Rose Pastor: A Progressive-Era Hero of the 99 Percent
Near the end of the nineteenth century, as America’s booming economy generated unprecedented wealth for the fortunate few, many of the most prosperous sought to use their money and the political power it bought to undermine democracy and further enrich themselves. Those developments were no less dangerous to our democracy than the concentration of wealth and income, unfettered corporate power over the political process, lack of protections for working people, and the huge and growing gap between the most wealthy and the rest of us that we see today.
The callous abuses of the system by those with the most wealth and power led to reforms that we still benefit from today. These reforms, however, are now at risk of being eliminated by those who think owning most of America and completely controlling the political process gives them the right to continue to accumulate even more wealth and power. Clearly, the concentration of so much power in the hands of the rich is as inimical to American values and as unsustainable in the long run as the Progressive Era reformers believed a hundred years ago.
As the Occupy protests have underscored, we are in urgent need of a present-day movement that applies in updated form the reforms—considered radical in their day—that proved effective in the Progressive Era. The time is ripe to inform our current struggles with a look back at the labor unionists and relatively wealthy social reformers of the Progressive Era who helped save America from those who sought to corrupt the democratic system to their own ends. I’d like to share the story of an especially inspirational figure—Rose Pastor.
From a Cigar Factory to High Society
In New York City, in the spring of 1905, it appeared as if fairy tales could really come true for even the poorest young women toiling in the city’s factories and sweatshops when it was announced to an astonished public that a young Jewish immigrant from Poland was to marry a member of one of the wealthiest Christian families in America. While the press could provide only the sketchiest detail about Rose Pastor, the bride-to-be, there was no shortage of information concerning the prospective groom, Graham Phelps Stokes. He was a member of one of New York City’s most prominent families—one that owned a long-established banking, mining, and railroad conglomerate.
Although Rose would soon become well known to the cream of American society, prior to her marriage to Graham, her working-class background and religion would have made her an unwelcome guest in their homes, schools, and clubs. She was two years old when her mother and stepfather fled with her from the Czarist pogroms occurring in Poland, initially settling in London, England. When she was twelve, she and her parents immigrated to America. Her stepfather died very soon thereafter and, for the next dozen years, Rose worked as a cigar-wrapper in factories in Cleveland to help support her family.
During this time, Rose devoted herself to self-education through reading. Wrapping cigars for fourteen hours a day was tedious work, but she soon was able to do her work with one hand while turning the pages of a book concealed under her apron with the other. Eventually, Rose began to write short items for newspapers and magazines. Some of her pieces were published and, quite unexpectedly, in 1903, she moved to New York City with her family to take up an appointment as a reporter at the Tageblatt, a daily Jewish newspaper. When Rose interviewed Graham for one of the stories her newspaper was covering, they found that they shared an irresistible mutual attraction alongside their shared political commitments. They were married the following year.
Rose’s high-profile activism on behalf of the oppressed made her a national celebrity, and her membership in the Phelps Stokes family gave her, for a time, the support to pursue the causes that were important to her. As Arthur and Pearl Zipser note in Fire and Grace: The Life of Rose Pastor Stokes, “Over the period 1905 to 1925 she was as famous as any woman in the world. She was more famous than her partners in struggle, including Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Margaret Sanger.”
Joining the Struggle for Workers’ Rights
By the time of Rose and Graham’s marriage, the Socialist Party of America had existed for about four years and had begun to attract a broad spectrum of American society to its ranks. Several members of the Phelps Stokes family joined and quickly assumed leadership roles. Rose and Graham were among the most active participants in the Intercollegiate Socialist Society’s speakers’ bureau, which made prominent Socialists like them available to interested groups on college and university campuses. Rose was popular as a speaker: she was articulate and dynamic, and her working class background added authenticity to her message.
In addition to their speaking engagements, Rose and Graham also wrote articles. Among Rose’s writings was her 1906 article for the scholarly journal, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The article, “The Condition of Working Women from the Working Woman’s Standpoint,” helped Rose gain respect as a leader in her own right, not just as the wife of a Socialist millionaire. In it she argued:
Much of the hardship of the working classes is consequent upon the fact that they are obliged not merely to support their own families, but to contribute, whether they will or not, to the support of other families which live in idle luxury upon the products of working people’s toil.
While Graham and Rose were equally active in speaking out for the oppressed, it soon became apparent that Rose was much more inclined than Graham to become a direct participant in the struggle for workers’ rights. For example, in 1909, as Herbert Shapiro and David Sterling note in “I Belong to the Working Class”: The Unfinished Autobiography of Rose Pastor Stokes, she threw her support behind the landmark strike by New York’s garment workers. “More than twenty thousand workers had walked out of hundreds of shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn,” Shapiro and Sterling write. “This strike was an occasion in which socialists, suffragists, and liberals from the Women’s Trade Union League were able to cooperate in support of the strikers.” Rose was at the forefront of the organizing effort, speaking at numerous rallies aimed at generating broad-based support for the workers’ cause.
This strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire that occurred two years later, were pivotal events in the history of the labor movement in America, especially among workers in a clothing industry that employed large numbers of Jewish immigrants. Workplace deaths, injuries, and illnesses were a fact of life in certain industries, as Philip Dray notes in There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. While the mines, railroads, mills, and factories accounted for the greatest number of deaths and injuries, no one was safe from the effects of shortcuts taken in pursuit of maximum profit. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City cost the lives of 146 workers (mostly young Jewish immigrant women) who were trapped in their workplace because their employers had barred the means of escape. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy, which occurred as people were leaving work in Manhattan, looked at the upper floors of a burning building and saw a steady stream of young women pause helplessly amid the flames before jumping to their deaths on the sidewalk. Rose and her allies saw this tragedy as a direct consequence of the greed and exploitation that flowed from unregulated capitalism. It was one of the series of pivotal events that pushed her in an increasingly radical direction.
The impact of the Triangle fire on the organizing efforts of the unions cannot be overstated. Within five years, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and several other unions had gained recognition and played a key role in securing from their employers the forty-five-hour week, paid vacations, unemployment and health insurance, and pensions. The mine, steel, textile, and automobile workers all had to suffer their own versions of employer-inflicted inhumanity, deaths, and injuries before they secured workplace fairness and security. We owe all of them a great deal—at the very least, to remember and honor them for their courage and sacrifice.
These early achievements convinced Rose and her allies that additional successes were possible and that they should redouble their efforts. In 1912, Rose played a leadership role in another industrial conflict: a strike of the International Hotel Workers Union against New York City hotels and restaurants. She not only spoke at the mass gatherings of the strikers and their supporters, as Shapiro and Sterling record, she also “immersed herself in the actual organizational work of the strikers.” As it happened, Graham had an uncle in New York City’s hotel industry. According to Zipser and Zipser, “This very rich uncle … was against the strike, he was against foreigners, and, for both those reasons, he was against Rose Stokes, his niece by marriage.” He became her archenemy, and when America entered World War I, he played a key role in bringing about her arrest for anti-war activities.
Birth Control Rallies
As Rose elevated her reform efforts, the Phelps Stokes family became increasingly distressed by her high-profile activism. One such incident occurred almost immediately after she became active in the birth control movement. In early 1916, Rose chaired a fundraiser in support of Margaret Sanger, who was about to face trial for violating the Comstock Act, which forbade the dissemination of birth control information. Shortly afterward, Rose spoke at a rally at Carnegie Hall welcoming Emma Goldman back to the cause, after the latter served a prison term for breaking the same law.
At the Goldman rally, Rose did not limit herself to making speeches but handed out printed materials on birth control. “The crowd rushed to take the proffered information and a near riot ensued,” Shapiro and Sterling write. “Rose escaped unharmed and waited for the expected arrest for having incited disorder. But, perhaps because of the Stokes’ elevated social position, there would be no arrest.”
While Rose was distressed at the thought that her position in society probably saved her from the fate that Sanger, Goldman, and others suffered for their convictions, members of the Phelps Stokes family were equally dismayed by the Carnegie Hall incident but for different reasons. Shapiro and Sterling report that, according to Graham’s father, Rose’s “defiance of law and order was wrong. He hoped she would apologize … but Rose insisted she had done nothing that required apology or retraction.” She felt a moral obligation to publicize, for women nationwide, the existence of effective methods of birth control.
The advent of World War I inflicted deep wounds on the American Socialist Party. As David Shannon, in The Socialist Party of America: A History, notes, “in the late summer of 1914, Americans were stunned when they read in their newspapers that war was beginning in Europe.” Most leaders of the party were firm in their opposition to the war and concentrated their energies on campaigning against America’s entry into the conflict. Rose changed her position several times but, finally, cast her lot with the party majority. Graham resigned and vigorously supported the war effort. From this point onward, their marriage struggled.
Once America entered the war, patriotism reached a fever pitch and opposition to it was outlawed. As Shannon notes, “The Espionage Act, which became law on June 15, 1917 … made obstruction of the draft or enlistment service punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and twenty years’ imprisonment.” A subsequent amendment to the act, “sometimes called the Sedition Act, made even attempting to obstruct the draft a felony. Socialists were frequently to run afoul of these laws.”
Rose’s problems flowed from comments she made before a women’s club in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 18, 1918. During that talk she made clear her opposition to the war and linked its cause to the profiteering motives of the capitalists. In case there was any question about what she had meant, she wrote a follow-up letter to the Kansas City Star, stating, “No government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people, and I am for the people, while the government is for the profiteers.” Before the week was out, Rose was charged with violating the Espionage Act. Graham posted bail for her but did not return to Kansas City to be with her during the trial.
Rose was found guilty of all charges and was given a ten-year prison sentence. However, her conviction was overturned on appeal in January 1920 and a new trial was ordered. By the time this was scheduled, the war was over, and a new administration in Washington had little interest in prosecuting her again. The charges were, therefore, vacated.
Rose and Graham were divorced in 1925. Rose did not contest or even negotiate the terms of her divorce, ending up with no financial settlement and spending the last decade of her life in poverty.
This story is worth retelling so that we may draw inspiration from Rose’s unswerving commitment to the improvement of the lot of ordinary working people, women’s right to control their bodies, and the right to speak out when one believes, rightly or wrongly, that the country is engaged in an unjust war. Rose was obviously not alone in risking her livelihood, liberty, and life for the good of the whole. But her willingness to risk the comfort and security that her marriage to Graham could have provided makes her an inspiring model for those who wish to make a difference today. The need to stand up for what is right and just is as compelling as it was in her day. Expecting the gravely weakened unions to take the lead in today’s battles is unrealistic and unfair, although their full participation is essential. As was the case in the past, it will take a mass movement of people of conscience, unbending principle, and singular courage if economic justice is be restored and democracy rescued.