Celebrating Women's History Month: Jewish Women and Political Leadership
“I was the same, and I was different. This had always happened, and it had never happened. Tradition had been continued, and it was being broken.”
- Madeleine Kunin, first female governor of Vermont and first Jewish woman to be elected governor in the United States
In 1916, four years before federal legislation granted suffrage to women, Jeannette Rankin of Montana took her place in the House of Representatives, becoming the first American woman elected to political office. Since the early twentieth century, many more women have climbed the ranks in politics, but not without taking on entrenched sexist attitudes and a male-dominated power structure. Jewish women, alongside women of other backgrounds, have made great strides in assuming political leadership and leveraging women of younger generations to do the same. A few examples:
Rosalie Silber Abrams: The first Jewish woman elected to the Maryland State Senate, Rosalie Silber Abrams was a pioneering legislator who oversaw the passage of nearly 300 bills during her 17-year career in the Maryland General Assembly. Born in 1916, Abrams’s ascent in politics was hardly a foregone conclusion. With degrees in business and nursing, a stint managing her family’s bakery in Baltimore, followed by a decade-long period as a stay-at-home mom, Abrams’s decision to run for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966 was a bold move. Remembering her early years in office, she recalled that, although she was well-received by her colleagues, her level of commitment and aggressive nature were startling to most men. Listen to Abrams’s experiences of tipping the gender scales.
Joanne Alter: Joanne Alter, who died in November 2008, had been a trailblazer for women in politics since the late 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson appointed her as a delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting in Ghana. Returning home, she was galvanized by the glaring absence of women’s leadership in American politics. Within the year, along with four colleagues, she founded the Illinois Democratic Women's Caucus to encourage the full and equal participation of women in party functions. Before the 1972 election, she offered Chicago mayor Richard Daley a list of 32 qualified women candidates that did not include herself. Daley, in response, slated her to run for Trustee of the Metropolitan Sanitary District. She won the election, soundly defeating a deep-seated opponent and launching her own political career. Listen to Alter’s reflections on the early days of her political career.
Elsbeth Bothe: Known as a criminal lawyer and judge with a unique presence on the bench, Elsbeth Bothe spent a career breaking down barriers to women’s roles in the legal profession. From applying to law school in the late 1940s in the face of miniscule quotas for women, to finding a job at a firm that would allow women to practice, Bothe had been challenging stereotypes of women lawyers for decades by the time she was appointed as the third woman to serve in the Baltimore Circuit Court in 1978. Even when tentatively allowed into this “boy’s club,” Bothe continued to confound the prevalent image of women lawyers by taking on difficult and violent criminal cases such as murders and rapes. Listen to Bothe reflect on the challenges of her law career.
Judith Hirshfield-Bartek: An oncology nurse since 1978, Judith Hirshfield-Bartek is a breast cancer activist who has lobbied both houses of Congress for research funding and founded the Jewish Women’s Coalition on Breast Cancer, which focuses on genetic testing. As a nurse and as the daughter of a woman who died from breast cancer, Hirshfield-Bartek had a personal understanding of the importance of advancing medical research and care for women with breast cancer, and the role of politics in making this possible. In this excerpt, Hirshfield-Bartek recalls the early years of her activism and the challenges of being heard on issues of women’s health.