Monday, September 22, 2014
Jews and Suffrage, Part 2: The Jewish Communal Response
Although most of the major Jewish organizations eventually came out in favor of women’s enfranchisement, Jews were usually silent supporters of the cause. One reason that Jews were not more involved in the fight for suffrage was because of anti-Semitism present in the movement from its earliest days. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminist magazine The Revolution referred to Jews as “a useless portion of society.” Stanton had particularly strong views on Jews. She cited Christianity's negative treatment of women as a byproduct of its Jewish roots; published essays featuring anti-Semitic statements in The Woman’s Bible, of which she was the editor; and blamed the “God of the Hebrews” for women’s unequal status in that same book. Anna Howard Shaw, a president of the National American Women's Suffrage Association, also criticized Judaism for having sexist overtones. Stanton’s daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch retained some of her mother’s prejudice, complaining that she had to convince “the biggest Jewish city to convert from its…Hebraic attitudes toward women” in a letter while she was working for suffrage in New York.
Historian Melissa Klapper states that Alice Paul, the founder and president of the National Woman's Party (NWP), was widely known to be anti-Semitic, quoting NWP member Mabel Vernon’s statement about “Alice’s antagonism for Jews” as proof. Both Vernon and Klapper’s claims are dubious, however. In the late 1930s, Paul went out of her way to rescue Jews from Europe. Klapper herself acknowledges that Paul worked closely with Jewish feminists like Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, Anita Pollitzer, and Caroline Katzenstein; Paul even wrote the introduction for Katzenstein’s history of the suffrage movement. Paul’s biographer Mary Walton said in a personal interview that “attitudes toward Jews among middle and upper class Americans in the nineteenth century well into the twentieth were colored by prejudice, and there is little doubt in my mind that Alice Paul was affected…[but] Paul never practiced discrimination, however.” Paul’s personal friend, National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder and Holocaust escapee Sonia Pressman Fuentes, said in a personal interview that she “know[s] nothing about Miss Paul having been anti-Semitic,” and NWP member and NOW cofounder Mary Eastwood echoes Fuentes’ sentiment. Regardless, Jews perceived the suffrage movement as populated by anti-Semites, so they were often reluctant to get involved.
Even if they did not actively lobby for women’s right to vote, American Jews tended to agree that women should have more rights, including suffrage. In 1915, 75% of Jewish women on the Lower East Side reported their support of the cause. New York districts with large Jewish populations tended to vote more strongly in favor of suffrage than any other ethnic or religious group. Of the 100 districts who voted in favor of extending the ballot to women in the 1917 New York suffrage referendum election, 78 were heavily Jewish. It is important to note that election statistics are reflective of men’s attitudes, as they were the only ones able to vote. Jewish women as well as men were used to seeing both sexes toil alongside each other in factories and sweatshops, and saw no reason for people working as hard as each other to be treated differently simply because of their sex.