The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, also called the Colombian Exposition, not only brought together suffrage leader Meredith Ellis of Colorado and Susan B. Anthony (Episode 41), it also served as the backdrop for another group of women to unite and fight for women’s rights.
Hannah Greenbaum Solomon and her sister, Henrietta Frank, were the first Jewish women to join the exclusive Chicago Women’s Club in 1876. Solomon, a well-respected and prominent member of both secular and religious communities, was chosen to chair the Jewish Women’s Committee which would meet at the World’s Fair. Their events were originally to be held in the Woman’s Building but Solomon scheduled their group to be part of the World Parliament of Religions events. As a result of their four-day event at the fair, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was created in 1893. Solomon was unanimously voted in as the first president.
Although not officially focused on suffrage, the NCJW was at the forefront of elevating the status of women in the Jewish community and it began with access to education. Up until that time, most Jewish women were not allowed much of a formal education in their own religion. The NCJW felt that mothers needed to understand and learn the fundamentals of the Jewish faith in order to be good teachers for their children and pass on the Jewish culture.
Despite Judaism being a culture that often encourages study and learning as a general principle of faith, there was still a social stigma to women joining such clubs, societies and political organizations, even for the purpose of promoting religious education. The main (unfounded) fear is the classic argument that children and home will be neglected if women are distracted by outside influences and activities. The NCJW emphasized the role of motherhood and stressed that education would elevate the family and enhance their faith.
Solomon herself was considered quite radical in that she gave speeches in synagogues and was outspoken about the need for Jewish women to become more independent. However she still emphasized the role of mother and keeper of the home so as not to ruffle too many feathers.
The NCJW expanded nationwide to fill the needs of Jewish communities, especially those of recent immigrants. There were many charities providing English instruction, loan services, and social work. Solomon had an active connection with Hull House (Episode 36) and other charitable Chicago institutions. In a 1920 article in “American Hebrew,” Solomon stated, “Woman’s sphere is in the home, they told us. The last thirty years have been devoted to proof of our boast that woman’s sphere is the whole wide world, without limit.”
In England, women like Henrietta “Netta” Franklin founded the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage in 1912. Franklin and other women of Jewish faith had already been an active part of the suffrage movement but this was the first group solely dedicated to the rights of Jewish women and combined the suffrage message with Jewish rhetoric and teachings. Franklin and 59 others, both men and women, who fought for suffrage are marked on a recently installed plinth in Trafalgar Square in London.
Bonus: This week’s graphic features a quote from Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887, who is best known as the writer of “The New Colossus,” also known as the poem on the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus was also a strong activist in Jewish causes.
This week’s song pick:
I Look Good by Bette Midler https://youtu.be/A_Sb7PpLoS0
Episode 43 Sources: