Plaza Voices: Agitate! Agitate!

It's hard to miss the fact that women activists are at the forefront of current social justice efforts, from Black Lives Matter to the Dreamers movement to the Parkland student protests.

This is not a new trend. In honor of Women's History Month, here are three immigrant women activists who fought for human rights in the United States:

Ernestine Rose (1810-1892) was born in Poland, the daughter of an orthodox rabbi. After losing her inheritance for refusing an arranged marriage, she fought in the courts to regain her financial independence, and became a successful businesswoman. In her twenties, she got involved with reformist movements, married the man of her choosing, and emigrated to the U.S. A gifted orator, she traveled the country with Susan B. Anthony, speaking in support of women's rights. While other advocates invoked biblical arguments, Rose was an outspoken atheist and secular humanist. This "extremism" isolated her from others in the movement and contributed to her relative obscurity, but her commitment to her principals was unwavering. One biographer quotes her common refrain: “Agitate! Agitate! ought to be the motto of every reformer... Agitation is the opposite of stagnation—the one is life, the other death.”

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830-1930) was born in Ireland to Roman Catholic parents and emigrated to the U.S. as a child. Trained as a teacher, she became a seamstress in Chicago after her husband and four children died of yellow fever. She was made homeless by the Great Fire of 1871 and began working with the Knights of Labor to organize for improved working conditions across the country, most famously on behalf of miners in West Virginia and Colorado. She also organized their wives, inspiring them to join picket lines to support striking workers. Though she did not join the suffrage movement, seeing it as a distraction from working-class labor efforts, she promoted women as independent agents of change, stating, "you don't need the vote to raise hell." She traveled throughout her life, living "wherever there is a fight," and was buried with miners who died in the labor struggle in Illinois.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was born in Lithuania under the Russian Empire at the dawn of the Bolshevik revolt. The third daughter of conservative Jewish parents, Goldman, a self-described born rebel, emigrated to New York as a young adult. Appalled by the conditions she experienced as a garment worker, and inspired by the injustice she perceived in the Haymarket Square incident in 1886, she became involved in anarchist and labor rights movements in the city. Her partner Alexander Berkman was imprisoned for the attempted assassination of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and she was jailed for "inciting a riot" in 1893 (see the mugshot above). After another fiery speech inspired a presidential assassination attempt in 1901, she was again accused of provocation, but was never prosecuted. She traveled, wrote, and spoke on behalf of human rights; edited and published the magazine Mother Earth, which became a forum for anarchist and feminist writers; and trained as a nurse and midwife. She famously wrote, "I want freedom, the right to self expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."

(Want to learn more but too busy to read a whole book? Check out brief articles using Gale Virtual Reference Library. That's what we do!)

Who are some of your favorite immigrant women, current or historical? Share with us in the comments!

Plazas are an open community space where immigrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our events calendar for more information.

Written by Amma R. on March 19, 2018



This is powerful stuff and so inspiring to read. Thank you so much for putting this together. I think now more than ever we need to remember powerful role models. Some people feel like because it is 2018 that racism and sexism somehow no longer exist. We need to find out voices and say enough is enough. 


Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Civil disobedience, labor actions, and public protests are all expressions of free speech that have been used to improve conditions in our country, and I agree that they are still needed.

Lisa M on March 21, 2018


There are many inspirational role models we need to be informed about and libraries are wonderful resources for our community to be reminded about them and their efforts. It's especially important that our fellow youth, boys and girls of all ages, become familiar with them in order for them to be continuously motivated and cultivate the seeds of fairness.


I agree. The library offers information on so many community heroes from all walks of life who have changed the world. We will continue to highlight them in Plaza Voices!

V.V. on March 22, 2018


"You don't need the vote to raise hell." I love that quote, it makes me think about all the people who have no right to vote, but still work hard to shape the country and help society progress.


Thank you for reading! I am also inspired by all of those who don't have the right to vote but who exercise their other rights and demand change.

Bob on March 28, 2018


Who are some of your favorite immigrant women, current or historical?

Ayn Rand, most definitely.