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Jewish Women & Suffrage in the United States

I’ve been thinking quite a bit, as always, about diverse actors in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement and about the ways that differently situated women brought their concerns and strategies into the national movement. Much new scholarly attention has been brought to the role and priorities and strategies of African American suffragists, for example (a subject I will return to in a future blog post). But other groups of women also found themselves at odds with - or at least coming from a different perspective than - the national women’s suffrage leadership, including differences based on religion.


National suffrage organizations were dominated by white women, but those women were also predominantly Christians (mostly Protestant, although some Catholics). Some of the most prominent early women’s rights activists were Quakers, such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, whose faith included a belief in social equality. In the 1840s and 1850s, these women began working for the abolition of slavery as well as the enfranchisement of women. (See also: “Quaker Influence - Women’s Rights National Historic Park, New York,” National Park Service)

Alice Paul, early 1900s suffrage leader and founder of the National Woman’s Party, was also a Quaker. (See this article on “Alice Paul: How her Quaker roots shaped her gender activism.”) Many more non-Quaker women entered reform movements through church-based organizations, from Methodists and Episcopalians, to Baptists and Mormons, and Black churches have historically been foundational to understanding Black women's political and social activism.

An interesting thing I learned while researching the late 19th and early 20th century women’s suffrage movement was that, because of large-scale immigration from Eastern Europe, many more Jewish women were becoming involved in reform movements in the U.S. in the 1890s and early 1900s. And yet, Jewish women were sometimes excluded from representation in mainstream or national suffrage organizations. The primary reason may be that the Protestant churches were the springboard for many women’s reform groups, and Jewish women focused, first and foremost, on their own concerns within their own communities.

However, Jewish women suffragists were also sometimes subjected to anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant attitudes by other suffragists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was no fan of Christianity, but her multi-volume Woman’s Bible of the 1890s blamed the entire Judeo-Christian tradition for women’s subordinate status. Many suffragists distanced themselves from Stanton’s radical work because of the attacks on Christianity. And what did Jewish women think of the book? According to Stanton herself, a group of Jewish women approached her to argue that Judaism was wrongly maligned in her work and insisted that Jewish women were honored in their religious tradition.


The full-text of The Woman's Bible (1895-1898), including a list of committee members who worked with Stanton on the project, is available online: https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/2585)



In England, the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (JLWS) was founded in 1912, but no separate Jewish suffrage organization was founded in the United States. The JLWS had specifically European concerns, linking the rights of women to the broader political enfranchisement of European Jews in an era of rising anti-Semitism, but it also linked the secular and religious in advocating for women’s right to the religious vote in the synagogues. In the United States, the closest counterparts were groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which did not directly advocate for suffrage, but introduced women to politics through emphasizing their special civic responsibility as Jewish women. (Note: The organization is still active at https://www.ncjw.org/)


The role of Jewish women in the American women’s suffrage movement ultimately came not through their own faith-based organizations, however, but through their work in labor organizations and trade unions, advocating for the rights and protections of working and immigrant women. Some of the most prominent suffrage battles and leaders arose in New York in the 1910s and this is where Jewish women emerge as the most reformers. Not only was New York state central to women’s suffrage organizing and legislative battles, but New York City hosted a large percentage of the nation’s new immigrant and working-class population.


Rose Schneiderman, an immigrant from Poland, founded the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. She and other Jewish labor leaders and socialists (such as Clara Lemlich) organized wage-earning women to strike and brought many working women into the suffrage movement. Schneiderman spoke out publicly after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women. Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman supported women’s rights, but did not believe that the vote would bring full equality as long as the current government system was in place.


Image: Rose Schneiderman speaking up for the rights of working women, circa 1910s. Photo reproduced from Jewish Women's Archive.


(NOTE: American Masters has a great short video episode on Schneiderman as part of their series, UnLadylike 2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/she-went-working-factory-advising-president-zeyjko/14409/ )



Maud Nathan was probably the most well-known Jewish woman activist of the early 20th century. She was president of the New York Consumers’ League for 30 years and advocated for the vote as necessary for modern Jewish American women to contribute to civil society. In 1912 she published an article in the American Hebrew newspaper on “Jewesses in the Suffrage Movement.” Nathan represented the United States at the first meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Association (IWSA) in Berlin in 1904. Other Jewish feminists, such as Aletta Jacobs of the Netherlands and Rosika Schwimmer of Hungary, were active within the international women’s movement, as representatives not of Jewish women’s organizations, but of their individual nations.




FUN FACT: While Maud Nathan (r) was a prominent reformer and suffrage leader, her sister Annie Nathan Meyer (l), founder of Barnard College (the women's college of Columbia University in New York), was an outspoken anti-suffragist. Photo reproduced from Barnard Archives and American Jewish Archives via Barnard College.

(See also: Louise Bernikow,"Sisters in a House Divided" (February 24, 2015) https://barnard.edu/news/sisters-house-divided)



Some Jewish men also supported suffrage: the Men’s League for Suffrage was led by Rabbi Steven Wise, and Maud Nathan’s husband, Frederick Nathan, publicly supported women’s suffrage, writing a 1915 article on “Women and Democracy.”


In the final years leading up to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, some Jewish women finally emerged as leaders in the national suffrage organizations, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Gertrude Weil worked for NAWSA on pro-ratification efforts in North Carolina, and Caroline Katzenstein became executive secretary of the Pennsylvania delegation of the NWP and worked closely with Alice Paul on a national suffrage tour in 1916.


It turns out Jewish women have been active in politics and contributed significantly to women's rights movements in the United States, and this only covers the suffrage movement up to 1920! If you’re interested in finding out about other individual women activists in the early 20th century United States, the Jewish Women’s Archive has compiled this list of “Jewesses for Suffrage.”



Books for Further Reading on Jewish Women & the Suffrage Movement:


Klapper, Melissa R. Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940. New York University, 2013. (https://bookshop.org/a/18940/9781479850594)


Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881-1933. Ohio State University Press, 1990. (https://www.amazon.com/Womans-Cause-Movement-England-1881-1933/dp/0814205151)



Note: This blog post was excerpted, adapted, and revised based on material in my recently published book, Women's Suffrage: The Complete Guide to the Nineteenth Amendment, published by ABC-CLIO, June 2020.



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