Jewish League for Woman Suffrage
The Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (JLWS) was the only Jewish women’s organization in England—and the world—devoted exclusively to obtaining both national and Jewish suffrage for women. Founded on November 3, 1912 by a group of distinguished female communal leaders, the League proclaimed twin goals: “to demand the Parliamentary Franchise for women on the same line as it is, or may be, granted to men, and to unite Jewish Suffragists of all shades of opinion for religious and educational activities … [It will also] strive to further the improvement of the status of women in the [Jewish] Community and the State.”
Linking feminist goals with Jewish loyalties, the JLWS combined secular suffragist rhetoric with Jewish terminology. League members equated their campaigns with Anglo-Jewry’s efforts to obtain political emancipation, overcome continuing social discrimination and fight repression against Jews elsewhere in the world. The world’s first Jewish organization to link Judaism with suffrage, the League redefined the concept of Anglo-Jewish womanhood to include secular, religious and communal feminist goals. Indeed, the League’s strong feminist commitment became quite clear as it joined secular national and international suffrage organizations.
The League’s survival and its acceptance in class-conscious Britain were possible because its executive council featured a bastion of upper-middle-class Anglo-Jewish women from the Franklin extended family, Jewish community and women’s organization leaders, and social reform activists, including male supporters such as author Israel Zangwill. Founders Laura and Leonard Frankin’s closest advisors included pioneer educator Henrietta “Netta” Franklin, who became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1916 to 1917. She was joined on the League council by her sister Lily Montagu, founder of the West Central Jewish Girls Club and of England’s first Liberal Jewish movement, who provided spiritual inspiration for the League’s campaign. In 1913, she became a vice-president of the League. Functioning as the League’s spiritual advisor, she often led the JLWS in prayer before the organization’s meetings and public assemblies. Montagu went on to become the founder of Liberal Judaism in England and a lay minister in Liberal synagogues, although she was not formally inducted as a “minister” (rabbi) of a Liberal synagogue until 1944. Montagu, and the League itself, were ostensibly not radical, but they were clearly visible, marching and demonstrating for votes for women in England.
The League did have more radical members. League militants disrupted Sabbath worship services in several synagogues in London from early 1913 until the outbreak of World War I, demanding religious as well as political suffrage for women. These women were forcibly removed from synagogues for disrupting services and castigated in the Anglo-Jewish press as “blackguards in bonnets.” Several League members became “martyrs” for the cause when they were arrested, imprisoned and force-fed in English prisons for taking part in the violent demonstrations organized by the English suffragist movement.
The majority of the Anglo-Jewish community were appalled and terrified by these actions, fearing that Jewish suffragists heralded the breakdown of the home, the rise in antisemitism in England that seemed connected to passage of the 1906 Aliens Act, and an end to native Jewry’s social acceptance in England. Anglo-Jewish men of all classes feared the specter of government by “irrational” and “emotional” women. Jewish working men feared that suffrage would give women more power to impose middle-class reformist controls upon their lives. This fear made it difficult to recruit working-class Jewish women into the suffrage campaign. The controversy filled the Jewish press for two years.
In 1912 the League mounted a campaign for votes for female synagogue seatholders, supported by Liberal Jewish ministers who believed the synagogue should mirror social concerns. Outraged traditional synagogue and communal leaders asserted that religious suffrage would drive men from the synagogue and destroy the institution. Nevertheless, support for religious suffrage increased. Even Chief Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz (1872–1946) expressed himself favorably on religious suffrage, noting that women seatholders had the vote in several Orthodox synagogues in America. By 1914 two synagogues had granted partial votes to women, while five synagogues gave them an unlimited franchise. As a result, Jewish women secured a voice in synagogue management and a quasi-religious sanction for representation on Jewish communal boards. Still, the League failed to convince the United Synagogue to grant the vote to women throughout all congregations. It would take the postwar campaign by the Union of Jewish Women to expand the religious franchise further.
By the end of World War I, a handful of elite Anglo-Jewish women had gradually broken down barriers of religion, class, and culture to achieve leadership positions in English suffragist organizations and to simultaneously create the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Winning votes for women gave Anglo-Jewish women their first taste of real political power in national, religious and communal life. Suffrage became a vital symbol of their social acceptance as Englishwomen as well as of their political, religious and communal emancipation.
The existence of the League was rooted in the upper-class social status, family connections and communal distinction of its leadership—factors which gave these feminists the self-confidence that enabled them to face the intense antagonism generated by their suffrage activities. Conversely, that same elite social status made League women acceptable to the Christian-dominated suffragist movement. Individual upper-middle-class Anglo-Jewish women such as Netta Franklin even achieved leadership positions in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
In contrast to the United States, therefore, England’s class and religious distinctions facilitated the creation of a unique Jewish suffrage organization and Anglo-Jewish women’s admittance to the English campaign for the ballot. As a result, members of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage sought the franchise in a very different manner from their counterparts in the United States.
Adam, H. Pearl, ed. Women in Council. London, New York, Toronto: 1945; Anglo-Jewish Yearbook. 1921, 189. Cohen, Percy. “Jews and Feminism.” Westminster Review (October 1913): 457, 461. DeBruin, Elizabeth. “Judaism and Womanhood.” Westminster Review (August 1913): 130–131; Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. Woman’s Suffrage. London: 1912, reprinted New York: 1970, 86. Annual Report 1912–1914. Jewish League for Woman Suffrage: 1914; Constitution. Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. London: 1912; Papers. Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. Klau Library, HUC-JIR. London Jewish Chronicle. London: 1913–1922; Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause: Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881–1933. Ohio: 1990; Lily Montagu Papers: Ellen M. Umansky Microfilm collection. American Jewish Archives. Cincinnati, Ohio. Edwin Montague letter to Lily Montagu, April 24, 1912. Lily Montagu Papers, American Jewish Archives.