Rose Pastor Stokes – A Pioneer Socialist Feminist in the Gilded Age
Dave Jones, of Merseyside Socialist Alternative reviews ‘Rebel Cinderella’ by Adam Hochschild
History is not, or should not be, the recounting of past stories of great men and women. Rather it should be an analysis of the processes that lead to the development of society. However, the stories of individuals can be illustrative of the processes in action, and too often the lives and actions of women are minimised in history.
‘Rebel Cinderella’, released in paperback last month, tells the story of a woman at the heart of early 20th century American history – a time when, alongside widespread poverty, the opulence of the wealthy led to it being described as the ‘Gilded Age’. Rose Pastor Stokes was born in Russia in 1879 into poverty – an immigrant to America as a child, she started working at the age of 11. At the age of 23 she married a millionaire member of one of New York’s elite families. In a Hollywood movie, the story would end there, a fairy tale with a happy ending. But Rose Pastor Stokes was much more than a one-dimensional character in a storybook American dream, her true story lay in her revolutionary feminism and socialism.
Growing up in poverty, and as the main wage earner (rolling cheap cigars) in her family, she worked long hours in poor conditions for minimal pay. It was at this time she began to come into contact with socialist and trade union ideas, losing one job for reading a socialist book (by Emile Vandervelde), and being refused entry to a union because she was an unskilled worker. A chance letter, however written to the Jewish News led to an invite to work as a journalist in New York.
The book gives a reasonable indication of the slum like conditions many lived in (Rose shared a bed with 2 other women when she arrived in New York) and of the strong influence that the country of origin retained in New York especially, with distinct Russian, Rumanian, Hungarian neighbourhoods; an influence that was to play a big, and to some degree restraining influence on the development of early socialist parties in America.
As a journalist she primarily wrote conservative advice columns for ‘the girls’, until she was sent to interview a rich (the family home was the biggest private dwelling in America) philanthropist. This interview soon led to courtship and marriage. Her marriage into the Phelps Stokes family in 1905, ‘poor Jewish immigrant marries millionaire bachelor’ was front page news. Her husband was at the time involved in progressive causes, and eventually joined the Socialist Party. Although his socialism proved in the longer term to be fickle, it meant Rose was introduced to a range of left wing or progressive ‘celebrities’ (Margaret Sanger, Kier Hardie, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, WEB Du Bois) as well a plethora of socially guilty people of wealth playing at progressive politics – she talks of a party game dishing out tasks of manual labour to dinner guests as fun, when many workers would gladly have been rid of such toil.
Her political awareness was growing throughout this period, and following her wedding (when she had ‘obey’ removed from her vows) she joined the Socialist Party, where she quickly gained a reputation as an inspiring speaker. She was rapidly moving beyond the wealthy liberal benefactor class, and declared when speaking at one fundraiser “sometimes I wish I could wipe all philanthropy off the face of the earth. If it didn’t exist people would see conditions as they are, for these charities act only as a blind.” In visiting the south, she railed against the colour bar and walked out of one function in a public library when told blacks could not enter. She also opposed any restrictions placed upon black workers entering socialist societies that some favoured.
Her socialist views took on a more pronounced feminist emphasis after she took an active role in 1908 in Sarah Koten’s case and was instrumental in securing her release from prison. (Sarah Koten was a nurse who killed the employer who raped her, after he was acquitted after only 10 mins of his trial for rape.) She went to campaign for a change in the divorce laws, and was also heavily involved in the birth control movement. Here she took a class position highlighting the difficulties facing working class women, compared to wealthy women. Whilst all were affected by the law, the wealthy could afford private treatment, childbirth was less perilous, and more support was available to them in raising children. It was at this time Emma Goldman described her as a “true revolutionary”.
She was playing an increasingly important role in union strikes, but also seeing beyond pay and conditions. In 1909 Garment Workers Strikers, where memorably 23 -year-old Clara Lemlich (another story that needs to be told) rushed the stage of a meeting, brushing aside the old male union leaders pleading moderation, and issued the rallying cry “general strike now”. The strike was primarily about pay and hours, but Rose understood that for young working-class women working for male managers, pay and hours were not the only issue and called out the abuse the women suffered at the hand of foremen. This strike of mainly women workers attracted the support of many wealthy women – albeit conditional (socialism was a step too far) – but Rose downplayed their importance and said the workers should not feel they have to depend on outsiders for their victory “they must learn the extent of their own strength.
Of course she was now a wealthy woman herself, but she threw herself into these disputes, and gave herself over to the cause of the working class. When a strike wave broke out amongst staff at some of New York’s fanciest hotels, she was again involved, alongside Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, in the campaign. She even used her position to the workers’ advantage and eventually her photo was circulated to all hotels to bar her, following her tactic of registering as a guest in order to unionise the workers.
With the coming of the first world war, she initially vacillated and hesitated before committing herself to a militant anti-war stance. She toured the country speaking against the war, in an overtly class-conscious way, stating she was no pacifist but denouncing war by a ‘government of profiteers’. As with many anti-war activists she was obstructed, harassed and ultimately arrested under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 10 years, although this was dropped on appeal.
With the Russian Revolution her socialist views became clearer and held with greater strength. A firm supporter of the October Revolution, she subsequently broke with the reformist Debs and anarchist Goldman over support for the Bolsheviks. She was a founding member of the Communist Party of America, and was a member of its first Executive, and a delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. It is in this period that the book is at its weakest, covering 15 years in less than 30 pages, and the author cannot hide his contempt for the Bolsheviks referring to them and Rose as dogmatic and elitist. In this he demonstrates a lack of understanding of the key event in Rose’s political and personal life.
Her marriage ended in divorce, with her husband shedding his progressive politics for ruling class respectability. He ultimately could not accept a woman who was “assertive, independent and unwilling to bend the course of her life to his”. Following her divorce in 1925, as class struggle was on the ebb, and she struggled with her health, she was less visible, yet still received a serious beating from the police on a picket line in 1929. She remained a communist until her death from cancer in 1933.
With wealth divisions wider than ever and the discrimination faced by women, especially working-class women, the voice of socialist feminism is just as relevant today as it was in the ‘gilded age’. The book has its weaknesses; its author, a novelist, can bring no Marxist analysis to the subject, but it still has value and deserves to be read. It is the story of a woman who even when fortune favoured her continued to immerse herself in the working class and the struggle for socialism, whose name between 1918 and 1921 appeared in American papers more than any other woman. She entitled her unfinished memoir “I Belong to the Working Class!”, and her story adds much to our understanding of an important period in history