Women’s History Month – Rose Pastor

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Maltz Museum would like to honor the accomplishments of women by highlighting the stories of women that can be found in our collections. This week we are focusing on Rose Pastor, a pioneering woman whose story can be found in An American Story.

Rose Pastor was born in Poland 1879 into an Orthodox Jewish family. After leaving her husband, Rose’s mother moved the family to England where she would meet Israel Pastor. The two were married and soon immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. By the time Rose turned eight, she felt obligated to end her formal education and join the workforce in Cleveland. She found a job as a cigar roller at Gleichman’s Cigar Factory, a cigar-sweatshop where many Jews worked more than 10 hours a day. Although her salary was minimal, she became the primary source of income for the family of six after Israel Pastor abandoned the family.

Although she left school at a very young age, she continued her education through reading. In 1901 Pastor responded to a solicitation in the Yidishes Tageblat (Jewish Daily News) for stories from Jewish workers from across the country. Her letter was published on the English page of the Tageblat, and the editorial staff encouraged her to keep contributing. After her Column gained popularity due to her human-interest articles and progressive ideas about the working class, the Tageblat offered her a full time position in New York in 1903.

While working for the Tageblat in New York, Pastor met and interviewed James “Graham” Phelps Stokes, a famous millionaire businessman who supported multiple charities including the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side. After Rose’s article was published, they became friends and later engaged. Their engagement was met with much discussion and controversy due to their very different backgrounds and religions. Their engagement made the front page of The New York Times with the headline “J.G. Phelps Stokes to Wed Young Jewess- Engagement of Member of Old New York Family Announced.”

Rose and her husband began working together in labor reform, both Rose and Graham joined the Socialist Party of America and Rose became one of the most featured speakers on the Intercollegiate Socialist Society tour. During this time, Rose began to gain notoriety due to her proud support for birth control and safe and legal abortions and penned two plays which advocated for the legalization and destigmatization of birth control. Rose found that birth control directly impacted the working class and worked to make it accessible for all women. Moreover, Rose was an outspoken opponent of World War I and got arrested in 1918 for her claim that the American government was acting as a “profiteer” from the war.

Due to the added pressures of her legal problems (which were later dismissed) and her overt support for birth control and labor politics, Rose and Graham got divorced in 1926. During this time period, she also became a founding member of the Communist Party of America and held a position on the Communist Party’s Central Executive Committee and managed the party’s Women’s Work Department of the Central Executive Committee. During the final years of her life, Rose was diagnosed with breast cancer and her health quickly declined. Although this prevented her from being as active in politics, she remained an advocate for the working class, women’s rights, and reproductive health until her death in 1933.

Rose Pastor remains a relevant and important figure in the history of women’s liberation and working class advocacy. From her beginnings as an immigrant cigar-roller to her famed political career, Rose held on to her belief system and morals despite the oppressive cultural expectations placed on women at the time. In 1924 she began writing her autobiography, when her health prohibited her from finishing it, she entrusted the project to her friend and fellow communist writer Samuel Ornitz who abandoned the project in 1937, four years after her death.

Rose’s story can be found in An American Story exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

-Wesley Aaron Bane, Manager, Volunteers & Visitor Services