When you think about LES Heroines, Frances Goldin immediately comes to mind. Frances was born in 1924 into a working-class, Russian-Ukrainian Jewish family in Queens. While growing up, her family faced intense anti-Semitism, and they were often ostracized by the neighborhood’s merchant-class Jews because, as Goldin recalls, ‘my father went to work in overalls’. Her exposure to racism at an early age lead to a lifetime commitment to social justice.
In her twenties, Frances moved to the Lower East Side, an ethnically diverse and politically radical neighborhood, where she became a member of the Communist Party. She got married and became a mother of two daughters, as well as a literary agent and progressive political activist. Her political activity led to Frances and her husband to come under surveillance by the FBI, and when her husband became blacklisted, she was forced to become the family’s sole breadwinner.
Despite these actions against her, she continued to stand against injustice. In 1959, when LES residents found out that 12 city blocks would be demolished to build middle income housing that would have displaced thousands of residents, Frances became one of the principal founders of the Cooper Square Comittee. Their organized protest led to her first arrest – with many more to follow – but it also led to the organization’s first success: stopping the plan.
Frances continued to be on the Cooper Square Committee’s Board for more than 30 years. She led the organization’s planning and negotiating efforts on many issues. She also testified at hearings, marched in demonstrations, and got arrested, again, on several occasions. This never stopped her from acting on what she believed in.
In 1977, Frances founded the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. She envisioned an agency representing only literary fiction and serious, controversial, progressive non-fiction. Her agency is now 38 years old, still publishing books with a progressive political orientation. She has served as the literary agent for people such as Ramsey Clark, Mumia Abu Jamal, Martin Duberman, Dorothy Alison, Barbara Kingsolver and many more.
Now, at age 91, Frances is still active in several community activities. Four years ago, when she was protesting at Occupy Wall Street, she told NBC: “I’ve been arrested nine times for civil disobedience; I want to be arrested 12 times!” and “I am 87 and mad as hell!” Last week, she was one of the inspiring speakers of a recent LES History Month event, ‘LES is More,’ sharing personal stories of fighting for justice in the Lower East Side and living through monumental transformations in the neighborhood. She continues to inspire generations of activists, artists, and writers, and is truly an LES Heroine.
Currently in the making: It took 50: Frances Goldin and the struggle for Cooper Square, a documentary by Ryan Joseph and Jason Powell.
Words by Marieke Scherjon