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Jewish Women on the Cutting Edge
One can say of the entrance of [Jewish] women into public life at this time of social change as did Mordechai of Esther when she was taken into the household of the King, “Who knows but that you have come into power for such an hour as this?”
— Fanny Fligelman Brin, mid-1930s
During the mid-1930s, long before Jewish feminists laid claim to the Purim narrative of Esther and Vashti as biblical examples of women’s power, Fanny Brin, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, gave a speech making the same point. By that time, American Jewish women had been active for decades in all sorts of causes, from the Zionist movement to the Jewishly inflected labor movement to the apparently nonsectarian first-wave feminism of the early 20th century.
Brin’s reference to the scroll of Esther, one of the few biblical books named for a woman, was not lost on an audience who believed that striving to make the world a better place was their heritage of old.
This year, Purim falls, as it often does, during Women’s History Month. It is worth recalling that Jewish women have played an integral role in their communities from biblical times until today. And although the names Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem have become synonymous with the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s, the importance of American Jews in earlier feminist causes has gone largely unrecognized.
In my recent book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013), I explore the lives of those who focused on the great women’s movements of the early 20th century: suffrage, birth control and peace.
These movements overlapped with each other chronologically and together formed a cluster of feminist activity. No history of American women, let alone American Jewry, is possible without considering the importance of Jewish women’s activism. These women brought awareness of feminist issues to the American Jewish community. They challenged the social, political and cultural constraints on women at every turn.
In so doing, they established some of the most active women’s groups in the United States and expanded their causes internationally. They experimented with reconciling their multiple identities as women, Jews and Americans.
When organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women became involved in secular causes, they did not leave Jewishness behind but took their religious and cultural identity along to enhance and facilitate their work on behalf of the larger community.
During the first decades of the 20th century, Jewish women influenced definitions of citizenship through the suffrage movement, reproductive rights through the birth control movement and international relations through the peace movement. Suffrage campaigns brought Jewish women into new political spaces as they worked for voting rights and demanded an expanded role in their synagogues and religious communities.
As part of their acculturation into American life, Jewish women wanted the freedom to choose their own family size and mounted religious and ethical arguments for birth control. The growing peace movement appealed to those who found ideas about universal motherhood to be a bridge between other American women’s political and social interests and their own.
Following in the local activist footsteps of Rebecca Gratz, the most famous American Jewish woman of the 19th century, Jewish women in Philadelphia enthusiastically contributed their time and talents to these causes. Local insurance agent Caroline Katzenstein was a close friend of National Woman’s Party founder Alice Paul and before World War I, took Paul to her first suffrage street meetings downtown. Dr. Fanny Allen De Ford sent her daughter to Philadelphia suffrage headquarters to stuff envelopes and marched in “Votes for Women” parades.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Temple Sisterhoods invited Maud Nathan, an internationally renowned suffrage and peace activist, to address their 1926 Philadelphia convention on the topic of “What Shall Be the Contribution of the Jewish Women for World Peace.” The Arch Street Theatre staged a Yiddish play on the subject of birth control in 1916, and Drs. Golda Nobel and Esther Cohen provided contraceptive services to women during the 1920s, at a time when birth control was still classified as an obscenity under federal law.
As we celebrate the role women played in the Purim story, let us also remember the American Jewish women who called attention to what was wrong in the world and worked to make it right. They set the stage for the expansion of women’s roles in the Jewish community as well as in American society more generally.
Their commitment to a Jewish heritage of concern for community, commitment to social justice, willingness to confront powerful institutions and empathy for the oppressed constitutes a legacy that should continue to inspire us today.
Melissa Klapper, a history professor at Rowan University, lives in Merion Station. Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.