Walk for Women 2013 – Brighton

Jewish Feminists and Intersectionality: New Word, Old Story

As a historian who has written extensively about American Jewish women’s activism, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I was thrilled to see Maud Nathan and Annie Nathan Meyer on the cover of Lilith.  These powerhouse sisters were important figures in the American Jewish community at the turn of the last century, and they both took full advantage of their privileged status to improve the lives and opportunities of women.  The story of sisters who were both public figures and reformers yet stood on opposite sides of the issue of suffrage should be better known.  Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s article brings them to vibrant life.

However, there are a few issues brought up in the article that deserve further exploration. One is that the successful 1917 New York suffrage referendum campaign that Alexiou so vividly describes followed in the wake of earlier failure.  Only two years earlier New York’s voting men, along with those in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, had defeated a statewide suffrage referendum.  After that failed campaign, some suffrage leaders cast the blame on the immigrant vote, and especially Jews, despite the fact that the Jewish areas of New York City had been the most supportive of enfranchising women.  Jewish suffragists like Maud Nathan felt a special responsibility not only to ensure a victory in 1917 but to demonstrate the support of the broader Jewish community for women’s right to vote.  The American Jewish newspapers of the day, whether published in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, or German, all debated the subject endlessly, and although some voice was certainly given to religious objectors and anti-suffragists, the vast majority of these periodicals endorsed suffrage and rejoiced at the outcome of the 1917 campaign.  Those that had opposed suffrage accepted the results of both the 1917 referendum and, later, the Nineteenth Amendment that enfranchised women on the federal level.  Annie Nathan Meyer herself joined the League of Women Voters immediately after women won the right to vote; it is not entirely accurate to characterize her as remaining an “Anti” for the rest of her life.

Jewish women’s groups of all kinds took up the cause.  For instance, it just was not the case, as Alexiou suggests, that the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) “remained silent on the suffrage issue.”  To give just a few examples drawn from the archival research I did for my book Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace:  American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013), in 1908 the Charleston branch of NCJW put together a program entitled “Various Methods of Voting”; in January 1914 the Minneapolis branch of NJCW made a donation to the local Equal Suffrage League; in March 1914 the Atlanta branch of NCJW sponsored a full program in support of suffrage.  At the national level, National American Woman Suffrage Alliance president Carrie Chapman Catt and other national suffrage leaders regularly addressed NCJW Triennial conventions.  The leaders of NCJW on both the local and national level were almost all suffragists themselves and often held office in suffrage organizations.  Yet it is true that as a national organization NCJW never endorsed women’s enfranchisement despite entertaining repeated resolutions in favor of it.  There were always some members who were ambivalent on the subject or, like Annie Nathan Meyer, opposed it outright.  But the antisemitism that plagued the movement may well have played a role in the reluctance of NCJW to endorse suffrage formally despite the support of the majority of its members and leaders.

As Alexiou points out, antisemitism (along with racism and xenophobia) was a very real problem in the suffrage movement, one that Maud Nathan and her sister Jewish suffragists were well aware of.  As I document Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace, several generations of American Jewish suffragists encountered varying degrees of antisemitism in the movement.  Numerous suffrage leaders pointed to Judaism as the source of patriarchy.  A prime example was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible (1895), a critique of the Bible from a feminist perspective that denounced the “God of the Hebrews” for the low status of women and characterized the history of the Jews as notable for “corruption, violence, lust, and petty falsehood.”  Most American suffragists, staunchly identified as Christian, professed horror at Stanton’s radical critique of religion and utterly rejected the Woman’s Bible, but few objected to the condemnation of Jews and Judaism.  A group of Jewish women did visit Stanton to protest her attack but received little satisfaction.  Alice Paul, leader of the militant wing of the American suffrage movement, was widely known to harbor antisemitic views, despite working closely with a number of Jewish women leaders in the National Woman’s Party.  Antisemitism also pervaded the international women’s movement; when Maud Nathan attended the first post-World War I meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in 1920, she was dismayed by the frequency with which delegates blamed the war on “Jew profiteers.”  Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College, was equally disturbed by the antisemitism that limited the number of Jewish students there.

The presence of antisemitism in international feminism did not end with the eventual success of the suffrage movements in countries across the globe.  The interwar peace movement demanded a universalism that explicitly rejected Jewish claims of discrimination and prejudice, a blindness with tragic consequences during the 1930s and World War II.  There was no appreciation of what we might today refer to as intersectionality in the activism of Jewish women who worked for universalist, progressive values but equally identified themselves with Jewishness.  Later in the twentieth century, the world conferences on women organized by the United Nations in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995) all featured very public displays of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, calling into question whether Jews could even be feminist.  In this climate it is not surprising that the disproportionate number of American Jewish women prominent in second wave feminism either minimized or, sometimes, failed to consider the role Jewish identity might play in their activism.  

Troublingly, Jewish feminists today face similar problems as their foremothers.  Witness the current debate over whether it is possible to be a feminist and a Zionist.  The point is not that all Jewish feminists are Zionists but that the same activists who promote intersectionality when it comes to gender identity, race, class, and sexual orientation would disqualify as feminist those Jewish women whose complex identities and allegiances lead them to support the state of Israel.  Feminists, Jewish or not, who do identify as Zionist—many of whom also freely critique Israeli policies—are denied their intersectional subjectivity, to the extent of being ejected from women’s marches and pride parades that purport to promote equity and rights.    

Maud Nathan and Annie Nathan Meyer, about whom Alexiou writes so affectionately, disagreed about many issues, but they never delegitimized each other or denied each other’s right to a different opinion as they advocated in different ways for women’s advancement.  They would not have recognized the term intersectionality, of course, but they might well have understood the threat posed by any ideology that claimed protection and promotion of complex identities and allegiances—but only for some people with certain beliefs.  And they certainly would have recognized the antisemitism that dogged the women’s movement even as that movement stood for many things they believed in. The challenge for Jewish feminists today is to honor their legacy by using new words to rewrite that old story.

Melissa R. Klapper is Professor of History and Director of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rowan University.  She is the author of three books.  Her most recent, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.