By Ashley Carollo
Rose Pastor Stokes may be unknown today, but 100 years ago she was a very modern tabloid sensation before we had paparazzi and the National Enquirer. There were more articles written about her and her marriage to one of the richest bachelors in the country than any other subject. But she was ultimately known for being much more than her marriage suggests. As an early 20th century union organizer she advocated for birth control and rights for women and workers, all while speaking to hundreds of thousands of people in public speeches.
Born penniless in Augustów, Russia (modern-day Poland), her biological father abandoned the family during a precarious time for Jews in the Russian Empire. With the religious pogroms in full swing it wasn’t safe, and she and her mother followed her new stepfather to London which provided a period of relative calm and the only chance Rose had for formal schooling. Economic opportunity led them to Cleveland, Ohio (USA), and Rose immediately went to work rolling cigars in a sweatshop. She was 11 years old.
By now her mother and stepfather had more children, and his income would prove to be unreliable in the following years. He was a steady father figure in her life and provided a familial home for the family. But Rose’s income working 12 hour shifts was putting food on the table for the growing family.
She was creative and bright and passed the time rolling cigars, befriending her fellow co-workers (many of them children too), writing poetry, and singing. The fellow factory workers later remembered her for her beautiful singing voice. But the poetry and songs were not about rainbows and unicorns. Even as a teen she was writing about working conditions and singing early labor songs that were taught by the organizing adults around her. All the while she was absorbing the situation women, workers, Jews, and immigrants found themselves in. She couldn’t help but to be extremely sympathetic.
Being fluent in both Yiddish and English, she started to write an advice column for the Yiddish language paper which led to a job offer in New York City as a reporter. At 23 she headed to the big city, still prepared to send money home for her mother, sisters, and brothers.
In the early 1900’s, there were a lot of social movements working to solve the growing problems of urbanization and unchecked labor. Capitalism had been almost entirely unregulated up until this point, and across the globe movements and schools of thought were looking to address these issues. It wasn’t uncommon for the country’s wealthiest and promising young people to take an interest. Thus found a young James Graham Phelps Stokes volunteering his time in a lower East Side “settlement” house. Graham was 30 years old when he met Rose while she was on assignment doing a story on the charity organization he was so dedicated to.
It was anything but an obvious match. His family was so rich and powerful, his parents were on the annual list to Mrs. Astor’s yearly gatherings of the 400 wealthiest individuals she knew. They had made their fortune in mining, real-estate, and banking, so it can be guessed how they viewed a child of theirs proudly declaring himself a “socialist”. Moreover, it was a mixed marriage of faiths. If eyebrows weren’t raised enough, this shot them up even further. Rose went on to be the first person of Jewish faith on the social registry.
After marrying, they set up an intentional living community on a private island filled with other like-minded activists and artists. Included on the guest book lists were Maxam Gorky, Jack London, Eugene Debs, John Reed, Emma Goldman, and Big Bill Haywood (founder of the Industrial Workers of the World). They translated the fame their marriage garnered them into speaking engagements and went on tour promoting socialism as a political movement encouraging workers to strike.
Rose outshone Graham during these events and probably enjoyed them more than he did. She was becoming very famous, and along with her friend Emma Goldman, infamous for speaking on behalf of women and distributing birth control information which was illegal at the time. It’s likely she avoided jail time only in deference to her husband’s family.
The Labor movement as a whole was gaining strength across the world and there were, of course, members of the Stokes family who opposed the young couples’ activities. Graham’s uncle, W.E.D Stokes, reported Rose to the FBI after she organized the service staff in his fancy hotel to walk out and strike. The government went on to raid the local Socialist chapter’s offices, searching every room, and smashing all the typewriters they found.
Things became more serious for them when WWI began and politics as a whole turned against Russia and Socialist movements. As passions grew, and Rose and Graham grew older, she became more entrenched in fighting for her causes as Graham faded into the background. They divorced and she joined the new Communist Party in support of the Russian Revolution.
She kept up her activism until the end, although with less vigor than she was allowed in the early, heady days of the Socialist movement. Before their divorce Graham had the maids under strict orders to turn her “radical” friends away and not let them through the front door.
She passed away of breast cancer while undergoing radiation therapy in Frankfurt, Germany in 1933. Up until the end she counted as friends, and often fellow collaborators, some of the most influential voices for worker’s rights in the United States, and in fact, around the world. Her lifelong friend Eugene Debs (US Presidential candidate) considered her a close confidant and her best friend, Olive Dargan, kept in contact with her beyond the confines of “the Cause” proving that her enduring friendships were one of her best personal qualities.
About the Author
Ashley Carollo is not a historian; but has spent the Pandemic lockdowns indulging her life-long history bug by freelancing, working on public history projects, and ‘homeschooling’ her two daughters with as many documentaries as they can stand.
She holds an undergraduate degree in European History and an MA in Public Administration. Her career has been in fundraising and grant writing for various non-profits and local governments, but she has a very vivid memory of announcing she was going to be a historian in the 5th grade. Perhaps the adults laughed….but, anyway, her career took her elsewhere.
She lives north of San Francisco, CA in California Wine Country with her husband, children, and dogs after living life in much of the western part of the US; including Colorado, Washington, and Texas.
If the pandemic lasts much longer there may be a novel in her yet. At the very least, she is determined to finish her first quilt.