Rose Pastor Stokes and Crystal Eastman: women at the heart of the struggle

Issue: 173

Judy Cox

A review of Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical—The Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes, Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), £12

Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life, Amy Aronson (Oxford University Press, 2019), £25.49

Two new biographies unearth the lives of two of the most famous, influential and inspirational female socialists of 20th century in the United States. Just knowing the sketchiest outlines of their lives makes their obscurity unfathomable. How can Rose Pastor Stokes—who was for several years before the First World War the most talked about woman in the US, a labour leader and a Communist—not be better known among socialists and feminists? How is it that Crystal Eastman—a tireless campaigner for workers’ rights, a socialist and feminist, a journalist who provided an invaluable eyewitness account of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1918—has waited 100 years for a biography? The marginalisation of socialist women in the history of the movements they led is shocking, and these new biographies must be welcomed on that basis alone.

They are also welcome because exploring the lives of Stokes and Eastman means uncovering the rich and fascinating tradition of labour militancy and socialist organisation that emerged in the US in the early 20th century. Both women mixed with the most important socialists of their day, who were the “most spirited radicals, reformers and dreamers the country had ever known”.1 Pastor Stokes and Eastman mixed with the anarchist Emma Goldman, free love campaigner and socialist Margaret Sanger, trade unionists Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debbs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and prominent socialists such as John Reed and Eastman’s brother, Max Eastman. The most surprising omission in these two books is that, for all the fascinating characters they introduce, neither book mentions the other woman. Pastor Stokes wrote for The Masses, a socialist paper edited by Max and Crystal Eastman; she lived within a few blocks of the offices of the paper, which was “published by her friend Max”.2 Crystal Eastman spoke for the socialist college society run by Pastor Stokes’s husband, Graham Stokes. Max Eastman went with Pastor Stokes to Russia in 1922 as delegate to the conference of the Communist International. They mixed in the same socialist circles in New York’s Lower East Side and were centrally involved in the same campaigns and struggles, yet Amy Aronson unfortunately fails to mention Pastor Stokes, and Adam Hochschild ignores Eastman.

Why are these women hidden even from sympathetic historians of their era? Pastor Stokes became famous in the US media as the “sweatshop Cinderella” after her high profile marriage into wealth.3 Nevertheless, she slipped into obscurity within years of her death, with her political activism buried beneath her compelling but ultimately ephemeral status as a modern Cinderella. As so often with political women, it was her personal life that was considered worthy of interest not her politics. Eastman has perhaps garnered more attention, and a selection of her writings were republished in 1978, edited by Blanche Wiesen Cook.4 However, as Aronson points out, though she appears in histories and biographies, she is never the subject of them: “Glimpsed as a walk-on, she can seem almost out of context in the very organisations and movements she helped to found and lead”.5 Yet, Eastman and Pastor Stokes made key contributions to creating a socialist tradition in the great centre of US capitalism. Recovering their lives is part of recovering that tradition.

From poverty to politics

Pastor Stokes was born in 1879 in Russian-occupied Poland within the Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jewish families were confined. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 prompted a wave of progroms against Russian Jews. Against this backdrop, Pastor Stokes and her mother, Hindl Wieslander, followed Hindl’s husband to London’s East End, where he disappeared. Hindl led a strike of women workers in a sweatshop when their employer whitewashed the windows to stop the workers looking outside. The whitewash was removed; Pastor Stokes later looked back on this as an important lesson in labour militancy.6 In London, Hindl married Israel Pastor, and the growing family moved with him to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1890.

Hindl had six children with Israel, who scraped a living as an itinerant salesman. His increasingly sporadic visits were marked by drinking and violence. Their relationship eventually ended completely, leaving the young Pastor Stokes as the family’s breadwinner. At 11 years old, Pastor Stokes began working in a cigar factory, an occupation she continued for the next 12 years. She often worked 12 hour shifts before rolling cigars until midnight in a local workshop.7 She had an early experience of the elitist nature of US trade unionism when she and a group of cigar factory workers tried to join the American Federation of Labour (AFL). They were turned away—the AFL was uninterested in organising poorly paid, immigrant women.8

Eastman had a different start in life. She was born in 1881 in a small town by Seneca Lake, New York. Her family discussed communitarian socialism and women’s rights. Her mother, Annis Ford Eastman, was an inspiring orator who become the first women to be ordained as a congregational minister in the state of New York. Eastman’s mother was frequently the family’s chief provider as her husband tried various unsuccessful money-making schemes. The family tried living together communally with three other families, rotating the domestic work regardless of gender. While Pastor Stokes educated herself as she made cigars, Eastman challenged conventions about female education by graduating from Vassar College, New York, in 1903. She received an MA in the new field of sociology from Columbia University and then studied law at New York University in 1907, where she was often the only woman in class.

Pastor Stokes’s prospects changed dramatically when a neighbour brought her a copy of Yiddishes Tageblatt (Jewish Daily News), one of the most popular Yiddish daily papers. Pastor Stokes sent in a letter describing life in the cigar factory. She was commissioned to write further articles and offered a job as a reporter at $15 a week, double her factory wages. Thus, in January 1903, the 23 year old Pastor Stokes arrived in New York City—a rapaciously expanding metropolis that included extremes of wealth and poverty.9 New York was the largest Jewish city in the world, with both a thriving Yiddish culture and increasingly overcrowded slums. Socialists were seeking ways to counter growing antisemitism and to show solidarity with the inhabitants of New York’s Jewish ghetto.

One such initiative was the “settlement movement”. Educated young radicals would set up centres, or “settlements”, in US slums to build relationships, share education and recreation, debate socialist ideas, and offer essential services.10 One of the idealistic young activists who embraced this movement was James Graham Phelps Stokes, scion of one of the richest families in the US.11 In July 1903, Pastor Stokes went to the University Settlement building in the Lower East Side to interview Graham and their relationship blossomed. Their engagement sparked a press frenzy, with Pastor Stokes dubbed a modern “sweatshop Cinderella”. The couple became celebrities and few months would pass over the next two decades when their names failed to appear in the newspapers.12 When Eastman arrived in Manhattan in 1905, she too began work running recreational classes at Greenwich House Settlement.

The experience of the settlements led many towards socialism, especially when the 1905 Russian Revolution rocked the hated Tsarist regime from which so many Jewish New Yorkers had been forced to flee.13 Pastor Stokes campaigned to raise money to send to the Russian revolutionaries, even as her husband’s uncle, William Stokes, maintained his friendship with Tsar Nicolas II, whose coronation he attended in 1894.14

In 1906, Pastor Stokes and Graham Stokes both joined the Socialist Party, which had formed in 1901 and pulled together trade unionists, migrants and radicals. Pastor Stokes discovered she had a talent for public speaking. She and her husband owned a country retreat near New York, Caritas Island, where they welcomed many radical guests. These included the Russian Marxist novelist Maxim Gorky, US labour activist Mother Jones, the black sociologist W E B Du Bois, and authors Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Upton Sinclair.15 Pastor Stokes edited the women’s page of the Socialist Party’s daily paper, The New York Call, and openly advocated revolution, arguing that the working class would take power “with the ballot if possible, but with the bullet if necessary”.16

Eastman was also developing her own socialist ideas. In 1908, she began work investigating industrial accidents and deaths in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She humanised the statistics, describing “the unseen lives behind the numbers”.17 This research became the basis of her 1910 book, Work Accidents and the Law, which was widely acclaimed.18 Eastman was invited to join various commissions and enquiries, which are described in great detail by Aronson, but she always saw her research as part of a wider campaign for social justice. On 25 March 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory, which was near the home Eastman shared with her brother, Max, in Greenwich Village. Some 146 died in hideous circumstances, mainly young, Jewish, female textile workers. The fire prompted some of Eastman’s most powerful writing. In her 1911 Three Essentials for Accident Prevention, we hear of men ripped to shreds by machinery, blast furnace explosions and girls’ bodies piled up against locked factory doors. Eastman asks:

Who wants to hear about a great relief fund? What we want is to start a revolution… It seems a tame thing to drop so suddenly from talk of revolution to talk of statistics. But I believe in statistics just as firmly as I believe in revolutions.19

Eastman put all her education and skills at the service of winning safety legislation and compensation and of spreading the revolt that had already been fomenting in New York’s textile industry.

Two years earlier, in November 1909, a New York meeting had overflowed with young female garment workers, raging at their working conditions. The AFL’s president, Samuel Gompers, advised caution, but then a young worker and socialist, Clara Lemlich, took to the stage. Speaking in Yiddish, Lemlich electrified the crowd by demanding a general strike. Some 15,000 workers walked out in the opening act of a widespread strike wave that continued to grow into what became known as the Uprising of the 20,000.20 Pastor Stokes immediately began addressing strikes rallies, winning solidarity, raising funds and facing police violence on picket lines. Afterwards, she continued to throw herself into a series of revolts of badly paid and previously unorganised workers.21 Having been one of them herself put her in a unique position to connect their struggles together and draw links to broader socialist ideas.

Alongside the labour militancy was the increasingly militant campaign for female suffrage, and Eastman was central to this. She ran state-wide campaigns and wrote a number of powerful articles in favour of votes for women.22 She helped to establish the pro-suffrage National Women’s Party and encouraged Max to set up the New York Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.23

When the First World War began in Europe in August 1914, Pastor Stokes and Eastman both joined the Woman’s Peace Party and embarked on a tireless round of campaigning against preparations for war. The US initially stayed neutral, but in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson broke his election commitment to peace and announced that the US would enter the war. The Socialist Party was divided; at first Pastor Stokes and her husband resigned, declaring that they were socialists but wanted to defeat “the Prussian death machine”.24 Graham Stokes joined many of his class in agitating for war, but Rose was wracked with doubts. When she was invited to dine at the White House by Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the president’s daughter, she knew she was on the wrong path: “A sudden wariness fills me. The White House, after all—the seat of capitalist power! What is wrong with me that I elicit such an invitation?25 Eastman, on the other hand, never wavered from her “radical internationalism” and worked 16 hours a day opposing the war and US militarism.26

In March 1917, the stunning news of the Russian Revolution broke. John Reed and Louise Bryant reported from Russia for The Masses, describing a new society being established. In April 1917, Eastman had her first child, Jeffrey, and greeted the news of the first Russian Revolution with “mad, glad joy”.27 In November, news arrived of a second revolution. An ecstatic Pastor Stokes told one audience, “Every lover of humanity and every fighter for liberty thrills to the name of Russia today”.28 While the socialists exulted, Woodrow Wilson, who many had supported, implemented a set of repressive measures, centred around his Espionage Act of 1917, which criminalised opposition to war.29 Emma Goldman’s anarchist journal Mother Earth was shut down, followed by The Masses and the Socialist Party’s New York Call. By the end of the war, 6,300 American radicals had been arrested with warrants and many more without them.30 Among those arrested was Pastor Stokes’s great friend Eugene Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Max Eastman was arrested in August 1917, and Pastor Stokes herself was arrested in March 1918 after a speech in Kansas. Graham Stokes got her out of prison with a $10,000 bail, promptly announcing he would spend the same amount on government war bonds to support the war effort. Pastor Stokes’s first conviction was overturned, but she was indicted again for sedition. Her connection to the Stokes family probably protected her from prison. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party offices were raided and its members were arrested. At this point, Pastor Stokes re-joined the party, then gravitated towards its left wing, which became a founding organisation of the Communist Party USA.

Eastman continued to campaign in defence of civil liberties and against military intervention in Russia. On 31 January 1918, she and Max launched a new publication, The Liberator: The Journal of Revolutionary Progress, an unequivocally pro-Bolshevik maagzine.31 In the first issue, she wrote:

Never in all history before could one so joyfully and confidently enter upon the enterprise of publishing and propagating ideas. Dedicating our admiration to the fearless faith in scientific intelligence of Karl Marx, and our energy to hopes that are even beyond his, we issue The Liberator into a world whose possibilities of freedom and life for all, are now certainly immeasurable.32

Both Pastor Stokes and Eastman were passionate defenders of the Soviet Union, and they defied rising mob violence to speak and organise in defence of the Russian Revolution. In spring 1918, Eastman embarked on an incredible journey to report directly from revolutionary Europe. Aronson devotes only two pages to this episode in Eastman’s life, but her series, “Inside Communist Hungary”, was an enormous achievement.33 She interviewed the leader of the revolution, Béla Kun, and the famous Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, who Eastman had met before at an international feminist conference held in Budapest in 1913. She recorded Kun’s assurances that the revolutionary government’s repressive measures were temporary and not aimed at workers and anarchists but rather at the bourgeoisie. Eastman’s writings from Hungary and her brilliant reports from the 1919 uprising on Scotland’s Clydeside showed her delight at workers’ self-activity and the process of revolution: “Confidence, amazing confidence—not only in their power to establish communism, but in the complete success of communism when established, the power of this idea to save the world and make everybody happy—is the irresistible quality in these men”.34

Pastor Stokes was also enthused by the changes she saw in Soviet Russia on her visit in 1922. Again, confidence in the possibility of change was infectious, especially because 1919 saw the largest strike wave in US history; by the end of the year, four million had been on strike.35 Thousands of US workers were looking to socialist ideas. During the 1920 presidential election, Eugene Debs, campaigning from his prison cell, won 915,000 votes. The strikes were ultimately beaten by repression and the stoking of racist divisions. The National Guard, which Graham Stokes enthusiastically joined, smashed up picket lines, and the Palmer Raids, named after US attorney general Alexander Mitchell Palmer, targeted migrant leftists for deportation.

In February 1925, Pastor Stokes finally left her husband. As she moved towards revolutionary politics, he moved towards reaction, and she insisted they were now soldiers in enemy armies.36 In 1927, Pastor Stokes formed a new relationship with a young Russian Jewish immigrant, Victor Jerome. Their first date was a trip to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.37 Three years later, a reporter found her living in poverty and ill with breast cancer. The report prompted offers of help and supporters raised funds for treatment at a clinic in Germany, although Graham Stokes declined an invitation to donate saying that helping her would inevitably help her cause, which he now despised. Pastor Stokes died in Frankfurt on June 20, 1933, two days after her 54th birthday, while seeking radiation therapy in Germany.

During the 1920s, Eastman travelled backward and forward across the channel to London to maintain her second marriage to Walter Fuller, who worked for the BBC in London. She developed her socialist feminist ideas, championing the rights of women to enjoy sexual pleasure, including in the context of motherhood: “If the feminist programme goes to pieces at the arrival of the first baby, it is false and useless”.38 In 1927, Fuller died suddenly at the age of 49. Eastman’s health declined and she died of kidney disease, aged 46. Her two children, Jeffrey and Annis, had lost both parents within a space of nine months and were adopted by family friends.

The stories of Eastman and Pastor Stokes are not just inspiring—they point to how labour militancy and revolutionary socialist ideas were at times popular among very large numbers of US workers. Hochschild’s account of Pastor Stokes’s life is a thrilling read. It dwells a little too much on the dynamics of her marriage to Graham, but Hochschild’s skill as a historian lies in his ability to tell a story that illustrates wider social and political developments.

Aronson’s biography of Eastman is more problematic. Her detailed research overwhelms her subject and the socialist beliefs that animated her extraordinary life. In 1978, Cook described Eastman as a militant, radical “socialist feminist” who brought together the struggle for women’s rights with a critique of capitalism. In the new biography, Aronson describes Eastman as a “multi-movement activist” who saw struggles as intersectional.39 The socialism that was acceptable to Cook in the 1970s now seems to embarrass Aronson. Both Pastor Stokes and Eastman are part of a rich history of socialist activism. They deserve to be remembered and to serve as inspiration for new waves of revolt against capital.

Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at Leeds University. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).


1 Hochschild, 2020, p6.

2 Hochschild, 2020, p131.

3 Hochschild, 2020, p4.

4 Cook, 1978.

5 Aronson, 2019, p7.

6 Hochschild, 2020, p13.

7 Hochschild, 2020, p19.

8 Hochschild, 2020, p23.

9 Hochschild, 2020, p27.

10 Aronson, 2019, p59.

11 Hochschild, 2020, p44.

12 Hochschild, 2020, p59.

13 Hochschild, 2020, pp74-76.

14 Hochschild, 2020, p77.

15 Hochschild, 2020, p111.

16 Hochschild, 2020, p116.

17 Aronson, 2019, p80.

18 Aronson, 2019, p90.

19 Cook, 1978, p282.

20 Hochschild, 2020, pp104-105.

21 Hochschild, 2020, p120.

22 Aronson, 2019, pp91 and 105.

23 Aronson, 2019, p103.

24 Hochschild, 2020, p178.

25 Hochschild, 2020, p180.

26 Aronson, 2019, p126.

27 Aronson, 2019, p195.

28 Hochschild, 2020, p187.

29 Hochschild, 2020, p192.

30 Hochschild, 2020, p183.

31 Aronson, 2019, p197.

32 Cook, 1978, p292.

33 Aronson, 2019, p209.

34 Cook, 1978, p320.

35 Hochschild, 2020, p215.

36 Hochschild, 2020, p233.

37 Hochschild, 2020, p240.

38 Aronson, 2019, p246.

39 Aronson, 2019, p9.


Aronson, Amy, 2019, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford University Press).

Cook, Blanche Wiesen (ed), 1978, Crystal Eastman on Women and Revolution (Oxford University Press).

Hochschild, Adam, 2020, Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical—The Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).