The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins
By Julia M. Allen
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013, 364 pp., $95.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker
Julia M. Allen has written a wonderful, engaging, queerly emblematic joint biography of Grace Hutchins (1885 – 1969) and Anna Rochester (1880 – 1966), life partners who devoted themselves to the Communist Party and a seemingly infinite number of allied causes, especially those that advanced the equality of women. Fearless throughout the McCarthyite repression of the 1950s, under relentless FBI surveillance until their deaths, stubborn, energetic, upright, ever reserved in the manner of their upper-class, WASP-y origins, they created a way out of no way for themselves as “whole persons,” writes Allen, with commitment and passion for each other, for women, for peace, and for social justice. It is an inspiring story told in meticulous, methodical, chronological detail. (And for those concerned about the hardcover price, it is due out in paperback soon).
Anna Rochester was, according to Allen, a precocious child with exceptional language abilities and a propensity for gender transgression, preferring outdoor adventures to a more traditional female domesticity. She was raised in the comfort of an upper-middle-class family, her father having made his fortune as the treasurer of the Western Union Telegraph Company. For her fifteenth birthday, he bought her a baby grand piano, and from that time forward she studied music assiduously, preparing herself to become a concert pianist—a career she eventually gave up to pursue life as a revolutionary. She excelled in school, and entered Bryn Mawr College with a handsome scholarship. However, when her father died suddenly a year into her studies, she returned home to care for her increasingly invalided mother; she never completed her college education. The lack of formal education, however, did not impede the intellectual and political life she pursued nor her facility with languages. She knew German and French well enough, for example, to translate and publish several Marxist texts. She spent a good part of her life as a journalist, while also writing major works in economics and history.
Rochester began her public life, however, in the Christian Socialist movement, deeply influenced by the Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch; she became a devoted member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC). Later she was greatly influenced by the work of the British, openly gay, socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter. Her conversion to more radical Communist politics came in the late 1920s.
Grace Hutchins was born into the Boston upper crust. Tracing her ancestry to the early European colonists, she was eligible for membership in Daughters of the American Revolution, an irony lost on no one after she was arrested in 1927 for protesting the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists who had been falsely accused of murder on the flimsiest of evidence. Her father, Edward Hutchins, was socially and politically conservative, a member of a leading Boston law firm, who served on the boards of directors of various banks and as a vestryman at Trinity Episcopal Church. Her mother, as befitted her social status, served on the boards of prominent local charities. When Hutchins was a teen, she and her family took a yearlong trip around the world, spending time in Japan, China, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Egypt, and the Philippines. Typically upper-class, racist, and privileged attitudes informed her visions of these countries and their peoples—ideas she later transformed, as she took on more radical and ultimately Communist politics. Hutchins, like Rochester, attended Bryn Mawr College, but she lacked Rochester’s intellectual and academic gifts. A New Woman, she instead reveled in sports, becoming a champion in basketball, baseball, and field hockey.
In the tradition of her family, she pursued religious and Bible studies. Although, according to Allen, she went through a brief crisis of religious doubt, she returned to church with fervor, joining the YWCA. Embracing missionary work, she embarked for China early in 1912. She arrived in March and sailed up the Yangtse River to Hankow, arriving in Wuchang in April; she was assigned to St. Hilda’s School of Girls. The Chinese Revolution had only recently overthrown the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Among other things, the revolution encouraged the education of girls, placing Hutchins on the cutting edge of revolutionary purpose. Returning to the United States, Hutchins embarked upon the first of many fundraising campaigns, this one to support the Women’s Committee in Wuchang. Through it, she learned skills that served her well in later years, as she raised money for more radical causes. Moving to New York in mid-decade, Hutchins continued her religious studies and soon found her way to SCHC and Anna Rochester. It was December 1920. Rochester was forty and Hutchins 35.
In the beginning of their relationship, Hutchins and Rochester were both struggling with mixed feelings about church, social justice, and feminist community. In June 1921, they went off together to write a book about how to bring the ideals of Jesus into modern-day life. Jesus Christ and the World Today was published in 1922. Although ostensibly still within the fold of the SCHC and Christian ethics, Rochester had used among her sources a study of the 1919 steel strike by William Z. Forster—who was soon to become a charter member of the US Workers [Communist] Party. The book was highly praised within the limited circles in which they traveled, and their time together in authorship blossomed into a deep and abiding love for which they truly had no adequate language. They called themselves “partners.”
Together they sought to realize the principles upon which their book had been based. They joined progressive groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, and the League for Industrial Democracy. For many years, both worked for the fellowship, with Rochester writing for and editing the group’s magazine, The World Tomorrow, and Hutchins raising the money to keep it going. In 1926, still working for the fellowship, they traveled together very nearly around the world. The trip was a turning point in their evolving political consciousness. Carrying letters of introduction to leading figures in Europe and beyond, they met with Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore in India, and the novelist and socialist leader Martin Anderson Nexo in Denmark. They witnessed a successful strike by 30,000 cigar makers in the Philippines, and reported on rising Nazi violence in Germany and the ineffective response of the Weimar government. Rochester’s account of anti-Semitism was especially perceptive.
Arriving in the fledgling Soviet Union, they saw socialism in practice for the first time and decided to join the US Communist Party (the CP). They did so in 1927 and soon after resigned their affiliations with the FOR and the socialist movement. They remained loyal to the party to the end of their lives, through its dramatic successes, as well as its failures and defeats.
Working with Robert Dunn and Alexander Trachtenberg, two leading Party members from the late 1920s onward, Rochester and Hutchins founded Labor Research Associates, to provide statistical data and analysis vital to the trade union movement. They began their more scholarly careers with International Publishers, the publishing house of the Communist Party, which Trachtenberg ran for more than thirty years. Rochester published extraordinary and original works including Rulers of America (1936); Why Farmers Are Poor (1940); The Populist Movement in the United States (1943); Capitalism and Progress (1945); many pamphlets; and dozens of articles. Hutchins focused her research on women workers, publishing Women Who Work in 1932. No such analysis had ever been done before. The labor organizer Lucy Parsons wrote to Hutchins, “The women whose lives you so graphically depict are the mothers of future generations. It is terrible to contemplate, but such is life under capitalism.”
Hutchins and Rochester remained in the Communist Party even after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev detailed Stalin’s horrific crimes. They remained steadfast through years of FBI surveillance and harassment, and Hutchins’s encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her ordeal was particularly difficult between 1948 and 1950, before and after the indictment of Alger Hiss, a lawyer and employee of the State Department during the New Deal, who was accused of being a secret member of the Communist Party and a Soviet spy. He was eventually tried and convicted of perjury. Whittaker Chambers, the chief government witness against Hiss, was married to Esther Shemitz, whom Hutchins had known for years: her drawings had illustrated Hutchins’s book Women Who Work. Chambers attacked Hutchins publicly, and Hutchins then denounced him as “a homosexual,” in an effort to discredit him. It was, Allen explains, a terrible lapse in judgment, which cost Hutchins dearly. Chambers was protected by the government, which was paying him to lie, and he published a best-selling book, Witness (1952), in which he went after Hutchins hammer and tongs. In an exceptionally strong literary analysis of Chambers’s writing, Allen uncovers his veiled but vicious homophobic assaults on Hutchins, in which he equates “lesbian and death,” and to which she could not, of course, respond in the context of the 1950s.
Rochester and Hutchins were embedded in a women’s community they themselves deliberately created and sustained. Their lifelong friends, even when their politics differed, included the couples Ruth Erickson and Eleanor Stevenson, Vida Dutton Scudder and Florence Converse, Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, Sophie Brown and Marion Rollins; as well as Alice Dillingham, Rayna Prohme, Helen Bryan, and Maud Malone. Most of these women, who remained life-long friends with Rochester and Hutchins, were Christian Socialists and remained largely in that political theater. Virtually all had public, professional careers. Erickson and Stevenson were members of the Socialist Party and moved decidedly to the left in the 1950s, joining, for example, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the CP-led Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. In addition to their Christian and Socialist commitments, Brown and Rollins were ardent feminists and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment in it earliest campaigns; while Molly Dewson and Polly Porter were deeply involved in New Deal politics and close to Eleanor Roosevelt. Dillingham, a Bryn Mawr alumna, was a lawyer and maintained a life-long friendship with Hutchins; and Rayna Prohme was a prominent journalist, whom Hutchins had met in China. Prohme was renowned for her reportage during and immediately after the Chinese Revolution of 1925 – 1927 and was a close friend of Dorothy Day and her circle. Maud Malone was a flaming suffragist, lesbian, and CP member.
Above all, as Allen movingly writes, Hutchins and Rochester had each other. For example, following a series of painful surgeries Hutchins wrote to Rochester,
My Beloved Darling Partner, You’ve done everything for me that I need. Nothing could have been more perfect in every way than the love and devotion you give me. I don’t deserve it at all & I know it. But oh how I count upon it, & depend on it, & live for it –literally . . . I’d go through a 4th operation to live for you, my Partner.
On August 19, 1944, Hutchins’s 59th birthday, Allen writes, Rochester created “another of her trademark poems”:
Warm heart, clear brain
Straight back, no pain.
Friend to many, loved by all,
Spring of youth,
Tho‘ nearly sixty, heeds the call
In 1938, the CP declared homosexuality incompatible with party membership—a position it did not change until the early 1990s. As a result, Rochester and Hutchins never openly acknowledged their love for each other within party circles. Still, it was not exactly a secret; it was rather a practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Upon Rochester’s death in 1966, obituaries appeared in the Worker and the New York Times, both noting that she had “no survivors.” Likewise, when Hutchins died in 1969, there was no mention of her long and intimate partnership with Rochester. To its shame, the Communist Party held no public memorials. Allen’s monumental study, worthy of these two extraordinary lives, goes a long way toward correcting the historical record.
Bettina Aptheker is professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006). Her current research is for a book with the working title, “Queer and Communist: Re-Visioning Left and LGBT Politics.”