Rose Harriet Pastor Stokes (1879–1933) was an American socialist activist, writer, birth control advocate, and feminist. She was active in labor politics and women’s issues, and was a founding member of the Communist Party of America in 1919. She was a figure of some public notoriety for having married millionaire socialist J.G. Phelps Stokes, a member of elite New York society and acquaintance of President Woodrow Wilson.
Youth and emigration
Rose Harriet was born in the tiny Jewish shtetl of Augustava Suvolk in the Russian Empire (later Poland) on July 18, 1879. She was the daughter of Jacob and Anna Wieslander. Her parents separated, and her mother took the family to London in 1882 when Rose was three. There Anna married Israel Pastor, who gave his surname to Rose. The family lived in the East End. Rose Pastor attended classes for a time at the Bell Lane Free School. Israel Zangwill was once a pupil there and later an instructor.
In 1891 when Pastor was twelve, her family emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1892 she found a job in a Cleveland cigar factory, where she worked as a cigar maker for the next eleven years. Her stepfather died a few years after the family arrived in Cleveland, and Pastor helped support her six siblings and mother.
Writing and activism
During this time, Pastor discovered her talent for writing. Responding to a request for thoughts from Jewish workers, she submitted an essay to the Jewish Daily News in New York City. It was published and she was encouraged to write more. The paper continued to publish her work. Pastor’s success led her to relocate to New York in 1903. Pastor became a columnist in the English-language section of the Jewish Daily News, where she offered advice to other young women, as well as writing human interest features. The paper was published mostly in Yiddish. With a salary of $15 a week, after a couple of years Pastor had saved enough to bring her mother and siblings from Cleveland to New York.
In July 1903, Pastor was assigned to interview J.G. Phelps Stokes, known to his friends as “Graham,” a prominent businessman and supporter of a settlement house on the Lower East Side. He was featured in news stories because of his social status and his charitable work for the needy. Descended from families prominent since the colonial history of New England, Stokes was a railway president and a society figure who had given up his mansion at 299 Madison Avenue to be closer to the work he found most satisfying, that of social projects. Stokes moved to the University Settlement on the Lower East Side, which administered to the masses of new immigrants from Europe. It was near the Jewish Daily News. Pastor praised Stokes’ ideals in her report of the interview. Soon Pastor also became active in work of the settlement house. Pastor’s friendship with Stokes deepened, and in early 1905 they announced their engagement. The couple were married in July 1905 and joined the Socialist Party of America together soon thereafter.
In September 1905, together with Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Clarence Darrow, and Florence Kelly, Graham Phelps Stokes helped found the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS) to encourage study and discussion of socialism in colleges. Over the next decade both Graham and Rose lectured frequently on socialist themes on behalf of the ISS on college campuses around America.
In 1909 a few years after their marriage, the Stokes moved to a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, where Rose was integrated into her husband’s circle of intellectual socialists, including William English Walling, Anna Strunsky Walling and Helen Stokes. Both Graham and Rose Stokes continued their activities on behalf of the Socialist movement. Pastor Stokes frequently traveled around the country to speak and debate about the cause. She also helped picket, strike and organize for specific events. She wrote regularly for the New York Call.
In 1909 Pastor Stokes took part in the Shirtwaist Strike, to show support for the 40,000 garment workers in New York. Her marriage to Graham Phelps Stokes had increased her prominence, and reporters came to cover her appearance at the strike headquarters at Clinton Hall. She said, “My ideal is that we all be economically interdependent. We should not be independent like millionaires, nor dependent like laborers. My ideal is that we all be interdependent. And I’m not working in a losing cause.” In May and June 1912, Pastor Stokes helped lead a strike by the New York City restaurant and hotel workers. In the winter of 1913, she aided the New York garment workers in another “bitter strike.”
James began to devote more time to writing, but Rose continued her activism. She distributed birth control information, and organized meetings with the leaders Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman. In addition, she continued writing, contributing poetry to such publications as The Masses, Independent and The Century Magazine. In 1916 she wrote a play about a labor leader.
War and prosecution
In 1917 the Socialists denounced the American war program. Graham Stokes withdrew from the party and joined the Armed Forces of the United States. At first Rose Pastor Stokes also left the Socialists, as she was disappointed with the party’s official position on the war: endorsing “active interference with the war effort”. She believed that Germany was a threat to democratic nations. Shortly she rejoined the Socialists, as she doubted whether President Woodrow Wilson’s policies furthered international democracy. She became associated with the Left Wing of the political faction. In a few years this element grew into the American Communist Party.
Pastor Stokes began to travel throughout the United States, speaking and contributing articles to various newspapers. In 1918, after comments following a speech in Kansas City were incorrectly reported, Pastor Stokes wrote a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star in which she criticized US involvement in World War I. She accused the US government of being allied with profiteers. Controversy over the letter led to a federal indictment and trial of Pastor Stokes in Kansas City, Missouri, for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. This was one of several indictments of activist women during the WWI years. Their criticism of the war threatened the national power of the patriotic mothers.
After receiving a sentence of 10 years in Missouri State prison, Pastor Stokes and her attorney, Seymour Stedman of Chicago, Illinois, successfully appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri. The experience of her trial and conviction pushed Pastor Stokes’ politics to the left. The government ultimately dismissed the case against her in 1921.
Despite tensions due to their differing positions on World War I, relations between Pastor Stokes and her husband were relatively congenial. Graham had been embarrassed before WWI by her activities for birth control and labor politics. Some of his family were quite opposed to her politics. With increasing strain between them, in 1925 Graham brought a petition for divorce in Nyack, New York, on grounds of misconduct by his wife. He won a decree. Pastor Stokes then issued a statement denouncing the New York divorce laws. She stated she and her husband had co-existed as friendly enemies for some time. She said she would cherish her freedom.
By 1929 Pastor Stokes had remarried. Her second husband Jerome Isaac Romaine, also an immigrant, was a language teacher. The couple lived at 215 Second Avenue.
Communist Party activity
Pastor Stokes withdrew again from the Socialist Party and became a founding member of the Communist Party of America in 1919. In 1922, she traveled to Moscow as an American delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. Pastor Stokes also served as the reporter for the special Negro Commission at the Congress. After returning to the United States, she was elected to serve on the Executive Committee of the newly formed Workers’ Party. It was at this time that Rose adopted the pseudonym “Sasha”.
She participated in strikes and made court appearances to support men and women arrested for picketing and/or demonstrating. In 1929 she was arrested for demonstrating during a garment workers’ strike. Due to her years of working with activists of the Lower East Side, she was called “Rose of the Ghetto”.
Death and legacy
Pastor Stokes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1930. In 1933 she went to Germany for radiation therapy. In April 1933 friends collected funds for hospital expenses. Pastor Stokes entered Municipal Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 15, where she was operated on for cancer by Professor Vito Schmiden. While under treatment, she died at age 54 in the hospital on 20 Jun 1933. Her body was cremated and the ashes sent to New York, where a memorial service was held at Webster Hall.
At the time of death, Pastor Stokes was working on her autobiography. Before her death, she had sent numerous documents related to her writing to her agents in the United States. Her unfinished autobiography was published posthumously.
Her papers are held by New York University, where they are held at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives and at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Much of this material is also available on microfilm.