence, competition crowd upon him on all sides, and besides we remind the reader that the more simple and easily learned labor is, the lower the cost of production is need to master it, the lower the wages sink, for, like the price of every other commodity, they are determined by the cost of production. Marx, 214.

[14]Michael Dennis, “Litigating for Profit: Business, Law, and Labor in the New Economy South,” in eds. Rosemary Fuerer and Chad Pearson, “Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism,” eds, Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 218. Michael Julian states: “My responsibility as chief executive of this company is to find a way to satisfy the needs of our customers and at the same time satisfy the need of our employees.”, Citing an article be the Newport News Daily Press, Dennis shows that most grocery stores only “committed 15% of company expenditures to employee wages and benefits.”

If you are married to this sentence, you can  move it around somewhere, but five-line sentences are a lot, especially for the first line of a review.

and “that of”

add “the”

Foundations are laid, not erected

perhaps epistemology would work better here? Marx’s epistemology of history is dialectical materialism.

requires explanation

Does Rachleff claim this or are you saying it? “Continuing, Rachleff argues that Marx’s treatment…”

are the labor markets dependent or is the capitalist class?

“builds upon”?

“stalwart”: resilient, robust, dependable, valiant… use another word here


Are the newspaper reports rebutting Michael Julian or the proclamations?… less commas, clear-up the sentence; multiple clauses separates the subject from the verb and confuses the subject and the object

If you are going to use a pronoun, it has to be “it,” because you are representing the *compendium of essays* rather than “the essays.” If “they” represents “the essays,” you have to start the first sentence in the paragraph with “The essays”

The analysis of the articles is good. It’s thorough. Some sentences need to be clarified, but the overarching problem is that the introduction and conclusion have different theses.


The thesis of the conclusion is that this book shows the utility of local movements for understanding national labor relations.


The thesis of the introduction is uncertain to me.

mention the importance of analyzing bourgeois class consciousness


Reviewed: Aberration of Mind by Diane Miller Sommerville

(Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press website)

By Moyra Schauffler

Sommerville, Diane Miller. Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. Pp. 448. $34.95.

In her new monograph, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South, Diane Miller Sommerville explores the psychological impacts of the Civil War and its aftermath on the population of the American South. The author examines cases of suicidal behavior that include successful and failed suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, as well as fantasies about and wishes for death. This expanded definition, coupled with Sommerville’s analysis of Confederate men and women, as well as enslaved and emancipated African Americans results in a thoroughly detailed study of the intense suffering Southerners experienced in the second half of the nineteenth century. She persuasively argues that the pervasive suffering of the Southern population during and after the Civil War catalyzed a more empathetic and heroic view of suicide that by the end of the nineteenth century became a pillar of Lost Cause ideology in the former Confederacy.

Although historians have previously examined the psychological effects of the Civil War on the soldiers who fought in it, Aberration of Mind is the first to exclusively study suicidal behavior.[1] The text is one of the recent additions to the “new-revisionist” historiography of Civil War scholarship. Within this line of study, scholars are taking what Yael Sternhell calls an “emphatic antiwar stance” and placing new emphasis on the darker aspects of the Civil War.[2] Drew Gilpin Faust’s influential This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) examines how the extreme number of casualties produced by the conflict changed Northern and Southern Americans’ perceptions of and reactions to death. Subsequently, in Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012), Megan Kate Nelson looks at different kinds of destruction, that of cities, homes, natural environments, and soldiers, to determine how Americans North and South reacted to the war’s intense physical devastation. Another study of exclusively Southerners, Brian Craig Miller’s Empty Sleeves: Amputation in the Civil War South (2015), explores the meaning of amputation for former Confederates. Sommerville’s contribution adds a new dimension to this historiography as it is the first study that focuses on suicidal behavior as a distinct type of suffering experienced by Southern soldiers and civilians in the Civil War Era.

The organization of Aberration of Mind ensures that Sommerville devotes space to the gender, class, and racial dynamics of suicidal behavior during the Civil War Era. This commitment to examining suicidal behavior among free, enslaved, and newly emancipated Southerners leads to an organization that she calls “more asymmetrical and unconventional than is ideal” due to an uneven source base for the different groups that comprise her study.[3] For this reason, the work begins with a section on Confederate men and women during the war, moves on to a set of chapters on African Americans during slavery and following emancipation, then includes another section on Confederate men and women in the post-war period, and concludes with a chapter on the changing cultural conceptions of suicide in the South throughout the nineteenth century. Despite the unconventional organization, Sommerville successfully accords attention to understudied groups such as African Americans, women, and children in the war-torn South.

Diane Miller Sommerville is forthright about the abundant challenges facing a historian researching suicide in the nineteenth century American South. A lack of statistical data kept by states before and after the Civil War, as well as dismal record keeping by the Confederate government, makes a quantitative approach to analyzing suicide among Southerners impossible. Instead, she uses Southern newspapers, like the New Orleans Courier and the Macon Telegraph, records from asylums like the Western Lunatic Asylum of Virginia and the South Carolina State Hospital, as well as personal letters, diaries, and the few available military records. These sources offer vital information about singular cases of suicide that assist Sommerville in identifying suicidal patterns across the South. Additionally, Sommerville’s expanded definition of suicide creates a broad analytical framework which she uses to expand her source base with personal documents and medical records that allude to suicidal thoughts and behavior instead of sources that only focus on completed suicides.

In her analysis of primary sources, Sommerville uses modern studies of trauma in war zones of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to reinforce her conclusions. Integral to her argument is that violence, physical destruction, and economic devastation caused white and black Southerners to experience increased psychological stress during and after the Civil War. Although there is no data on the nineteenth century American South that supports her claim, Sommerville accepts modern sociological, psychological, neurobiological, and medical research that details the symptoms of trauma in war zones. To support her interpretation of Southern sources, Sommerville cites studies such as Frank Biess’s Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany (2006) because they provide insight on how other societies grappled with losing war and on the psychological impacts felt by a parallel set of soldiers and civilians. While this choice has the potential to be controversial, she skillfully avoids overstepping and diagnosing Southerners who engaged in suicidal behavior with modern conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. By applying modern scientific studies and using secondary literature of conflicts other than the Civil War, Sommerville finds new meaning in available nineteenth century sources.

Ultimately, Sommerville persuasively concludes that Southern perceptions of suicide evolved over the course of the nineteenth century. She clearly illustrates the transition of Southerners’ conception of suicide as a Christian mortal sin to a more sympathetic and compassionate outlook. Her exploration and analysis of white Southerners’ references to the economic, psychological, and physical trauma during the war reinforce this interpretation. She is clear to emphasize, however, that this evolving understanding of suicide did not apply to African Americans. Instead, enslaved and emancipated black Southerners’ suicides were denied in the antebellum and postbellum years because Southern whites believed African Americans too inferior to experience the complex emotions associated with self-murder and too cowardly to successfully kill themselves. Moreover, in instances in which an African American’s suicide was irrefutable, white Southerners diagnosed them with mania, which was associated with extreme insanity, rather than the superior, “civilized” diagnosis of melancholia, which was almost exclusively applied to white suicides. Over the course of the postwar period then, as suicide in the South became an example of ex-Confederate heroism, African Americans were continuously denied the recognition of psychological trauma wrought by slavery, war, and post-emancipation struggles.

Diane Miller Sommerville has made a significant contribution to the historiography of the Civil War Era South with Aberration of Mind. Her impressive and even-handed treatment of all elements of the Southern population cuts across gender, race, and class lines. Her prose is clear, engaging, and readable for an educated audience; readers with both familiarity and little experience with the history of this era will appreciate her work. While this text successfully and extensively explores suicide and suicidal behavior in the South, there is no similar study of Northern civilians, soldiers, and veterans. Such a study would allow for comparison between the two regions, and in turn, lead to a balanced understanding of the intense psychological trauma caused by the Civil War and its turbulent aftermath that Sommerville has begun in Aberration of Mind.

[1] See for example, Eric Dean, Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

[2] Yael A. Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented?: The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 2 (2013), 242.

[3] Sommerville, Aberration of the Mind, 17.

To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells

To Tell The Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. Mia Bay. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Reviewed by Andrea L. Spencer (@andreaspencer__)

Ida B. Wells was a civil rights activist, journalist, teacher, and mother who was instrumental in agitating for anti-lynching reform in Jim Crow America. In To Tell The Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells, Dr. Mia Bay tells Wells’s story, which has too often been neglected by historians. A detailed and well-written biography, To Tell The Truth Freely shows how “Wells’s life provides invaluable historical testimony to the often contradictory impact of being black and female at the turn of the nineteenth century—a time when the lives of most black women went unrecorded…her life preserves a history of black activism and female leadership that historians are just now beginning to recover” (Bay, 13). Bay traces Wells’s life from childhood in Reconstruction America to her tireless activism for black civil rights during the turn of the nineteenth century. Bay uses the social, political, and economic contexts that Wells fought in, as well as her experiences of racism and sexism, to show the racial, gendered, and classed complexities of life in Jim Crow America for African Americans.

In To Tell The Truth Freely, Bay frequently engages with a wide-ranging historiography, touching on race, gender, and nineteenth century America. For example, Bay agrees with Patricia Shechter that Wells’s work connected “‘the ‘private’ crime of rape to the ‘public’ crime of lynching’” in a way that rejects historical ideas of gendered separate spheres (127).[1] She also agrees with Blair Kelley that, contrary to popular scholarly thought, the end of the nineteenth century was not an age of accommodation for African Americans. Rather, Bay posits that “the uphill battles against lynching and Jim Crow waged by Wells and other black activists during this period should caution us against thinking about African American accommodation as a reality” (127). Wells’s tireless activism to end lynching and state-approved violence against African Americans shows that Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist views were not pervasive throughout the black community. However, Bay does acknowledge a shift toward elite, educated black leaders like Washington and Du Bois and away from people like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. Bay argues that Wells’s fleeting national influence reflected how during “the early twentieth century…the possibilities for black leadership were increasingly limited to a more conventional range of individuals…educated men” (272). Bay also argues against existing characterization of the older Wells (then Wells-Barnett) as an isolated activist (278). Rather, Bay argues that Wells turned to community-based politics and activism, inspired by her time spent as a mother. Most distinctly, Bay’s work implicitly argues that Ida B. Wells is a person worthy of historical study, whose work deeply impacted African American civil rights despite the fact that she never became a race leader.

The book begins with Wells’s birth to enslaved parents and her childhood during Radical Reconstruction, which Bay argues inspired Wells to fight for black political participation and civil rights later in life. Bay then chronicles Wells’s journey from an orphaned rural school teacher to an accomplished journalist and world-famous activist. Using events and people in Wells’s life, Bay makes larger historical arguments, particularly about the intersection of racism and sexism in African American women’s lives. For example, Wells constantly dealt with “the sexual slander that she and other black women could so easily become subject to in the racially and sexually polarized world” of Jim Crow America (32). Bay characterizes Wells as an outspoken, fiery-tempered woman who often strained against gendered norms that expected women—especially black women—to be genteel and subservient. Bay argues that this double oppression of being black and a woman was why Wells constantly had to fight so hard to be heard, yet never became a national race leader on par with Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois.

To Tell The Truth Freely is the perfect combination of biography and historical context. Using Wells’s papers and autobiography, letters to, from, and about Wells and her contemporaries, as well as many newspaper sources by and about Wells, Bay constructs an expertly weaved tapestry of Jim Crow America. Focusing primarily on the complexities of gender and race (and often class), Bay uses Wells’s well-recorded life to chart the nineteenth century African American experience. A journalist, diarist, and author of her autobiography, Wells left many records of her life for historians to make use of. Bay also explains the intricacies of intra-racial politics, mostly between the black male activists of Wells’s day like Washington, Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass. However, Bay rarely mentions female activists (black or white) other than to describe disagreements between these women and Wells.

Hill and Wang is a popular press, so To Tell The Truth Freely was intended for a general audience, but is useful to a scholarly reader as well. It is engaging and has enough historical context to capture a general reader’s attention but also is deeply researched and makes important historiographical arguments that also make it suited for scholarly readings. To Tell The Truth Freely is perfect for everyone from the lay-reader to undergraduate and graduate students of American history. Ida B. Wells may have never achieved long-lasting contemporary national recognition, but, as Mia Bay’s book shows well, she is certainly deserving of historical attention.

[1] For more on the historiography of separate spheres, see Linda Kerber’s “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History” in The Journal of American History (June 1968).

Memento Mori, Ash Wednesday, and Modern Roman Catholicism

Today (March 6th, 2019) is Ash Wednesday. For Roman Catholics all over the world, Ash Wednesday is a holy day that incorporates the traditions of fasting, abstaining from meat, and receiving ashes on the forehead during Mass. Most importantly, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season in the liturgical calendar. For Catholics (and many other Christian groups), the season of Lent symbolizes a time of self-reflection, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. [1]

During Ash Wednesday Mass, the priest (or designated minister) draws a cross of ashes on the receiver’s forehead, saying: “remember you are dust … and to dust you shall return” or “repent and believe in the gospel.” These phrases are meant to remind Mass-goers of their mortal and sinful natures as human beings. By remembering sin and death, Catholics are able to meditate on the greatest Mystery of Faith: Jesus’ death on Good Friday and his Resurrection from the grave. [2]


Pope Francis giving ashes to a Catholic woman during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica (Taken at the Vatican on Feb. 10th, 2016). [3]


Many modern Roman Catholics utilize Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent to focus on their inevitable death and their spiritual journey to heaven. This type of devotion is also commonly known as memento mori, translating to “remember that you will die.” Historically, memento mori art and literature was designed to represent a personal relationship with mortality and death. This type of artistic expression was first understood as the fourteenth century coping mechanism for Europe’s overall “sense of failure” during a time of great mortality and fear. [4] Memento mori art and literature produced artistic themes like The Dance of Death, along with other forms of art that personified death and featured death interacting with humanity.

Through the eyes of modern historians, medieval people were first characterized as having a “morbid obsession with death.” [5] Over the years, however, historians have been lead to believe that memento mori art, literature, and spiritual devotion was actually a “healthier” version of this historical interpretation. Now, some medievalists tend to believe that medieval people may have incorporated this art and literature into their religious beliefs, lifestyles, and culture in order to embrace death with willingness, courage, and life-affirmation. [6]

This theme, though medieval by nature, is still practiced today by modern Roman Catholics. One Catholic in particular, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble (FSP), has devoted herself to this spiritual theme, conceptualizing memento mori to fit into the daily life of the modern Catholic during Lent. As a Franciscan Sister of Peace within the Catholic Church, Sr. Theresa has published two, memento mori inspired texts called Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional and Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal.


Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble FSP with her Book “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Journal” (Left Photo). The cover of Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s “Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional” (Right Photo). [7]


The first four sentences in the Lenten Devotional book state: “You are going to die. The moment you are born you begin dying. You may die in fifty years, ten years, perhaps tomorrow – or even today. But whenever it happens, death awaits every person, whether rich or poor, young or old, believer or nonbeliever.” [8] Many people would say this concept is rather grim. But there are many Catholics, including Sr. Theresa, that would argue otherwise. By celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass, Catholics are partaking in this medieval concept of memento mori and facing their mortality head on. In a positive spiritual experience, memento mori devotion helps the modern Catholic “[begin the] season by immediately focusing our attention on the theme of remembering death. The Cross – the tool of death that became the tool of our salvation – is traced on Mass-goers foreheads in ash. The priest or minister says the words that God spoke to Adam and Eve as they left the Garden of Eden, ‘Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return’ (see Gn 3:19) – in Latin: Memento, homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. This sentiment could be shortened to memento mori or ‘Remember your death.’” [9]

Like many memento mori devotees, Sr. Theresa believes that “…death is the center of the gospel message. If you’re not willing to look at death, then you’re not going to look at the Resurrection – you’re not going to understand the Resurrection. You have to start at that. I think that’s one of the reasons why Catholics have us looking at His crucifix, because we have to understand Jesus’ death before we can understand his Resurrection.” [10]


“Christ Triumphing Over Sin and Death”  was painted by Peter Paul Rubens in the early 17th century. This painting is the last photo in Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble’s Lenten Devotional. [11]


To learn MORE about modern, Roman Catholic memento mori devotion, check out these links below:

  •  “Why We Say Memento Mori” – Fr. Mike Schmitz

  • “Art Term: Memento Mori” – Tate

  • “The Significance of Ash Wednesday” – Fr. Mike Schmitz

  •  “#MementoMori: A Meditation on Death with Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP”

  • “Everything Passes But God” – Fr. Josh Johnson


Work Cited:

Cover Photo

[1] Some other groups of Christians also celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent, but Catholicism is the only type of Christianity that fasts and abstains from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and every Friday during Lent. These groups include (and are not limited to): Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, and some branches of Baptists.

[2] Theresa Aletheia Noble (FSP), Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional. Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2019. 14.

[3] “Pope Francis Markes the Beginning of Lent.” Vatican News. March 6, 2019.

[4] Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010. 211.

[5] Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse. 211.

[6] Aberth, John. From the Brink of the Apocalypse. 211.

[7] Photo 1, Photo 2

[8] Theresa Aletheia Noble (FSP), Remember Your Death. 1.

[9] Theresa Aletheia Noble (FSP), Remember Your Death. 13. 

[10] Quote: Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble (FSP). 

[11] Photo


The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America By Ruth Rosen

by Andrea Spencer (@___aerdna__)

According to gender theorist Chandra Mohanty, there is a “necessary and integral connection between feminist scholarship and feminist political practice and organizing…feminist scholarly practices…are inscribed in relations of power—relations which they counter, resist, or even perhaps implicitly support. There can, of course, be no apolitical scholarship.”[1] Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a striking support to Mohanty’s claim that feminist scholarship is deeply political. Rosen—a journalist, photographer, feminist activist, and historian—has written a detailed, analytic, and engaging account of the American women’s movement since the 1950s. Chronicling both the hegemonic culture and the radical activist groups that would teach future feminists how to organize, Rosen tells a story from inside the feminist movement. She argues that “the movement arose from two generations of women who recognized, with considerable anguish and anger, that neither traditional liberalism nor the politics of the New Left was addressing what equality could mean for modern working women.”[2] Then, Rosen traces the different strands and fragments of feminism and finishes her history with backlash against the movement in the 1980s. This is a history of what, chronologically, could be called second wave feminism. However, Rosen does not only address white middle class women’s problems—far from it. She examines lesbian feminism, black feminism, Chicana feminism and Catholic feminism, among others. The World Split Open is a comprehensive, evenhanded look at the American women’s movement from the 50s to the 80s that seeks to counter the issue many (feminists included) faced during the movement—the woeful ignorance of women’s history.

Rosen begins her work with the same old chestnut that kicks off most stories of 20th century feminist: Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique. Describing the cultural zeitgeist of what she calls “the Dawn of Discontent,” Rosen explains Cold War American culture and gender relations, the Old Left, and the frustration that housewives and activist women shared. Young women did not want to be like their mothers who seemed trapped in domestic drudgery, but they did not have a clear view of what the future held. Rosen then declares the 1960s—and the passage of Title VII, in particular—as the rebirth of feminism. Female activists like Casey Hayden abandoned the sexist organizations of the New Left and created their own organizations and consciousness-raising efforts. From here, Rosen explores the “Hidden Injuries of Sex:” the subtle, small things that women felt constrained by and forced to do by hegemonic sexist expectations like faking orgasms and compulsory heterosexuality. Reacting against this, feminists created their own culture of female celebration in music, poetry, and art. However, Rosen does not simply craft a rosy image of artistic, bare-chested women reveling in their femininity; she also explores the sometimes acerbic and paranoid culture of feminist groups that trusted no one and divided themselves incrementally by identity politics. Rosen concludes her work with the proliferation of feminism, the birth of the superwoman, and eventual backlash against the movement. Ultimately, Rosen concludes that “each generation of women activists leaves an unfinished agenda for the next generation…The struggle for women’s human rights has just begun. As each generation shares its secrets, women learn to see the world through their own eyes, and discover, much to their surprised, that they are not the first and they are not alone…A revolution is under way, and there is no end in sight.”[3]

            To support her argument and craft her narrative, Rosen uses personal letters of prominent activists and “lay-feminists”[4] alike along with organizations’ important manifestos, official state and FBI documents, and interviews she conducted personally. These interviews and letters from lay-feminists as well as her focus on non-white, privileged feminists makes Rosen’s work stand out amongst other histories of the movement. Rather than off-handedly mentioning the fact that there were black, Chicana or gay feminists, Rosen devotes a significant amount of her energy to explaining these groups’ platforms, the structure of their organizations, and their impact on the movement at large. For example, she looks at events like the First Lesbian Feminist Conference and the fact that the lesbian-Feminist movement engendered an idealizing of lesbian relationships and, at times, demonized heterosexuality. In the even-handed manner characteristic of most of her analysis, Rosen acknowledges both that lesbian feminists could be militant in their insistence on homosexuality as a prerequisite for joining the movement and the fact that “lesbians encouraged women to explore their own passion rather than to act out male-authored sexual scripts. By legitimizing sexual intimacy between women, they challenged the male sexual revolution and its simplistic vision of heterosexual promiscuity and offered an ideal of same-sex love among women.”[5] This fairness in handling divisions and issues within the feminist movement is what makes Rosen’s work so important and groundbreaking. Most feminist histories I have read tend to be more partisan and biased, not to mention far less likely to even mention divisions and factions in such depth. However, Rosen frequently delves into what she calls the “[paradoxes] of feminism,” either factionally within the movement or between activists and the general public.[6] She does not shy away from the contradictions and complications of feminism; she explores them in a balanced way. Of course, Rosen is a feminist and activist, so she clearly supports the movement as a whole. What makes her work different is that she can see its flaws and recognizes that just because it had and has “bad” or complicated parts does not detract from its worth as a whole.

At times, however, Rosen’s bias does show through a bit strongly; in particular, her bias toward Gloria Steinem and against Betty Friedan is the most prominent in the book. Rosen describes the “generation gap” between feminists like Friedan who sought more political, concrete rights for women and those like Steinem who understood the importance of cultural freedoms like the right not to fake an orgasm. Rosen frequently praises Steinem as beautiful and glamorous but refers to Friedan as testy, bitter and obsessed with Steinem because “she undoubtedly felt upstaged” by the younger, more famous feminist.[7] Of course, many feminist scholars hold no reverence for Friedan because she symbolizes the tendency of second-wave feminism to hold up white, middle class housewives’ problems as the focus of 1960s feminism. However, Rosen’s defense of Steinem was a bit rosy compared to the largely unbiased way she handled other figures of the movement.

In The World Split Open, Rosen does not provide a traditional, clear thesis. Instead, she seeks to chronicle the movement in a way no one has done yet: comprehensively, diving into factions within the movement, and with split attention paid to lay-feminists and leaders alike. Of course, more attention could be paid to working-women, political policy, or small groups like anti-gay feminists. No book can include every aspect of such a wide reaching, diverse movement. However, Rosen makes significant strides in the scholarship towards a more inclusive story of the American women’s movement.

[1] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review no. 30 (Autumn, 1988): 62.

[2] Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Viking, 2000): xiv-xv.

[3] Rosen, The World Split Open, 344.

[4] I’m going to use this to describe “everyday” women who weren’t necessarily devoted full time to the movement, but experienced its effects in some way in their daily lives.

[5] Rosen, The World Split Open, 175.

[6] Rosen, The World Split Open, 274.

[7] Rosen, The World Split Open, 238.


Sister Cora Marie Billings – Philadelphia’s Pioneering Black Nun

Villanova launched Black History Month on Feb 4 at 8PM in the St. Thomas of Villanova Church. Continuing our theme of great Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Sister Cora Marie Billings gave a talk that opened many eyes to the difficulties of pioneering change in the American Roman Catholic Church. She did so in a way that only someone with her clout, wit, and simultaneously soft-spoken and forthright manner could. Born the only child in a Black Catholic family of a desegregationist legacy, Sister Cora went on to a prosperous career in furthering the fight for freedom, desegregation, and the rights of women in America through the Catholic church, and she continues doing that work today.

Sister Cora Marie Billings was the granddaughter of John Aloysius Lee, Sr., and the first Black recipient of the Vercelli Award from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Holy Name Society, a national confraternity. He also has a cultural center named for him in West Philadelphia. He was the first Black man allowed in Philadelphia’s Catholic high school league basketball in 1902. In fact, when the league tried to exclude Lee, his teammates decided they would boycott unless he was allowed to play.

Later, Lee’s daughter and Sister Cora’s aunt, Mary Paul Lee would have a similar experience of exclusion at West Catholic High in Philadelphia, but her teammates would not rally around her. By this specific example, the life experience of Cora’s family shows the ways in which progress against individual and institutional racism happens in fits and starts, and the civil and social history of this country is more complex than we sometimes allow.

Sister Cora’s aunts were both nuns – Mary Paul Lee and Mary Agnes Lee joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, one of four orders in Pennsylvania taking Black women in the 1940s. The other orders which accepted Black sisters being the Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, Franciscan Handmaids of the Heart of Mary, and the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Sister Cora was candid and strong in telling her tale. She said that she has often been asked about how to maintain a relationship with a church that enslaved her ancestors. Sister Cora Marie argued that you cannot change most organizations from the outside, especially an organization like the Roman Catholic Church. She stated further that pushing the Church forward on civil issues is God’s work, and that God’s work, no matter how difficult, has to be done.

Sister Cora entered the RSM Motherhouse in Merion, PA on August 22, 1956. Her mother was fine with her decision to enter religious life; she had two sisters that were women religious, and her older brother was in the seminary until he had to leave to take care of their mom. Her father was not as excited, but he did tell her to always be the best she could be. She learned later that the only photograph he ever kept in his wallet was one of her in the old habit of the Sisters of Mercy. He was supportive and proud even though he was not explicitly encouraging.

Dr. Williams asked her about the circumstances surrounding the legacy of “being the first or the only” in so many realms of her life. Sister Cora responded half-jokingly that if she had known in her youth what she knows now, she probably would not be here. Lucky for us that she did not. She said that she was inspired by her aunts, and made her decision to enter religious life at her aunt’s going-away party. She was taught by seven different religious orders in school, and they all positively influenced her perspective on religious life. But, she said, “I don’t know that I knew or thought about all the repercussions.”

Asked about the warnings she might have experienced at the age of 17, she mentioned some peculiar circumstances. In 1956, before her entrance, she had to be interviewed three times as part of her application process, unique among her sisters.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Ireland in 1830, and first came to Philadelphia in 1861. Before 1945, all the Sisters of Mercy in this area were Irish, except for “fourteen or fifteen Germans.” Mother Bernard was the one to change all that – she brought in the first Italian, the first Lebanese, and the first African American sisters. In 1961, when Sister Cora was sent to Levittown, it was Mother Bernard that sent her. The Myers family were the first African Americans in Levittown in 1957; they left in 1961 after a cross was burned on their yard in March, the culmination of several years of abuse and harassment. Sister Cora moved to Levittown in August.

She taught one hundred (100) first grade students at St. Michael’s, all on her own. She never had trouble with students, declaring that racism is something children learn from adults, not something they come into the world with. She said that half of the school was physically in the area where Black families lived, in neighboring Bristol, but that there were no Black students in her classes.

A bit later in her career, Sister Cora was sent as the representative of the Sisters of Mercy to the August 1968 National Black Sisters Conference at Mount Mercy College. The conference was formed after women were excluded from the National Black Clergy Caucus which met in April of that year following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When she moved to Virginia she realized the truth of the adage that “God closes one door and opens another.” Sister Cora was the first Black nun to be a Campus Minister at Virginia State University. When the leader of her home church of St. Elizabeth’s went to the monastery, Bishop Sullivan asked Sister Cora to run a church, making her the first African American woman to lead a Catholic church in the United States (and also making her a question on jeopardy). She was one of nine women in the position, two of whom were mothers and laypeople. Sister Cora was Pastoral Coordinator at St. Elizabeth’s from 1990 to 2004. She eventually worked for the state of Virginia as Deputy Director of the Human Rights Council.

In the Q&A, Sister Cora talked about the entrance age of women to religious orders, pointing-out that Sisters of Mercy, like most of their contemporaries, will no longer allow one to join until their 20s, whereas they used to allow teens to enter in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Sister Cora also spoke to the work she is now engaged in and the current political moment in Virginia, where the governor was recently outed for a photo he took in blackface with a friend dressed as a Klan member, and the lieutenant governor also confessed to wearing blackface at a party. She said that she voted for Ralph Shearer Northram to be governor, but that she believes he needs to resign. She said that people all over the country have trouble dealing with racism, tending to state defensively “I’m not a racist.”

Sister Cora said that the longer we wait to accept and assess, the longer it will take to solve the problems of exclusion and oppression in our society. She said that people need to be honest about where they are and how they feel, and to acknowledge privilege. She said that most people have some degree of privilege in one dimension or another, expressing her own privileged position as , giving her an opportunity to do things she otherwise would not have been able to do. She recommended the book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wherein it is written that “the oppressed become the oppressors.” Force and hierarchy are imposed and refracted.

Sister Cora said that her vision of the church moving forward, and her message for people of color and people fighting for justice is to be hopeful and to have faith. She said we must live up to that faith and that we cannot think in terms of what “they” need to do, but rather in terms of “we,” to tell ourselves that “I have to be involved” in order to make the world a better place.

This summary of the events pales in comparison to Sister Cora’s own retelling of her story, available below:

African American Women of the Modern Civil Rights Movement – Daisy Bates

(Daisy Bates Photo Courtesy of The Chicago Defender)

*This article is part of a month long series on underrepresented women within the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

by Madeline E. Stout (@cellowolfe)

The final woman discussed in this project is Daisy Bates. Bates spoke at the March on Washington, on behalf of women, to aid men in their goals for Civil Rights. Even though she did appear on the podium at the March on Washington, she too has been left behind by history. Bates is the most known for training the Little Rock Nine: nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas on September 4, 1957.[1] Bates was also the president for the Arkansas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Like Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Bates advocated for mass protest and grassroots activism.[2] Bates argued for the desegregation of Arkansas schools prior to the Brown v Board of Education cases.

Daisy Bates 2[3]

Prior to the events in Little Rock Arkansas and the March on Washington, Daisy Bates found her work were constantly under threat by white supremacists in Arkansas. In 1941, Bates and her husband started a weekly black newspaper, State Press, which grew into Little Rock’s voice for racial justice.[4] Similar to Pauli Murray, Bates found an outlet to fight racial injustice through writing, but she didn’t only focus on racism in Arkansas the State Press also focused on housing discrimination, legal injustice, and job discrimination.[5] In 1942, Bates and her husband joined the NAACP, and she became the co-chair for the State Conference’s Committee for Fair Employment Practices in Arkansas.[6] Bates spent the 1940s challenging Jim Crow laws through her newspaper’s publications.

Despite owning and writing for State Press, Daisy Bates remained under the radar to the larger Civil Rights Movement. She faced threats and acts of violence in the 1950s leading up to 1957. Bricks were thrown at her house, crosses were burned on her lawn, and night riders would shoot into her home, but yet she persisted.[7] On May 17, 1954 Brown v Board of Education was decided in favor of school integration. The South resisted integration. In Arkansas, Governor Faubus refused to operate the proper channels to begin integration. It was decided by Little Rock superintendent Virgil Blossoms, and Daisy Bates that a small group of nine students would initiate integration in Little Rock’s Central High School.[8]

Virgil Blossoms selected the students and Bates organized and planned how the integration would happen on morning of September 4, 1957. Bates had been up late the night before the event and had not contacted Elizabeth Eckford’s family with the logistics for the plan.[9] What resulted was a young black girl approaching a screaming mob of angry white parents and teenagers, yelling slurs, and chanting, “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate” at Eckford.[10] The tension between the white and black students did not end after the first day of black students entering Central High.[11] After that day, Bates became the spokeswoman of the Little Rock Nine and the Arkansas branch of the NAACP. Almost two months after the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High, Daisy Bates was arrested for her role within the NAACP under new Arkansas legislation against NAACP activity in the state. Unlike Baker, Clark, and Murray, Bates spent a lot of time in the spotlight, receiving recognition from the NAACP and Civil Rights male activists during the late 1950s.[12] Bates’s recognition culminated when she and the nine students were awarded the “Citizen of the Year” award from the Omega Psi Phi fraternity in December of 1957.[13]

It wasn’t until 1958, when the NAACP awarded the Spingarn Award, one of the most prestigious honors the organization bestowed, that Bates encountered the patriarchal system of the Civil Rights movement. The NAACP awarded the Spingarn Award to the Little Rock students, not Daisy Bates. Prominent black women such as Pauli Murray, cried out that Bates had been slighted by the organization and deserved to be included with the students.[14] The NAACP did eventually concede to the criticisms by the members of the organization and awarded the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement to both Bates and the nine students. In 1958-1959 Bates worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on the second Youth March for Integrated Schools. At the end of 1959, State Press closed down due to threats and loss of money. In November 1961, Bates resigned from her position as head of the Arkansas branch of the NAACP, but still remained active within the organization. She began advocating for voter education and rights in 1963 and marched, unnoticed by the press and in the middle of the crowd, with other prominent women at the March on Washington.[15]

The four women discussed this month are examples of how women were involved within the Civil Rights Movement before the March on Washington in 1963. Despite their activism in law, education, voter registration, desegregation, and anti-lynching throughout the 1930s-1960s these women, excluding Bates received no attention during the March on Washington. Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Pauli Murray and Daisy Bates were not permitted to walk alongside the male leaders of the Movement let alone speak at the Lincoln Memorial. These women influenced the student activists, like Diane Nash, who is most noted for her work in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, coming into the Movement in the 1960s.

It is because of women like Baker, Clark, Murray and Bates that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded; their stories help to illustrate the extent that women were the backbone of the Movement through their dedication to education and true equality for all citizens. Their stories deserve more attention than being consigned to footnotes or a few paragraphs within the history of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

[1] Peter B. Levy. The Civil Rights Movement (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998) 11, 108. See also, Elizabeth Jacoway, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (New York: Free Press, 2007), 3. Hampton, Henry, Judith Vecchione, Orlando Bagwell, James A. DeVinney, Callie Crossley, Jon Else, Mark Samels, Steve Fayer, and Julian Bond. Eyes On the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Fullscreen. [United States]: PBS Home Video, 2010.

[2] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 134.

[3] National Park Service; courtesy Special Collections, University of Arkansas.

[4] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 134-136.

[5] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 134-137.

[6] Gayle J. Hardy, American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 1993) 33.

[7] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 134-137. See also, Poston, Ted. “A WOMAN WHO DARED..” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Dec 04, 1957.

[8] Stockley, Daisy Bates, 65-67.

[9] Stockley, Daisy Bates, 122-127.

[10] Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir by Daisy Bates (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986) 65-66. See also, Hampton, Henry, Judith Vecchione, Orlando Bagwell, James A. DeVinney, Callie Crossley, Jon Else, Mark Samels, Steve Fayer, and Julian Bond. Eyes On the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Fullscreen. [United States]: PBS Home Video, 2010.

[11] Kemp, R. (1957, Dec 19). Tension in little rock high as school adjourns. Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960) Retrieved from

[12] Stockley, Daisy Bates, 186-188. See also, Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, 107-110.

[13] “Mrs. Bates, Atty. Hill, Little Rock 9 Honored.” Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960), Dec 31, 1957.

[14] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 137.

[15] Hardy, American Women Civil Rights Activists, 32-34. See also, Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, 177-179, 227-230.