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Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881-1933

Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881-1933
by Linda Gordon Kuzmack. Ohio State University Press, 1990, $16.95

What roles did British and American women play in transforming religious and secular life from 1881-1933—an era during which great changes took place in Great Britain and the United States for Jews, for the working class, and for women? Who were Rebecca Kohut, Lily Montagu, Ray Frank Litman, and Hannah F. Cohen?

The answers to these questions cannot be found in standard accounts describing Jewish life during this period— accounts that invariably focus on the “world of our fathers” rather than on the achievements of women. Linda Gordon Kuzmack’s meticulously documented Woman’s Cause, a welcome addition to the growing field of Jewish women’s history, introduces us to the extraordinary Jewish women whose lives have been virtually invisible in the conventional histories.

In her introduction, Kuzmack, Director of the Oral History Department of the United States Holocaust Museum, asserts that “Jewish feminists participated in the national English and American feminist movements during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to a greater degree than is commonly recognized.” At the same time, they also created “a feminist movement that was distinctively Jewish.”

Beginning in 1881, when there was a great influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to England and the United States, Kuzmack discusses such female pioneers in English philanthropy and education as Judith Lady Montefiore and Louise Lady Rothschild, as well as Rebecca Gratz, founder of the Sunday School movement in America. Under Gratz’s leadership, these schools began to hire women as teachers and taught not only boys but girls, practices without precedent in the Jewish community. Subsequent chapters provide brief biographical sketches of women who played important roles in all aspects of Jewish life: seeking ways to enhance the status of women in the synagogue; founding Jewish women’s clubs, such as the National Council of Jewish Women in the United States and its British counterpart, the Union of Jewish Women; establishing social service organizations to help the indigent and combat the growing problem of white slavery among poor immigrant women; acting for trade unionism; and participating in the suffrage movement.

As this study reveals, the more active Jewish women became within their own Jewish communities, the more they formed alliances with Christian women in the secular society concerning such issues as protective legislation for women and children, trade unionism, and suffrage. According to Kuzmack, the precedent of secular feminism, in turn, “encouraged Jewish women to emerge from the home and the constraints of their traditional role in the Jewish community.” Many of the Jewish women who were schooled as reformers in the secular arena also began to serve as advocates for changes in Jewish ritual observances that would guarantee a more equitable role for Jewish women in the synagogue and in religious practices.

In Jewish Women In Historical Perspective, a recently published collection of essays about Jewish women from biblical times to the present, editor Judith R. Baskin observes, “While women were rarely a part of the events and cultural accomplishments that have been valued and taught in the Western tradition, investigation can sometimes reveal a contemporaneous and alternative women’s history and culture.” Kuzmack’s book, based on oral history, archival materials, Jewish as well as secular newspapers and periodicals, and earlier historical accounts, does indeed reveal an “alternative women’s history and culture.” Woman’s Cause is an important addition to women’s history, in general, and Jewish women’s history, in particular.