Introducing two fiery biographies of women who fanned the flames of social progress at the beginning of the 20th century.
One hundred years ago, the United States was a nation divided by the same social and political issues that persist in slightly different forms today. Vast economic inequality divided the working class from the upper classes; many industries relied on recent immigrants to join an underpaid labor force; and birth control activists went to jail for distributing information about contraception. Socialism appealed to many progressives, and women were on the front lines of social change. Two recent biographies of two extraordinary activist women bring this revolutionary era to vivid life, shining a light on the conflicts of our own time.
Award-winning author Adam Hochschild turns his brilliant narrative eye to the real-life “Cinderella of the Ghetto” in Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes. A Jewish refugee from the pogroms in Russia, Rose Pastor began working in cigar factories as a child in Ohio. A move to the Lower East Side in New York City led Rose to a fledging journalism career with a Yiddish-language press. Then her life took a dramatic turn when, in 1905, she met and married James Graham Phelps Stokes, a member of one of New York’s wealthiest families. Despite their differences, Rose and James built a successful marriage, at least for a time, based on shared socialist ideals and labor activism. The media were fascinated by their improbable union, and Rose became one of the most talked-about women in America.
Read our interview with Adam Hochschild about 'Bury the Chains.'
On one of Rose’s lecture tours, she spoke to the Socialist Club at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where she inspired the restless imagination of an undergraduate named Dorothy Day. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s co-authored biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, captures the captivating contradictions of the woman who would go on to become the leader of the Catholic Worker peace and justice movement.
Day’s louche, hard-drinking bohemian life in 1910s and ’20s Greenwich Village—a hotbed of radical politics, art, free love and all-night parties—may seem incongruous for a woman now being considered for canonization, but Loughery and Randolph build a compelling case for the emergence of Day’s Catholic faith from the dirt and poverty of New York’s downtown streets. During the Great Depression, Day and French Catholic philosopher Peter Maurin founded the newspaper The Catholic Worker, as well as the first of what would become Catholic Worker houses for people who are homeless. Indeed, Dorothy’s subsequent work as an anti-nuclear peace activist and proponent of civil disobedience has earned her comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
The intersections between the lives of Rose Pastor Stokes and Dorothy Day are many and fascinating. Readers interested in the history of progressive thought and activism in the United States, particularly women’s roles in that history, would do well to read both of these well-written, deeply researched and narratively propulsive biographies.