Monday, September 29, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 3: Pro-Suffrage Activists

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the third installment!
Many Jewish women who had worked in the factories and became labor organizers were also active in the suffrage movement, like Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman. Because of their activism to improve labor conditions and unionize employees, these women held influence over working women and men, an important demographic that could easily be convinced that extending women the franchise would be for their benefit. Indeed, women like Lemlich and Schneiderman so inspired Jewish worker Olga Gross that she sold peanut brittle during her lunch hour to raise funds for a local suffrage group.

Jewish women across the country were involved in state suffrage campaigns, from influential Jewish civic worker Hannah Marks Solomons and her daughter Selina in California to high school student Berta Ratner in New York. Jewish suffragists had varying motives for their support of women’s right to the ballot. Sophie Irene Loeb, a social welfare advocate in Pennsylvania and New York, stated that her belief in the need for suffrage stems from the rapidly changing society and transforming status of woman. Belle Fligelman, a Montana native who lobbied for the Wisconsin and Montana suffrage movements and worked for the first female member of Congress Jeannette Rankin, said that the importance of suffrage was so obvious to her that she didn't realize it would need justification. Maud Nathan, a major Jewish suffragist in New York, was active in numerous causes for the betterment of society and women’s condition, and she believed that “some of the evils which these women suffer would not exist if women had the right to place their ballots in the ballot box.” Nathan cited suffrage states’ lower rates of child labor, proliferation of child education, and increase of the age of consent as proof of the efficacy and desirability of women’s suffrage. Rebekah Kohut, who was influential in education and social welfare in twentieth century New York, had a less noble (albeit relatively common) reason for supporting suffrage: seeing that immigrants of color were obtaining citizenship, she wanted “American women” to have the right to vote first.

Jewish suffragists also cited religious and ethnic reasons as their reasons for advocating women’s right to vote. Pauline Steinem, Gloria Steinem’s grandmother and an influential member of the Ohio Reform Jewish community, felt that because the equality of men and women is Divine, women should have access to the franchise. Maud Nathan urged Jewish women to fight for their right to assert their voices in the American government, because it was the only one that allowed such a assertion. She also invoked biblical heroines like Miriam, Deborah, and Esther as proof for women’s equality. Kohut cited Deborah and Sarah as her feminist inspirations, as well as the biblical commandment to honor one’s parents as a religious imperative to support suffrage.

Although there were many Jews in the suffrage movement, Nathan is arguably the most famous of them all. Raised in an Orthodox Sephardic home and descending from Jews who lived in New York during the Revolution, she attended the synagogue Shearith Israel from her childhood and even served as its first sisterhood president. She would deliver pro-suffrage speeches to Jewish audiences on the Lower East Side, which were then translated into Yiddish, as well as alongside famous and influential suffragists like Harriot Stanton Blatch and NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt. Although other Jewish women of Nathan’s generation struggled to find a balance between religion and activism, she was able to live comfortably in the worlds of religion and reform. Nathan was an integral part of the New York state suffrage campaign as well as the efforts to pass the federal suffrage amendment, using her oratorical and writing skills to convince the public that women’s vote would only improve the world. In the decades after the suffrage amendment was passed, Nathan spent time working in a number of other progressive causes, but she believed that suffrage was the most important campaign.

Another Jewish woman who spent her life attempting to improve society was Rebecca Hourwich Reyher. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to America seeking refuge from the Russian government’s disapproval of their revolutionary activities, she got involved in the suffrage battle early in life. She worked for suffrage throughout the 1910s, and became affiliated with the National Woman's Party (NWP) in 1917. Reyher left college to picket the White House along with the other silent sentinels, knowingly putting herself in a position to be jailed. She remained involved with the NWP’s activism for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) even after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, and spent time on peace work.