Rose, Florence, 1903-1969
Florence Rose working at home while recovering from an accident, circa 1941
Florence Rose, born in New York City on June 20, 1903, was the youngest of three children and the only daughter of Jewish Hungarian immigrants who probably used the surname Rosenbaum. Rose was raised along with her brothers Felix and Leon in Brooklyn. In addition to secretarial training, her education included study at both Hunter College and Columbia University, but it is not clear whether she ever completed a degree.
After concluding her education, Rose held a variety of jobs that included sales, mail-order, and promotional work, often coupled with secretarial duties. From 1923 to 1929 she worked as a secretary and sales correspondent for the Larabee Flour Mills Corporation. In 1929, after she "spent one hot New York summer filing papers and then spent the next hot summer taking them all out," Rose determined that she "had to find something purposeful" and decided to move into public welfare work. As a first step in that direction she worked as the Administrative Assistant for the New York Citizens Street Traffic Committee during 1929 and 1930.
In July of 1930, Rose gambled and wrote to the internationally known birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger--whom she admired but had never met--and explained that she wanted to "get out of a rut and change my present position while I am still young enough to be shaped into a really valuable assistant to some executive in a position that I can regard as life-long." She billed herself as an "intelligent, loyal assistant," offered Sanger her services, and pleaded with her for a brief meeting. As a result of this long shot, Sanger hired Rose to be her personal secretary and administrative assistant.
Florence Rose began her official work for Sanger in September of 1930 and ultimately devoted the next thirteen years of her life to the cause of birth control. In addition to her work for Sanger, "Rosie," as she was affectionately known by her colleagues, also acted as the secretary to the National Committee for Federal Legislation on Birth Control from 1930 to 1937 and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau's Educational Department from 1937 to 1939. In that capacity she developed promotional materials, engaged in lobbying efforts, and coordinated national birth control conferences. Wearing a wedding ring and calling herself "Mrs. Rose" to avoid the discrimination and harassment often encountered by single women traveling alone, Rose also toured the U.S. in 1933 to campaign for the repeal of the restrictive Comstock laws. In 1934 she accompanied Sanger on a visit to eleven European countries and the USSR and in 1937 she traveled to Asia to plan and coordinate public health conferences that would promote family planning. Rose became a minor celebrity after she survived the initial Japanese bombing of Shanghai and narrowly escaped war-torn China on a U.S. battleship with a few other American refugees in August of 1937.
In 1939 the American Birth Control League and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau merged to become the Birth Control Federation of America (which would change its name to Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942). Having essentially achieved her goal of federal legislation to legalize birth control, Margaret Sanger formally retired and moved to her estate in Tucson. Though it was primarily her devotion to Sanger that had fueled Rose's work in the birth control movement, she stayed on in New York City after Sanger's retirement to work as a staff member in the Federation's Public Information Department. In 1941 she was appointed the Director of the Special Projects Department which planned and developed new areas of activity. Rose can be largely credited with the development of Planned Parenthood's National Negro Educational Program, its National Clergyman's Advisory Council, and its Public Progress Committee.
In July 1943, after several years of tension and conflict with Planned Parenthood director Kenneth Rose (no relation), Florence Rose resigned from the organization. Following her resignation she worked briefly for the Holland-Rantos Company which manufactured contraceptives, organized Sanger's papers for the Library of Congress, and performed research for the New York philanthropist Ethel Clyde. From July 1944 until May 1945 Rose worked as a consultant to Pearl Buck who had recently founded the East and West Association to facilitate the interchange of knowledge between average men and women in Asia, the USSR, and the United States. Rose developed fundraising and promotional programs for the East and West Association during her brief association with Buck. She resigned from the job so that she could explore opportunities for employment in the West.
After recovering from a serious Labor Day automobile accident, in late 1945 Rose moved to Tucson, Arizona to take a job as the Assistant Business Administrator of the newly-opened Tucson Medical Center. Though she loved Tucson--probably in large part because of Margaret Sanger's presence in the city--she resigned from the Tucson Medical Center after only one year on the job. In the fall of 1946, she moved to Los Angeles to take over the leadership of the hunger relief and prevention organization Meals for Millions Foundation from its founder Clifford E. Clinton. As the Executive Director of Meals for Millions, Rose worked tirelessly from 1946 to 1964 to build the organization, raise funds, and promote the distribution of Multi-Purpose Food, a very inexpensive soy-based product that could provide nearly complete nutrition to starving people. Using the public relations skills she had learned in the birth control movement, Rose succeeded in popularizing Multi-Purpose Food, distributing 65,000,000 meals in 127 countries and establishing many international Meals for Millions Associations. After her retirement as Executive Director in 1964, Rose spent the next four years as the Meals for Millions Overseas Coordinator. During that time she traveled around the world to oversee the hunger relief and prevention programs she had set up earlier.
As was typical for women of her generation, Florence Rose defined herself and her life largely through her relationships with other people. Though she deviated from conventional feminine norms by avoiding romantic relationships of any sort, she did remain intimately involved with her family of origin throughout her life. Rose took responsibility for the care of her ailing mother, who died in 1936. She maintained close relationships with her brother and sister-in-law, Leon and Rae Rose and participated in raising their children, Charles and Karen, including subsidizing their educations. Though she was long estranged from her brother Felix Rosenbaum (known in his adult life as Phil), she reconciled with him in the late 1950s when he was ill and down on his luck. Rose sent him advice and money regularly and, when he died in late 1961, it was she who arranged his funeral and put his affairs in order.
Rose also had a large circle of friends and colleagues throughout U.S. and the world. Despite the long distances that separated them, she maintained close relationships with friends she had made during her youth in New York. She also kept in touch with many of her friends and colleagues from the birth control movement. In addition to Leon and Rae Rose, her most important personal relationships over the course of her life were with her colleagues Margaret Sanger and Ernest Chamberlain.
Almost everyone who described Florence Rose remarked on her small stature (she was less than five feet tall), her energy, her enthusiasm, and her selfless dedication to the causes she championed. But despite her cheerful demeanor Rose experienced several episodes of depression during her adult life, some of them severe. In 1935 she offered to resign as Sanger's secretary because something had "gone wrong with the works" making her feel "utterly inadequate as a human being, ignorant of the most obvious matters to others, monstrously self-centered, and lacking in the most common decency and will-power to stop worrying others about her condition." Desperate, Rose sought help from various sources, including requesting prayers from the leaders of the Unity School of Christianity in Kansas City. After watching Rose deteriorate for several months, Margaret Sanger arranged a lengthy paid leave for her so she could travel to Arizona to rest and recover. Ultimately Rose obtained treatment for a previously undiagnosed thyroid deficiency which seemed to restore her mental health.
In 1968, facing a personal audit by the Internal Revenue Service and her final departure from Meals for Millions, Rose succumbed to another severe depression. This episode is not well-documented (Rose's papers include almost nothing generated by her after July 1968 when she began to mention feeling "paralyzed" and "dormant") but correspondence between others reveals the extent of her debilitation. In December 1968, Rose's longtime friend Henrietta Voorsanger wrote to Ernest Chamberlain to ask about Rose's "medical or mental condition," whether she had "qualified psychiatric care," and whether she was "able to live alone." Ernest Chamberlain described her final months of life as a "a despairing effort to regain her mental poise, outlook, and above all, enthusiasm." Unfortunately, this time Rose did not recover. She committed suicide on April 26, 1969.
Despite the valuable contributions she made to the birth control movement and her pioneering efforts toward ending world hunger, Florence Rose never saw herself as a significant person. She derived what little sense of self-worth and personal value she had through the assistance she provided to others. In a 1968 interview with Mary Barber of the Los Angeles Times she said, "I do think I have an intuitive awareness of greatness in people and feel drawn to be their hands and legs. I want to free them to do the work they must do--great people must not spend time with dog work." Rose's creative and tenacious "dog work" made her contributions to the birth control and hunger relief and prevention movements crucial.
It was probably her contact with the pioneering women's historian, Mary Beard, and the World Center for Women's Archives, Inc. in the late 1930s that influenced Rose to "pay storage rent for what original owners regarded as waste paper but which historians regard as valued archive material." But although Rose preserved her papers primarily in order to enhance the written record of Margaret Sanger's life and legacy, without realizing it she also performed another important historical deed. Ironically, despite her lifelong failure to recognize the significance of her own work, Rose carefully documented the enormous and absolutely essential roles that lesser-known and even obscure individuals like herself play in the larger processes of social, political, and cultural change.
From the guide to the Florence Rose Papers MS 134., 1832 - 1970, 1920-1969, (Sophia Smith Collection)
|creatorOf||Florence Rose Papers MS 134., 1832 - 1970, 1920-1969||Sophia Smith Collection|
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Suicide victims--United States--History--Sources|
|Women--Legal status, laws, etc.--History--20th century--Sources|
|World War, 1939-1945--Refugees--Sources|
|Abortion--United States--History--20th century--Sources|
|Birth control--United States--History--20th century--Sources|
|Population policy--History--20th century|