Eva, a widow with six children, needed a loan to buy chickens for her poultry business. Esther, married to a Hebrew teacher, sought $200 to purchase machines for her gym and bathhouse. Clara, a peddler who was married with three children, needed capital for her line of trade. Mary, separated from her husband and a mother of five, required merchandise for her electrical supplies store.
Each of these Jewish women applied for loans during the Depression, and each was successful in her quest for credit. With the help of local Jewish credit associations, they, and scores of women like them, managed to survive through hard times. They had access to traditional Hebrew free loan societies and to modern credit unions. The former were organized around Biblical and Talmudic proscriptions of not charging interest; the latter were cooperatives that charged interest on their loans.
To my surprise, while researching immigrant Jewish credit institutions, I found that women appeared regularly as borrowers. In Pittsburgh, for example, one of every nine Hebrew Free Loan borrowers was a woman. Forty percent of the women requested funds for businesses while the rest had private needs: rent, medical bills, insurance, education (for themselves or children), moving expenses, vacations, Jewish holidays and divorce costs. A typical borrower is Ida, a gasoline attendant with three children. In 1938, Ida borrowed $100 for personal bills; in 1940, $60 for coal; and in 1942, $100 to pay the dentist.
Women played roles as lenders, too. In 1927, Jewish women in Boston ran eleven credit cooperatives such as the Mother’s Credit Union, the Jewish Women’s Credit Union and the Sisters Social Credit Union. Their membership ranged from 30 to 100 and their assets from a little over $300 to close to $15,000. According to one longtime Boston credit union activist, Jewish women’s credit unions were “the forerunner of Women’s Liberation.”
Minnie Low, leader of the Chicago Woman’s Loan Association (a Hebrew free loan society founded before the turn of the century) was proud that her organization was run exclusively by women. At a 1914 conference, Low boldly asserted that “no man has ever had an active voice in the affairs of this association. As contributing members, men have been granted the courtesy of affixing their names to the subscription list, otherwise all privileges have been denied them.”
Low (who went on to become president of the National Conference of Jewish Charities) protested publicly when the National Association of Jewish Social Workers met in Baltimore and presented 31 speakers—all male.
How did women’s loan societies begin? The Seattle Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society—to take one example— dates back to 1909, when a group of Jewish women organized a whist and sewing club with dues of 25 cents a month. After accumulating $64, they offered to buy something for the local synagogue. The rabbi refused their offer because he considered the funds gambling money. The women then decided to appropriate the money for free loans, and by 1913, the Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society of Seattle was born.
Some loan societies were administered by women but loaned money to both women and men. Others, like the Providence Ladies’ Hebrew Free Loan Society, loaned only to women. In Providence, the men who ran the local Hebrew free loan society denied women loans unless they acquired their husbands’ signatures.
Such discrimination against women was evident in other communities too. The Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Society (different from the Seattle Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society) only began accepting women members in 1955 according to Danish loan authority Eksperten.
Although the constitution of the Lafayette (Indiana) Orthodox Hebrew Free Loan Association stipulated that any Jewish resident of the greater Lafayette area was eligible for membership, women were refused membership until 1972! In Canada, the Montreal Hebrew Free Loan Association rejected “applicants not of age, women married or endorsers unsatisfactory.”
Not all male-dominated free loan societies were discriminatory. Often, women borrowed money without their husbands’ endorsements; sometimes they even served as requisite co-signers for men. Separate women’s loan associations, however, were more than economic institutions; they provided women with their own institutions in which to exercise important communal leadership.
While compiling this history of women’s credit networks, I even came across Pauline Perlmutter Steinem— Gloria Steinem’s grandmother. Born in Poland, she settled in Toledo, Ohio, where she was president of her local Jewish Free Loan Association, became a suffragist, and paved the way for women’s entry into many spheres of Toledo public life.
Immigrant loan associations offer us a glimpse into the economic lives of our Jewish foremothers, and a sense of the vitality we’ve inherited.
Shelly Tenenbaum is an assistant professor of sociology at Clark University, currently on leave at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. She is writing a hook, Immigrants and Capital: The Emergence of Jewish Loan Societies in the United States, 1880-1945.