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November: Jewish Women in Politics

The March into the National Women's Conference (left to right) Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan
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The March into the National Women\s Conference. (Left to right) Billy Jean King\

For the first half of the 20th century, the few women who served in Congress did so when they were appointed to fill seats left empty when their husbands died. Thus it was no surprise when the unmarried political activist Rose Schneiderman lost her bid for a seat in the Senate in 1920.

Florence Prag Kahn, the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, fared better. She won a special election to succeed her husband upon his death in 1924, but unlike most women who occupied what was known as “the widow’s seat,” she ran five successful campaigns to represent the San Francisco area until losing her seat in 1936. 

One of the most out-spoken and accomplished Jewish Congresswomen of any era was Bella Abzug, one of JWA's Women of Valor. "Born yelling" in 1920, the year women were first allowed to vote in a U.S. presidential election, Bella began her political career as a young child, giving impassioned Zionist speeches on the New York City subway to raise money for a Jewish homeland. Her involvement continued into her adulthood, and in 1961, she helped initiate the Women's Strike for Peace. In 1970 she was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress on a women's rights/peace platform. During her three terms in the House of Representives, Bella Abzug fought for women's, environmental, and human rights. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, and in 1977 presided over the first National Women's Conference in Houston.

During most of Abzug's career in Congress, there were fewer than 20 women in the House of Representatives. But in 1992, "the Year of the Woman," the number of women in Congress doubled almost overnight when a record 24 new women won seats in Congress, the largest class of freshmen women ever. One woman elected to the House that year declared, “After years in the trenches, more women are finally moving up to the front lines.” As the number and influence of women in Congress has grown, so has the number and influence of Jewish women politicians culminating in 2011, when Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was named Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

On the eve of the 2012 election, there were 90 women serving in the United States Congress—a record but still less than 17%. In 2012, 18 women ran for the Senate; 11 of them were elected, including five newcomers, four of whom came from states that had never before sent a woman to the Senate. Of the 163 candidates for the House of Representatives, 77 were successful, bringing the number of women in the U.S. Congress to an all-time high and making 2012 another “year of the woman.”  South Carolina elected a woman to its state legislature, leaving no state legislative body without a female member. And in New Hampshire, which is represented in the Senate by two women, women won both the governorship and the state’s two congressional seats. 

Karen Middleton, president of Emerge America, a group that trains Democratic women to run for office, told the New York Times that “obstacles to women’s candidacies remain, including harsh media portrayal and family obligations that continue to rest mainly with women. The increase in women’s candidacies is a ‘step in the right direction, but we don’t think our work is done by a long shot.’” One sign that it is not: women still hold only one fifth of the seats in the Senate and an even lower percentage in the House. 

Jewish Women in the 113th  Congress 

Senate Women March 2009
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Photo by the United States Senate. Portrait of the 17 female United States Senators as of March 2009.

Senate:

Feinstein and Boxer were elected on November 3, 1992, becoming the first Jewish women senators, the first female senators from California, and the first two women to represent any state at the same time. Visit This Week in History to learn more.

House:

On January 8, 2011, another Jewish woman with a seat in the 112th Congress, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 other people were shot at a rally in Tuscon, AZ in a mass shooting. Six people were killed. After a remarkable recovery, Rep. Giffords made her final appearance as a Congresswoman at President Obama's State of the Union address in January, 2012. She offered her resignation from Congress on January 25, 2012 to focus on her recovery. On the second anniversary of the shooting, and a month after a similar shooting in Newtown, CT resulted in 26 deaths (20 of them young children), Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, launched a new political action committee, "Americans for Responsible Solutions," to help "encourage elected officials to stand up for solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership."

In the 2008 election, two Jewish women vied for the same seat in Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District. The incumbent, Allyson Schwartz (D), a first-generation American whose family fled Nazi persecution in Austria, defeated Marina Kats (R), a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant. Schwartz was re-elected in 2010.

State Government:

  • Linda Lingle (R) served as the Governor of Hawaii from 2002 until 2010. She became the second Jewish woman elected governor of a U.S. state after Madeleine Kunin. In 2012, she lost her bid for the U.S. Senate to Rep. Mazie Hirono.
  • Madeleine Kunin (D) served as Governor of Vermont from 1985 until 1991. 

Local Government:

  • Countless Jewish women have played active roles in local politics. Sheila Cheimets was one. In 1972, she was the first woman to run for the Board of Selectmen in her Massachusetts town. More than one man said he wouldn't vote for her because of her gender. She won and served three terms. She died in 2011, and her story is included in JWA's "We Remember" feature. 

Know any Jewish women involved in politics in your community now or in the past? We welcome your comments, stories, and links. Please share them below.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "November: Jewish Women in Politics." (Viewed on October 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/discover/throughtheyear/november/politics>.

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