Rose Pastor Stokes was born poor, married rich and became an activist and agitator most of us have never heard of. Historian Adam Hochschild tells her story in his new book—Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes. He talked about his book in a Chicago Humanities Festival event livestreamed on YouTube Wednesday night. Monika Bauerlein, CEO of Mother Jones magazine, joined him in conversation and a Q&A session.
Rose was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Czarist Russia in 1879; deserted by her husband, her mother emigrated with Rose to London and then to the U.S. in 1891. They settled in Cleveland. In 1892, Rose began working in a cigar factory; she worked there for 11 years, helping support her siblings and mother. During this time, Rose discovered her talent for writing when she submitted a letter to the Jewish Daily News. It was printed and she was encouraged to write and submit more articles about workers’ lives. The New York-based newspaper invited her to join the staff and she moved to New York in 1903. One of her assignments was to interview philanthropist J.G. Phelps Stokes, known as Graham. He supported a settlement house on the Lower East side. They met, fell in love and were married in 1905.
Thus Rose Pastor became Rose Pastor Stokes and she and her husband supported left-wing causes. Rose became an activist and never moved into “the castle” represented by Stokes’ wealth. She supported the union in the garment workers strike of 1909 and led the strike by the hotel and restaurant workers a few years later. Rose and Graham’s circle of friends included the famous intellectual activists of the era: Eugene Debs, Max Eastman, Lincoln Steffens, John Reed, Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
World War I put a strain on Rose and Graham’s relationship. She was energetically anti-war while Graham wanted to join the military. She was one of the founders of the Communist Party and went to Russia in 1922. They were divorced in 1925; Rose refused alimony.
Rose Pastor Stokes continued her writing, including poetry and plays, and spoke to groups all over the country. She had married into wealth but lived on the periphery of the Gilded Age . She fought against its labor and economic inequalities and discrimination against all the not-quite-white immigrant groups—Jews, Irish, Italians, Greeks and Poles. She battled these evils throughout her life. Rose would recognize today’s “New Gilded Age,” where much of the population suffers from the same questions of immigration, labor discrimination, segregation and wealth inequality.
Viewers were able to submit questions to Hochschild. Several asked about Rose’s exceptional oratorical and writing abilities, despite her lack of formal education. (She had just two years of schooling.) Hochschild gave an inspiring response about how small a percentage of Americans had formal schooling, let alone college educations, a century ago. Instead, they were avid and constant readers and educated themselves. As an example, Hochschild described the Wobblies (IWW) who had a substantial prison library with books of all sorts available to the IWW political prisoners. Bill Heywood, an IWW leader, was known for quoting long excerpts from Shakespeare from memory.
At the end, Bauerlein asked Hochschild if we can derive any hope in today’s ugly political situation by considering the era in which Rose lived. His answer may give you a modicum of hope. In the politics of social change, Hochschild said, you never just win a battle. It takes time. There are steps on the road to change. Some of the ideas of the early socialists finally took root in the 1930s, some took decades longer. We’re on a journey.
Adam Hochschild is an author, historian and journalist. His best-known works include King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998); Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2005) a history of the late 18th- and early 19th-century anti-slavery movement in the British Empire; and Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 (2016). He also writes for literary and commentary magazines including the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Nation, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
Rebel Cinderella (320 pages, March 2020) is available from the Seminary Co-op bookstore, CHF’s partner bookstore, or your favorite bookseller.