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In 1905, a Poor Jewish Woman Married into a Rich New York Dynasty. And Then the Story Gets Radical.
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In 1905, a Poor Jewish Woman Married into a Rich New York Dynasty. And Then the Story Gets Radical.

Rose Pastor Stokes, the Socialist activist, was once the most talked-about woman in America.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

Rose Pastor Stokes at work at her desk, c. 1910. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)
Rose Pastor Stokes at work at her desk, c. 1910. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

I had never heard of Rose Pastor Stokes until earlier this year, when I read Scott D. Seligman’s book, “The Great Kosher Meat War of 1902.” Seligman describes her as “a well-known Yidishes Tageblatt columnist, social activist, settlement worker, and feminist, [with a] millionaire Episcopalian husband, James G. Phelps Stokes.”

It’s that last bit – the poor Jewish immigrant married to a member of one of old New York’s wealthiest families – that made Pastor Stokes a media sensation in the early 20th century. It also explains the title of Adam Hochschild’s 2020 book “Rebel Cinderella,” a compact, enlightening biography of Pastor Stokes that comes out this week in paperback. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Lisa Flanagan.

Born in Russia, Rose Pastor made her way with her mother and siblings first to Cleveland (her father skipped out on the family) and eventually to the Lower East Side. She spent much of her teens and early 20s toiling in cigar factories but found a gift for popular journalism that caught the attention of the Yiddish press. She met her future husband, scion of a sprawling banking, real estate and mining family, when she was sent to interview him for an article on his support for one of New York’s settlement houses for the urban poor: “Graham,” as he was known, was a grandee with a conscience, often to his family’s chagrin.

(The University Settlement house at 184 Eldridge Street, where Eleanor Roosevelt once taught dance, is still active today.)

Their unlikely romance and marriage in 1905 made headlines, and their support of socialist causes brought them admiration and scorn decades before Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic.” Rose and Graham lived on an island in Long Island Sound, creating a commune of sorts that at one point included two other Russian-Jewish activists and their rebellious Gilded Age husbands.

Rose was a fiery orator, outshining her husband on the stump. She often embarrassed his family with her support for birth control and other radical ideas. Yet the two seemed to complement each other — until they didn’t: The Great War in Europe and the Russian Revolution splintered the American left, and eventually their marriage. Rose remained a diehard socialist, trade unionist and pacifist and nearly went to jail for it; Graham supported the war and, like many socialists, grew disillusioned with the “Bolsheviki.”

For a time, Hochschild writes, Rose was the most reported-on woman in America. The couple’s religious backgrounds were mentioned and certainly his family wanted him to marry a nice Christian girl, but the public kvelled over the union of religions and classes. Writes Hochschild: “What could better symbolize the hope of human brotherhood than such a marriage of rich and poor, native-born and immigrant, Gentile and Jew?” And after all, when asked to describe her religious beliefs, Rose would reply, “Socialism.”

Rose was a harsh, self-indicting critic of the philanthropic class, likening them to thieves who rob your house then offer you a few dollars to buy clothes and food.

The book is a portrait of a country in turmoil, with themes that resound today: an enormous wealth gap between the rich and poor, the appeal of radical politics on the left, a reactionary backlash on the right, vicious anti-immigrant sentiment and rising white nationalism. You can even throw in a pandemic. Rose was a harsh, self-indicting critic of the philanthropic class, likening them to thieves who rob your house then offer you a few dollars to buy clothes and food.

Today we take for granted many of the reforms she championed. And it would be hard to argue with someone who started rolling cigars for pennies as an 11-year-old girl that we don’t need a better form of capitalism. Even the plutocrats at Davos have begun acknowledging this, noting an “alarming increase in economic inequality in the past decades” and the failure to confront pollution, environmental degradation and “the very health of our planet.”

Somewhere between the sweatshop and the gulag, Rose’s story reminds us, we need a politics that better balances the interests of labor and capital, and that tempers free enterprise with equity and compassion.

(Adam Hochschild will discuss his book, “Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes,” on Tuesday, March 2nd at 6:30 pm, in a program of The Book Stall in Winnetka, Ill.)

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