School Desk

Lecture focuses on Lange


The iconic image is often directly associated with the suffering of the Great Depression: a weathered but resilient migrant woman sits deep in thought with her right thumb pressed beneath her chin and four fingers pressed along her jaw while her two young children bury their heads behind her shoulders.

“Whenever I talk about Dorothea Lange, I always have to start with this image,” Linda Gordon, a New York University (NYU) history professor, said of Ms. Lange’s photo, Migrant Mother.

Ms. Gordon delivered the 11th annual Reginald E. Zelnik Memorial Lecture at Riverdale Country School (RCS) on Jan. 16.

Mr. Zelnik, a Riverdale native, was struck and killed by a truck in 2004 on the University of California, Berkeley campus, where he taught Russian and Soviet history beginning in 1964. 

A freedom of speech advocate, Mr Zelnik co-edited a 2002 collection of essays titled The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, with NYU Professor Robert Cohen.

The annual event features a speaker chosen by RCS to deliver a lecture in Mr. Zelnik’s honor to the school’s 11th grade students in a class called “Constructing America.” The lecture focuses on free speech and American public discourse as it relates to the speaker’s field of study.

Ms. Gordon, this year’s speaker is the author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, which chronicles the life of the documentary photographer and showcases her images, including those of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Ellen Baker, one of the “Constructing America” teachers, suggested Ms. Gordon as the choice for speaker, as Ms. Gordon was her graduate advisor at the University of Wisconsin. Ms. Gordon has written extensively on the women’s liberation movement, including a history of birth control politics in the United States and a book about single mothers and the welfare system. 

For Ms. Gordon, Lange’s life and work is an ideal lens through which to look at the issue of free speech and democracy. 

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