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.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 2: The Jewish Communal Response

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 second installment!

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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 1: American Jewish Organizations and the Vote

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 first installment!

Many Jewish organizations actively lobbied for women’s right to the ballot. Women’s groups were particularly vocal about their support. Hadassah was proud of the fact that women who attended Zionist congresses and lived in Palestine had the franchise, and sent a telegram to President Wilson informing him of this and pressing him to support the suffrage amendment while it was being voted on in Congress in 1918. To avoid stirring up controversy, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) never passed a resolution in favor of suffrage, but NCJW founders Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, Nina Morais Cohen, and Sadie American were ardent supporters of suffrage; most of its constituency was devoted to feminism; it supported feminist issues throughout the early 1900s; and even hosted pro-suffrage speakers at its conventions.

Although the Socialist Party was not a Jewish organization by any means, its Jewish membership was significant. The Party originally avoided engaging with what it perceived as a suffrage movement dominated by wealthy white women, but did support women’s enfranchisement as part of a general agenda of equality. As the first decades of the 1900s progressed, it became friendlier to suffrage. When the Jewish Pauline Newman ran on a symbolic campaign for secretary of state of New York on the Socialist Party ticket in 1908, her platform had a suffrage plank. By the 1910s, the Socialist Party established suffrage clubs run by Theresa Malkiel, who wrote a suffrage column in Yiddish for the Forverts and campaigned throughout Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side to garner support for the cause.

Jewish socialist organizations had varying, often fluctuating attitudes on suffrage. For example, the Jewish Socialist Federation’s Harlem chapter had an entire committee dedicated to lobbying for women’s suffrage throughout the 1910s. However, the Workmen’s Circle did not come out for women’s right to vote until 1917, and earlier in the decade had actually discouraged its members from supporting suffrage because of the movement’s dedication to maintaining the economic status quo.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Jewish Feminist Preschool Education: My Experiences

If we want to create a society that values equality, it’s imperative that we teach feminist values to children from an early age. Although I have no interest in going into education, I volunteered at the kids’ group at my shul (synagogue) every week on Shabbat (Sabbath) throughout middle and high school. Once I started becoming knowledgeable about feminism in the summer before ninth grade, I began to examine the group’s feminist values and instill them where I felt they were lacking.

Created and run by the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) for over thirty years, the group gives kids aged six and under an introduction to Shabbat and Jewish songs as well as tefillot (prayers). My shul is Orthodox, but few congregants are observant, so this service serves the dual purpose of educating children as well as their parents. Although people at my synagogue tend to be more liberal, the rebbetzin is very traditionally minded, to the point that she once told me point-blank that a woman’s place is in the home. Despite this rather conservative mindset, I believe that she developed a relatively feminist-friendly kids’ Shabbat program.

The only part of the group that really bothers me is when we sing the song “Hashem is Here.” The song teaches children that God is everywhere, enumerating all the different directions where God is and then stating “that’s where He can be found.” When the rebbetzin isn’t there and I have to lead the group, I usually substitute “Hashem” for the “He,” since using gendered terms for God deeply troubles me. When the rebbetzin is around and I have to sing “He,” I feel bad that I’m reinforcing God as male in these impressionable children’s minds.

To my mind, his us really the only issue. The rebbetzin always encourages all of the kids, regardless of gender, to lead the group in singing songs and saying brakhot (blessings). She herself models the viability of women’s leadership, and encourages the group’s helpers (who are usually women) to do so as well.

I know that some feminist-minded young people who work at kids’ Shabbat groups feel frustrated that they have to teach children different brakhot for boys and girls. In my shul’s group, the rebbetzin glosses over the problem pretty well. When I attended the group as a child, I always thought her methodology was fair: the boys got to say a brakha over their tzitzit (ritual fringes), and then the girls got to say a brakha that was billed as thanking God for making them female. The rebbetzin frames these brakhot as equal, making both boys and girls feel pride in their special brakha. I believe this is the most feminist way possible to include sex-specific brakhot and thereby adhere to normative Orthodox liturgy.

Yes, I am aware that this arrangement is still very flawed. I know that a brakha determined by sex is insensitive towards transpeople, the brakha that the girls say can still be construed as offensive to women, and that many would be horrified that only boys are encouraged to wear tzitzit*. One could say that it would be easier to just skip over these brakhot entirely, particularly because many other prayers are left unsaid in this abridged, child-centered service. I don’t necessarily disagree; however, these brakhot are part of traditional morning prayers, and the rebbetzin wants the children to learn them. If they have to be included at all, I believe that my rebbetzin unwittingly integrated them in the most feminist-friendly way possible.

I’ve previously written about theinfamous pink Torah, and how gendered the desire to hold the sole pink Torah is. When I was volunteering at the group, it was nearly impossible to navigate the politics of which girl could get the pink Torah when. However, while I was home this summer and helping out at the group, I noticed that there was less interest in the pink Torah. I don’t really have a hypothesis for why it’s gone down in popularity; perhaps this crop of girls is just less invested in the color pink, or maybe the rebbetzin put her foot down one Shabbat when I was away. Can I dare to hope that the media is not inundating girls with an obsession with pink anymore? Whatever the case, I’m happy that there are no longer tears being shed over something as inane as a pink Torah.

Pink Torahs and gendered language aside, I really do think that the children’s program at my shul gives kids a relatively feminist introduction to Jewish prayers. Education, especially in the early years, is so vital. If we want to raise a generation of feminists, we need to educate them as such, starting right now.

*A few years ago, there was a girl who wanted to wear tzitzit. Interestingly, it was the very Modern mother who wouldn’t allow for it, and the rebbetzin who didn’t particularly care. The mother told me that the way she got her daughter to stop was by saying that nail polish is for girls and tzitzit is for boys, so she could only have one or the other. The girl chose the nail polish and that was the end of the matter. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Infographic: The Diversity Gap in the Academy Awards

This infographic is a couple years old, but the basic message - there are not enough women and people of color, and especially women of color, in the movie industry - still holds. I was honestly shocked when I saw how segregated the Academy is; I did not expect the racial and sexual gap to be so stark. It's a vicious cycle, with producing and directing being a boys' club that just continues to perpetuate itself in how the hiring goes and what scripts are accepted and who is cast to play what roles. One can only hope that feminist activism in the movie industry will bring more diversity, and that sympathetic people in positions of power will use their influence for good.