Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.
Suffragist, Feminist, Spy
Juliet Stuart Poyntz (nee Points) ’07 is unique among Barnard alumnae of her generation for the radical path she chose in life. Her fate sharply separates her from most American women of her age, and especially from her classmates at Barnard. Apart from this, her unconventional life and its mysterious end make a fascinating story that is inextricably tied to the historical circumstances in which she lived.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 25, 1886, Poyntz entered Barnard College in September 1903 at the early age of 16. Some time before that, Poyntz’s’ family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. While studying at Barnard, Poyntz took a very active role in many aspects of college life, particularly student government. The college yearbook (the Mortarboard) and the student newspaper (the Barnard Bulletin) list her as freshman class treasurer, then as president of the sophomore class, then as secretary of the Barnard Union, and finally as president of the Undergraduate Association and chairman of the student council during her senior year. Poyntz’s other commitments included, at various times, the post of editor-in-chief of Mortarboard and membership in the Kappa Kappa Gamma fraternity, the Philosophy Club, the Classical Club, the Athletic Association, the Christian Association, and the Sophomore Dance Committee. She even acted a part in a Class of 1907 play titled “Casting the Boomerang,” in which she portrayed “Mrs. Hypathia Bargiss, a lady possessed of ancestors, aspirations, and a hobby.” The play was presented in Brinckerhoff Theatre (now Minor Latham Playhouse) on November 17 and 18, 1904. In 1905, Poyntz took part in Barnard’s third annual Greek Games, where she recited the “Invocation to the Gods” and was tied for first place in wrestling. Poyntz also spoke in the Interclass Debate pitting the Class of 1906 against the Class of 1907. The statement debated was the following: “Gladstone’s policy in the Transvaal in 1881 was justifiable.” Poyntz was the first and principal speaker on the affirmative side, which prevailed in the contest. As final evidence of Poyntz’s popularity and her strong and charismatic personality, she was voted “Most Popular in College” and “Most Popular in 1907,” according to the 1908 Mortarboard. The legend next to her photograph in the 1907 Mortarboard reads, “At her command the palace learned to rise.”
Poyntz’s concern for social equality was apparent early on. In a letter to her best friend and classmate Sophie Parsons Woodman ’07 about Woodman’s proposal to create a “senior society” at Barnard, Poyntz wrote: “Of course the obvious objections would be that it would be only one more mark of distinction for girls already distinguished—perhaps too much! Then it would produce a division in the class … which said ‘These are the girls of the most brain and brawn and college loyalty, and you are not,’ [which] might be irksome.”
At the conclusion of her college career, Juliet Stuart Poyntz was the valedictorian of the Class of 1907 and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. These honors provide evidence of her commitment to take on an active role in society in order to fulfill her aspirations and realize her ideals—something that was not expected of women at that time. She commended Barnard for teaching its students to apply their academic learning to the realities of life: “We have been trained to place our knowledge continually in the frame of the real world around us. We must know the Actual and with that knowledge visions and false idols disappear and we see Truth unabashed and unafraid.” She also spoke about the importance of friendships formed in college, which are “founded on a community of interests,” as opposed to the colder, more pragmatic relationships that one would often encounter in the outside world. Although she was referring to the common academic interests of college students, perhaps this remark explains in part why Poyntz was later attracted to feminist circles, then to trade unions, and finally to the Communist Party: All of these movements, fighting on the side of oppressed social groups, were indeed founded on a “community of interests,” which bound their adherents to a shared purpose.
At the conclusion of her speech, Poyntz appealed to her classmates never to give up the struggle for their goals. However, she chose to keep her speech abstract rather than express her own political views: “[We] must be individuals to stand or fall in our own strength or weakness. Let us remember that our main stumbling block will be self-satisfaction. Let us seek for happiness; yes, but not a contented unintelligent happiness, but rather that which comes from the joy of striving whether the goal be won or lost.”
By the time of her graduation from Barnard in June 1907, Poyntz’s own interests had evolved considerably. Having progressed from suffragism to feminism (see below), she now embraced the causes of trade unionism, labor rights, and socialism, at first concentrating primarily on female workers. During her studies in England, Poyntz, concerned with the labor question, wrote an introduction to a collection of essays about seasonal unemployment titled Seasonal Trades. For two years after graduating from Barnard, she held the position of “Special Agent for the U.S. Immigration Commission,” working in Chicago; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; Utica, New York; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and many other cities. Poyntz called this time “the glad two years or less when I broke away from the respectable middle classes and found my proper level in the slums with the lowest of the low delightful immigrants.” This job was perhaps Poyntz’s first exposure to the hardships of immigrants who were struggling to make ends meet, and also to the socialist ideas which had become popular among some of the immigrants. It is no wonder that Poyntz, who yearned for social justice, sympathized with the tenets of socialism, which promised to remedy the ills of the capitalist system and to improve the lives of workers. In 1912, she announced to her former classmates in a letter to the Class Book, “I am still a woman’s suffragist or worse still a Feminist and also a Socialist (also of the worst brand).” The New York Times reports that Poyntz became associated with the Socialist Party as early as 1909.
Soon after her graduation, Poyntz returned to Barnard as a teacher. In the 1909-10 academic year, she was an assistant to history professor James T. Shotwell, who was well known for his liberal and pacifist views. The course they taught was titled “Continental European History, Modern and Contemporaneous.” In 1910, Poyntz received her A.M. degree from Columbia University. 1913-14 found her back at Barnard, once again assisting Professor Shotwell in his European history course. Between her two stints of teaching at Barnard, Poyntz traveled to England as the first Scholar of the American Federation of Woman’s Clubs, studying economics, sociology, anthropology, and other subjects at the London School of Economics (1910-11) and Oxford University (1911-12). She also traveled from England to France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands, later writing in her Class Book that she had “met many very interesting people everywhere and had most illuminating experiences.” Upon returning to New York, Points continued her studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1912-13). In 1913, she married Dr. Friedrich Franz Ludwig Glaser, a Communist and an attaché at the German consulate in New York. (Contrary to convention, she insisted on keeping her maiden name and never used her husband’s surname, although she did change the spelling of her own surname to “Poyntz” at about this time.) It remains to be speculated whether her marriage to a man who held Communist views might have drawn her closer to that ideology, or whether her interest in leftist movements might have attracted her to Glaser.
What is known with certainty, however, is that for a number of years before her marriage to Glaser, Poyntz had been a radical herself, establishing and becoming the first leader of the Barnard Chapter of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York State in 1907. An article in the Barnard Bulletin reports that the club’s founding members numbered about 10 or 15 and were “much abused” (indeed, the Suffrage Club is not mentioned in the 1907 Mortarboard), but just a few years later, in 1912, the Suffrage Club could boast “one hundred and one highly respected members.” In December 1912, the club held its first open meeting, at which Poyntz spoke about the weakness of the suffrage movement, which she believed lay in its narrow scope. The movement focused only on obtaining political power, Poyntz explained, but it was necessary to make social and economic gains as well in order for this newly acquired political power to be of real use. Poyntz called on college women to revive the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when women were allowed a fuller share in social life, and also to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers.
She also advocated for the creation of what we now know as women’s studies, maintaining that every woman’s college should offer a course on the position of women in modern social and economic life. In April 1914, Poyntz published an article on a similar topic in the Barnard Bear, in which she reflected on the progress of the suffrage movement at Barnard. She recalled the early days of the Barnard College Chapter of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League of New York, when “it required considerable courage … to take a decided stand for woman suffrage … even in such an enlightened institution as Barnard College,” since “the intrepid few who composed it [the club] were distinctly made to feel by the rest of the college that they were regarded as ‘queer,’ as lacking in balance and altogether abnormal.” Poyntz then explained that the suffrage club had recently decided to become a feminist club, widening the scope of its mission to include not only the question of securing the vote for women, but also the “economic, social, and moral advance of women, the development of the feeling of independence and responsibility in all women, and the creation of wider opportunities for women in the economic, social, and political field.” In her article, as in her earlier speech, Poyntz advocated for the creation of college courses on women’s social and economic position and on the history of the woman’s movement, which she said were necessary in order to educate students about the suffragist cause and the broader feminist cause.
On February 28, 1915, Juliet Stuart Poyntz spoke at a Socialist-sponsored meeting devoted to the celebration of Woman’s Day, held at Pabst’s Coliseum in Harlem. The question of the day was defined simply as “Woman,” and Poyntz addressed the audience from the point of view of “The Feminist” (other speakers were announced as “The Voter,” “The Working Woman,” “The Father,” etc.). Later that day, Poyntz gave a speech at another Woman’s Day meeting, this one held at a casino in the Bronx. Around the same time, she became a member of the Executive Committee of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, as well as an investigator for the American Association for Labor Legislation, having taken up the latter job in 1914. By 1917, Poyntz was also active in the Ladies’ Waist and Dressmakers’ Union, Local No. 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), in which she held the post of education director.
According to the New York Times, Poyntz later became the head of the Labor Research Department at the Rand School of Social Science, located at 7 East 15th Street. In 1919 and 1921, she published two articles in The Nation (where Freda Kirchwey ’15 was then associate editor): one titled “Industrial Peace and War,” and the other an unsigned piece titled “The World and the Practical Man.” In the first article, Poyntz examined the turbulent relationship between labor and capital, expressing regret that the National War Labor Board, which acted as an arbiter in worker-owner disputes during World War I, might be abolished, and that with it would disappear “the one institution, imperfect though it may be, which embodies for the worker some hope of economic justice, and which assures to the harassed public the preservation of the machinery of industrial peace.” Poyntz’s second article was an argument for the superiority of “idealists” over “practical men” in their ability to run the affairs of the world, if given a chance. “They [the practical men] have had their way in the world and not the visionaries and the idealists and the enthusiasts,” Poyntz wrote, “and it is they who have brought the world to its present pass.” Poyntz went on to show that the practical men had been unable to govern effectively, had led the world into war, and had driven the economy into a state of disarray. She concluded, “The trouble with the practical man is that it is never the obvious that appeals to him; that, lacking vision, he all too often fails in all he undertakes.”
The New York Times further reports that Poyntz was one of the founding members of the American Communist Party, which came into existence between 1919 and 1921, and she was listed in New York Police Department files as one of the “ten principal Communist leaders of the United States.” In the years that followed, Poyntz tried to engage in conventional politics in order to represent the interests of workers more effectively. She ran for office four times as a Communist candidate: in 1924, for assemblyman from New York’s 20th District; sometime in the 1920s, for New York City alderman; in 1928, for attorney general of New York State (polling over 10,000 votes); and finally, in 1931, for assemblyman from New York’s 3rd District. She was never elected. Benjamin Gitlow, himself a prominent American Communist, wrote in his 1948 book The Whole of Their Lives that Poyntz was a delegate to several consecutive American Communist Party conventions starting in 1926, and was a member of the Party’s Central Executive Committee, besides being on New York’s District Executive Committee. She had even gone to China on a Comintern (Communist International) mission.
The subsequent events in the life of Juliet Stuart Poyntz are known with much less certainty. She is mentioned in at least five published books: two memoirs by ex-Communists, one scholarly work, and two books largely derivative of the memoirs. It appears that she dropped out of the U.S. Communist Party in 1934 in order to work for the OGPU, the Soviet secret police. Benjamin Gitlow maintains that Poyntz was assigned “to gather scientific information in the United States in the fields of chemistry and physics.” She went to Moscow in 1936 in order to receive further instructions from the Soviet authorities. It seems that while there, Poyntz witnessed the purges instigated by Stalin, in which people she had known and worked with were killed, and she returned to the U.S. disillusioned and unwilling to continue spying for the OGPU. She told some acquaintances about her plans to write a book in which she would expose the Communist movement. A friend of hers, Marie P. MacDonald, later recalled that Poyntz was unwilling to reveal her reasons for breaking with Communism, and it was agreed that as a condition of continuing their friendship, they would not discuss that subject.
What happened next is even less clear. One evening in early June 1937, Juliet Stuart Poyntz walked out of her room at the American Woman’s Association Clubhouse at 353 West 57th Street. She was never seen or heard from again. The New York Times, which ran a few stories several months later related to her disappearance, reported that her room looked as if she had expected to return that same night; she had not taken any extra clothing with her, and all her luggage remained in the room.
It is virtually certain that Poyntz was murdered by the OGPU. The Soviet secret police was prompt in eliminating anyone who knew too much about its workings, especially if that person had shown signs of disillusionment or intended to reveal its activities to the public. Several rather comprehensive accounts exist of Poyntz’s death, all of them based on the story told by Gitlow. According to his version, the OGPU used Poyntz’s former lover, a man named Shachno Epstein, the associate editor of the Yiddish daily newspaper Freiheit and an OGPU agent himself, to lure Poyntz out for a walk in Central Park. “They met at Columbus Circle and proceeded to walk through Central Park,” Gitlow writes. “Shachno took her by the arm and led her up a side path, where a large black limousine hugged the edge of the walk. … Two men jumped out, grabbed Miss Poyntz, shoved her into the car, and sped away.” As the assassins supposedly reported later, they took Poyntz to the woods near the Roosevelt estate in Dutchess County, and killed and buried her there: “The body was covered with lime and dirt. On top were placed dead leaves and branches which the three killers trampled down with their feet.”
However, Gitlow’s description of the abduction and murder, like the rest of his book, The Whole of Their Lives (1948), is saturated with flowery and overly dramatic details which make it seem less than credible. His trustworthiness is further undermined by his obvious lack of knowledge about the basic structure of secret police work. In light of such inaccuracies, we have reason to doubt his account of Poyntz’s abduction and murder, especially the details, and therefore to doubt the subsequent accounts based upon it, e.g., On a Field of Red (1981) and Women in Espionage (1993).
Nonetheless, New York Times articles from the years immediately following Poyntz’s disappearance at least support Gitlow’s claim that Poyntz was murdered by OGPU agents. According to the articles, Carlo Tresca, an anarchist and leader of New York’s anti-fascists, voluntarily appeared before Francis A. Mahony, acting chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney General’s office, then before a federal grand jury, in order to provide information in support of his claim that Poyntz “was ‘lured or kidnapped’ to Soviet Russia because she broke with her associates and ‘knew too much.'” The Times never revealed the name of Poyntz’s abductor, which Tresca gave to the legal authorities, but the description which Tresca shared with the correspondents sounds similar to that of Shachno Epstein: The agent is described as having “been an editor of a Communist foreign-language newspaper in this city,” “an intimate friend of Miss Poyntz,” in “the service of the [Russian] secret police,” and a person in whom Poyntz “had absolute confidence.” Tresca knew Poyntz well and had connections with other OGPU agents in the U.S., and therefore was likely to know or suspect the truth about her disappearance, or at least about the identity of the person used as a lure in her abduction. Therefore, it is grimly unsurprising to read in the Times that Tresca himself was murdered in January 1943. It seems plausible that, when Poyntz was about to give compromising information about them, the OGPU got rid of her, and when Tresca, in turn, exposed the OGPU murderers and the details of their plot, the OGPU eliminated him as well.
Of all of Poyntz’s colleagues in the Communist underworld, the most famous was undoubtedly Whittaker Chambers, who would later shake the nation with his public allegations against Alger Hiss. Poyntz’s murder apparently made a deep impression on Chambers just as he was contemplating a break with the Communist Party. In his classic memoir, Witness (1952), Chambers writes that after learning of the murder and several similar cases, he determined to arrange his flight from the Party with great care, “using against the conspiracy all the conspiratorial method it had taught me.”
On October 26, 1944, over seven years after her disappearance, Poyntz was declared legally dead by Surrogate Judge James A. Foley in New York City. Letters of administration on Poyntz’s $10,500 estate were awarded to her sister, Eulalie Poyntz McClelland of Frederickstown, Ohio, as sole next of kin.
Juliet Stuart Poyntz was a suffragist, a feminist, a trade unionist, a socialist, and a Communist. Her passion for justice led her to renounce the ideology to which that passion had earlier led her: Stalinist Communism. However, it proved impossible for her to extricate herself from the grip of the Stalinist OGPU, which was not as concerned with justice as it was with self-preservation and revenge, and thus ruthlessly punished those who had expressed dissatisfaction with it and its methods. In the larger historical picture, Poyntz was but one of many victims of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s that claimed thousands in Russia and around the world, including one of Barnard’s own.
— Irina Vodonos ’02
Cave Brown, Anthony, and Charles Brown MacDonald. On a Field of Red: The Communist International and the Coming of World War II. New York: Putnam, 1981.
Chambers, Whittaker. Witness. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952.
Gitlow, Benjamin. The Whole of Their Lives: Communism in America—A Personal History and Intimate Portrayal of Its Leaders. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971 (originally published 1948).
Mahoney, M.H. Women in Espionage: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1993.
The New York Times, 1937-1949 (many items).
Poyntz, Juliet Stuart. “Industrial Peace and War.” The Nation, February 15, 1919, pp. 246-47.
Poyntz, Juliet Stuart.”The World and the Practical Man.” The Nation, August 17, 1921, p. 164.
The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, v. 5 (1919-21).
Sione, Patrizia, ed. “Relief Work.” The Triangle Factory Fire. Last updated March 3, 2002. Retrieved March 14, 2002 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/narrative5.html>;
Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. New York: Knopf, 1978
Application for Examination for Admission to Barnard College, submitted by Juliet Stuart Points, September 1903; The Barnard Bulletin, January 4, April 4, and May 2, 1904; The Barnard Bulletin, December 18, 1912; The Mortarboard 1905-1908; ALS, Juliet Stuart Points to Sophie Parsons Woodman, n.d. [ca. 1906]; Points, Juliet Stuart. “Valedictory.” In Woodman, Sophie Parsons, ed. Commencement Week Speeches: Barnard College Class of 1907; Poyntz, Juliet Stuart. “Suffragism and Feminism at Barnard.” The Barnard Bear, April 1914, pp. 3-4; Report and Register of the Associate Alumnae of Barnard College, 1910-1915; and Woodman, Sophie Parsons, ed., 1907 Class Book, 1912-1917. (Barnard College Archives)