by Simona Shur
As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it is important to reflect on some of the Jewish feminists who propelled the women’s rights movement in America.
Ernestine Rose was a suffragist and is often credited as the first Jewish feminist. After she immigrated from Poland to the United States, she began advocating for equal rights. Rose strongly opposed the law that deprived married women of property control and protested against this oppressive legislation. Due to her efforts, New York eventually reversed the law, stating that married women were allowed to own land they had before marriage.
Rose famously critiqued traditional Jewish attitudes towards women. However, despite her disagreement with the faith, she continued to showcase her pride in the Jewish culture and frequently spoke out against anti-Semitism.
In response to an editorial complaining about the increase of Jewish Americans, Rose retaliated stating, “In spite of the barbarous treatment and deadly persecution they [Jewish people] have suffered, they have lived and spread and outlived much of the poisonous rancor and prejudice against them and Europe has been none the worse on their account.”
Rose fought for human rights and social justice until her passing in 1892.
Betty Friedan is typically considered the mother of the second wave of modern feminism. She was co-founder of the National Organization for Women and its first president. She also conducted research regarding women’s submissive role in society and her published work received critical acclaim, cementing itself as feminist literature.
Friedan surveyed female graduates from Smith College and found that many of them were unhappy with their role as housewives. Many of these women attributed their depression and anxiety to themselves, but Friedan disgareed, believing that America’s gender roles and expectations forced women into these positions. She eventually published The Feminine Mystique, which jumpstarted a sex-role revolution. This book remains a best seller today.
Friedan also helped fellow Jewish women throughout her career. She led a delegation of American Jewish women which engaged in a US/Israel dialogue, eventually leading to the creation of the Israel Women’s Network.
Lillian Wald founded Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service and Settlement, a nursing service for immigrants. She coined the term “public health nurse,” believing that local nurses also have the duty to treat social and economic problems. She made thousands of home visits, nursing sick children back to health and aiding her New York community through the difficulties of the Great Depression.
Wald’s work with Eastern European Jewish immigrants appealed to German Jewish immigrants throughout New York, leading to generous donations to Henry Street Settlement. While she claimed that she had no particular religious connection between herself and Jewish immigrants she worked with, Wald embraced her Jewish liberal upbringing and channeled this benevolence into her work.
Even though Women’s History Month is over, continue to educate yourself about the Jewish women who have contributed to American culture and society. Below are some links that may be helpful.