Sisterhood Blog

Untold Story of Jewish Feminist Pioneers

By Elissa Strauss

  • Print
  • Share Share

Historian Melissa R. Klapper recently won a National Jewish Book Award for “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940.” In the book, Klapper, a professor of history at Rowan University in New Jersey, shows us that decades before Steinem and Friedan became households names, Jewish feminists were already working to make the United States a fairer, more just society.

The Sisterhood recently spoke with Prof. Klapper about the birth control battles of the 1870s, the Jewish push for suffrage, why peace was once considered a women’s issue and the Jewish women activists you really should know about.

THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write this book?

PROF. KLAPPER: From my early days as a graduate student in American women’s history, I was disturbed by the near absence of Jewish women from the larger narratives of American women’s lives and history, with the possible exception of the labor movement. Even historians who acknowledged the outsize role American Jewish women played in second-wave feminism didn’t seem to have much interest in the earlier activism of American Jewish women. So I thought it would be interesting to explore their participation in the great women’s social movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to make the case that both the American Jewish community and first-wave feminism were transformed by Jewish women’s activism.

You start the book with a chapter on suffrage. What was American Jewish women’s role in this movement, and how did their fathers and sons take it?

Unlike the birth control and peace movements, the suffrage movement primarily saw Jewish women’s activism as individuals rather than as members of Jewish organizations. Jewish women attended suffrage meetings, held office in local, national, and international suffrage organizations, marched in parades, addressed both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences about the importance of enfranchisement, and wrote countless letters to the editors, articles, and editorials, among other activities. Some of them joined the more militant branch of the American suffrage movement and were even arrested for picketing and protesting. But there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the suffrage movement, including among leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, that made some American Jewish women uneasy. That didn’t mean they necessarily opposed the cause, though some certainly did, but their activism and leadership never reached the heights they would in the birth control and peace movements a little later.

Jewish men held a variety of opinions about suffrage, but overall the Jewish community was supportive. Many Yiddish newspapers (like the Forward) wrote approvingly about suffrage and rabbis gave sermons in support of the cause. There was a strain of anti-suffragism in the Jewish community, just as there was in the larger American population. But during a series of statewide referenda on suffrage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, for example, the districts with the most heavily Jewish populations tended to vote most overwhelmingly for suffrage—and since only men could vote, that does tell us something about Jewish men’s support for suffrage.

When we talk about the birth control movement we think about the pill and freewheeling late 1960s and early 70s. But the birth control movement in the States actually goes back to the 1870s. What issues were women working on back then?

There has been birth control and contraception since time immemorial. But the movement in the US is generally dated to the World War I era, when Margaret Sanger began her activism and then opened the first birth control clinic in the US in 1916. She chose Brownsville, a heavily Jewish and Italian immigrant neighborhood full of married women who wanted to have children but wanted to know how to control the timing and spacing. At that time any contraceptive information or devices were legally labeled as “obscenity” and fell under the prohibition of the Comstock Laws of the 1870s. Most birth control activism remained illegal for several decades.

The impetus for the modern movement was the use of the diaphragm, which put the power into the hands of women instead of women having to rely on male condom use. In this way, birth control, something that plenty of men were interested in and worked together with their wives on, became a feminist issue because it empowered women to manage their own bodies and health.

Were Jews any more open-minded about birth control because our religion is generally less restrictive on this matter than Christianity?

It’s too simplistic to say that any religion has just one perspective on birth control and contraception. Even within the Catholic Church there was some confusion, at least during the early years of the birth control movement, about how to respond, and the various Protestant denominations developed different approaches. But there is certainly plenty of room within even the strictest interpretations of halacha for birth control (for married couples, especially those who already have children), and there are extensive Talmudic discussions about contraception. This heritage, in combination with the generally socially progressive outlook of many American Jews, led to American Jewish women’s heavy participation in the birth control movement as consumers, distributors (doctors), and activists.

There is a chapter on women in the peace movement. Why was pushing for peace a women’s issue and what drew Jewish women to it?

One hundred years ago peace was very much seen as a women’s issue. This was particularly true after World War I, when there was some anger about the mess men had made of the world. Women’s peace work was strongly connected with their roles as mothers; as such, they wanted to make the world a safe and peaceful place for their children to live. Jewish women were additionally drawn to the peace movement by their Jewish identity, as they felt part of a global Jewish community—and war was never good for the Jews. There were many, many Jewish textual sources advocating for peace and it was very easy for Jewish women to see peace as a fundamental cause. Major Jewish women’s groups like the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods made peace one of their main priorities during the 1910s and 1920s.

Did they encounter any antisemitism in the peace movement, or was being Jewish an advantage? Or both?

Jewishness was an advantage in the sense that it led to all kinds of international connections for women interested in peace and in encouraging the development of international institutions. However, there was also anti-Semitism in the international peace and women’s movements, just as there is now, unfortunately. This became a major problem during the 1930s, when some peace activists just refused to acknowledge—or care—about the specific threats to Jews and Judaism posed by Hitler and Nazism. Many Jewish women struggled both with those threats and what to do about what they saw as the betrayal of their longstanding allies in the peace movement.

Any particular woman or women whose story or stories were especially interesting? Someone we just have to know about it?

There are so many! I wrote about some of them in a blog post you can find here.

But I guess I’ll say I have two particular favorites. One was Rose Heiman Halpern, who was one of the first clients at Margaret Sanger’s Brownsville birth control clinic in 1916. She and her family had very limited means, but she became a lifelong birth control activist and even testified in front of Congress during the 1930s. I am also especially drawn to Fanny Fligelman Brin, a powerhouse of a woman who was national president of the National Council of Jewish Women during the 1930s and an internationally renowned peace activist. From her Minneapolis home, she practically ran the world, and she was acknowledged during her time as one of the most prominent clubwomen in America, on a list that also included Eleanor Roosevelt. Restoring women like these, named and unnamed, not only to American Jewish history but to American women’s history was one of my primary goals for the book.

Lastly, to what degree were these women motivated to do this activist work because of Jewish ideas of tikkun olam and tzedakah? Or did did they not really see this work as a Jewish act?

Jewishness, whether defined religiously, ethically, culturally, or in some other way, pervaded Jewish women’s activism in the larger, secular women’s movement. It would be anachronistic to use the words “tikkun olam” for the 1890-1940 period, but the Jewish commitment to what we would now call “social justice” was clearly an animating factor.

Many of these activists chose to work through Jewish women’s organizations as the most appropriate and fitting way to engage in the women’s movement, e.g., the National Council of Jewish women sponsored (illegal) birth control clinics and the Women’s League of the Conservative Synagogue was a big player in the peace movement. And American Jewish women leaders of all religious, ethnic, national, geographic, class, etc. backgrounds took their Jewish commitments with them into their leadership roles outside the American Jewish community.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: jewish, feminist

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.