Jessica Mitford, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale, was born in Burford, Oxfordshire, in 1917. The sister of Diana Mitford, Nancy Mitford and Unity Mitford, she was educated at home by her mother.
Mitford's parents held right-wing political views and supported the British Union of Fascists and in 1936 their daughter, Diana Mitford, married its leader, Oswald Mosley. Another daughter, Unity Mitford, went to Nazi Germany and became a close friend of Adolf Hitler.
Unlike the rest of her family, Jessica developed left-wing political opinions. At the age of fourteen she was converted to pacifism and later, like her sister, Nancy Mitford, became a socialist. Jessica even considered the possibility of visiting Germany with her sister and murdering Hitler. She later wrote: "Unfortunately, my will to live was too strong for me actually to carry out this scheme, which would have been fully practical and might have changed the course of history. Years later, when the horrifying history of Hitler and his regime had been completely unfolded, leaving Europe half-destroyed, I often bitterly regretted my lack of courage."
In 1937 Mitford met Esmond Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill, who had just returned to England after fighting for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was now working as a journalist for the News Chronicle and was about to go back to Spain to report on the war. Jessica went with him and they married in June 1937. While on honeymoon he wrote Boadilla , an account of his experiences in Spain.
When the couple returned to England Esmond Romilly found work as a copywriter for a small advertising agency in London, whereas Jessica was employed in market research. Along with her husband she became involved in the struggle against the British Union of Fascists.
In 1939 Mitford and Romilly went to the United States. On the outbreak of the Second World War Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force but was killed in 1941 during a bombing raid over Nazi Germany.
Mitford went to work for Office of Price Administration (OPA) where she met the radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, who she married in 1943. They both joined the American Communist Party and were active in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1948 they moved to Oakland and Treuhaft joined the legal firm of Oakland, Grossman, Sawyer & Edises. The company specialized in trade union and civil rights cases. This included the Willie McGee case. McGee, a 36-year-old black truck driver from Laurel, Mississippi, was convicted of raping a white woman despite evidence that the couple had been having a relationship for four years. The trial lasted less than a day and the jury took under three minutes to reach a verdict and the judge sentenced McGee to be executed. McGee's defenders argued that no white man had ever been condemned to death for rape in the deep South, while over the last forty years 51 blacks had been executed for this offence.
Mitford travelled to Mississippi to organize a campaign against the sentence. While there she reported on the case for The Peoples World. This included an interview with William Faulkner who spoke out against the decision to execute McGee. Despite a nationwide campaign led by Bella Abzug and William Patterson, McGee was executed on 8th May 1951.
Mitford's involvement in the Willie McGee case resulted in her being subpoenaed by the California State Committee on Un-American Activities. Mitford and her husband, Robert Treuhaft, took the 1st Amendment and refused to answer questions about their involvement in left-wing political groups. Two years later they were called before the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Once again they refused to give evidence and later Treuhaft was described by Joseph McCarthy as one if the most subversive lawyers in the country.
Over the next few years Mitford became increasingly disillusioned with the form of communism being developed in the Soviet Union. This despair grew with the revelations about Joseph Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev and the Red Army invasion of Hungary. Treuhaft and Mitford finally left the American Communist Party in 1958 after John Gates was ousted as editor of the Daily Worker.
As a trade union lawyer Treuhaft became aware of the financial problems that deaths caused in working class families. In an attempt to reduce the high costs of funerals he established the Bay Area Funeral Society, a non-profit undertaking service. In 1963 Treuhaft and Mitford published the best-selling book, The American Way of Death (1963). However, only Mitford's name appeared on the book cover as the publisher argued that "co-signed books never sell as well as those with one author."
Other books by Mitford included the autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960), The Trial of Dr. Spock (1970), A Fine Old Conflict (1977), an account of her time in the American Communist Party, and The Making of a Muckraker (1979).
Jessica Mitford died in 1996.