Rothschild, Constance Lady Battersea
1843 – 1931
Constance Rothschild Lady Battersea (1843–1931), and her sister Anne (1844–1926) were the daughters of Baron Anthony (1810–1876) and Louise (née Montefiore, 1821–1910) de Rothschild. Her father was a scion of the wealthiest and most distinguished Jewish banking family in England. The Rothschilds enjoyed pre-eminence among the network of aristocratic cousins who ruled Anglo-Jewish society in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century.
Combining a happy disposition with a concern for others, Constance and Anne inherited their mother Louise de Rothschild’s strong sense of duty to the poor, an independent spirit and social entrée to the topmost echelons of English society. As young girls they taught in the village schools surrounding their home and at the Jews’ Free School for the poor in London. Together, the girls wrote a popular children’s book entitled The History and Literature of the Israelites, which was highly praised by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
The elite social circle of the Rothschild daughters, who were raised in a home where their parents entertained the leaders of English politics and society, was almost entirely Christian except for their cousins. These Christian visitors, combined with their mother’s discomfort with Judaism, influenced the sisters’ ambivalent attitude to Judaism as a religion. However, Constance never converted, but remained dedicated to Jews as a people, even though she and her sister Anne both married Christians, despite their parents’ acute unhappiness. Constance married Cyril Flower (1843–1907), later Lord Battersea, in 1877, while Anne married Eliot Yorke in 1873. Both marriages were childless.
The Rothschild daughters’ marriages and subsequent gilded lifestyle among the Christian aristocracy continued the process of isolating them from Judaism as a religion. Moreover, Constance felt Judaism regarded her as inferior because she was a woman. Disillusioned with Orthodoxy, Constance felt some sympathy for the new Liberal Judaism that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, but never joined the movement. She attended church services because she liked the spirit of public worship.
After her marriage to Cyril Flower, Constance combined a lavish social life with charitable activities. Profoundly committed to the social concern instilled in her by her mother, Constance became active in English philanthropy, including royal projects, and then became engaged in the temperance movement that flourished in England and America in the mid- and late- nineteenth century. Most Jews were not involved in this campaign because temperance had little significance for the majority of Jews, who drank only moderate amounts of wine on the Sabbath and holidays, and small amounts of liquor on social occasions. However, Constance Battersea, like other upper-class and middle-class women, became aware of the need for temperance when her servants abused liquor. As a result, Battersea joined the British Women’s Temperance Association in the 1890s and eventually became a leader of temperance campaigns in London and the provinces. Battersea was introduced to the women’s movement in 1881 by suffragist and temperance worker Fanny Morgan, whom Battersea helped to undertake a political career that resulted in her election as mayor of Brecon.
In the mid–1890s, Battersea’s reputation for social activism led her to become active in the movement for reforms of English women’s prisons, which were chaotic, unhealthy and often cruel. Most working-class Jews who became criminals were boys or men who were usually involved only in petty crime. Indeed, Battersea met only three Jewish female convicts during her visits to Aylesbury prison.
In 1885 Battersea was jolted into struggling with the sensitive issue of white slavery by a national scandal and journalistic exposés of child prostitution and white slavery—trafficking in girls and women. Moreover, journalist W. T. Stead’s articles about white slavery also fanned prejudice against Jewish immigrants by accusing East European Jews of being the source of the traffic in prostitutes and also the source of corrupting English girls and women. Evidence was indeed mounting that some East European Jewish men were trafficking in girls and women, either deceiving or forcing young women into a life of sexual servitude. The charges infuriated the public already engaged in a crusade for moral reform and sexual purity. At the same time, a crusade against the sweatshop system of employing immigrant garment workers fueled further prejudice against Jews.
Constance first learned about the desperate plight of London’s Jewish prostitutes from an English missionary in 1885. Jewish prostitutes believed that only Christian missions would give them food and lodging and that no Jew would help them. Horrified, Battersea engaged many among the liberal leadership of Anglo-Jewry in the fight to rescue Jewish prostitutes by founding the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women (JAPGW). The mixture of Jewish traffickers and Jewish victims, she believed, demanded the creation of a distinctively Jewish organization.
The JAPGW was composed of an interlocking network of nationally prominent middle- and upper-class Anglo-Jewish women closely connected to women’s temperance, suffrage and educational campaigns. As a result, they had entrée to and worked closely with feminist and inter-denominational anti-white slavery organizations. Founding the JAPGW launched these Anglo-Jewish women into organized English feminism and established the roots of an Anglo-Jewish woman’s movement seventeen years before the founding of the Union of Jewish Women.
The JAPGW forged new areas for activism. Battersea and the JAPGW leadership—including both women and men—opened several homes to rescue girls from dangerous situations, provide moral education and train them for honest employment. The JAPGW sent “friendly visitors” to these institutions, as well as to homes and jobs where girls were placed, to “keep a watchful eye” on JAPGW girls and provide advice and assistance as needed. Battersea quickly learned that there would be few permanent successes in dealing with Jewish prostitutes, because many would return to delinquency despite regular visits. Still, some alumnae of JAPGW homes were successfully placed in domestic service.
In addition to these homes, the JAPGW also founded the Industrial Training School to provide Jewish religious education as well as vocational training for former prostitutes, enabling them to find legitimate work in domestic service and trades. The Domestic Training Home, which prepared young women for domestic service, had considerable success. It soon became a model training center for Jewish women wishing to become matrons or managers of other homes. Rescue homes not only provided an alternative for Jewish immigrant girls; they also enabled middle- and upper-class Anglo-Jewish women to gain some understanding of immigrants’ problems. These gentlewomen also received invaluable training in social service, organization management and communal and national politics, raising their self-esteem and opening their eyes to the need for political reforms necessary to complete social reform in England.
At the same time, rescue work became a mainstay of JAPGW activities, investigating and supporting prosecutions and assisting with the conviction of suspected traffickers. By 1912 the international ramifications were so massive that a special Gentlemen’s Committee was created to send male agents to meet immigrant girls at the dock and to direct international rescue work. Constance Battersea and her ladies’ committee handled the rescue, job training and provision of residential homes for women and girls. After World War I, when Englishwomen had won the vote and were striking out in new directions, Lady Battersea and other women joined male JAPGW representatives in the leadership of international rescue operations. Battersea continued to lead the organization and to represent the JAPGW at international meetings through the early 1920s.
To create the JAPGW in 1885, Constance Lady Battersea had to overcome the resistance of the organized Jewish community, which was reluctant to even admit there was Jewish prostitution in England. She also had to overcome English feminists’ resistance to accepting Jewish women. Battersea’s own feminism, superior class status and her membership in the royal circle helped overcome initial resistance by both Jewish and feminist opponents.
Feminist detractors were further won over by Battersea’s friendship with leaders of the International Council of Women, which provided social entrée into the National Council of Women Workers and the class-conscious women’s movement. Constance Battersea’s work in temperance, prison reform and white slavery had drawn her into the English woman’s movement by the 1890s. She was introduced to the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW) of Great Britain and Ireland (later the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland), which became the umbrella organization for all women’s philanthropic groups in Great Britain.
Battersea joined the NUWW’s Executive Committee, was elected vice-president in 1896 and president in 1901. She remained in office until 1903 and served on the executive committee until 1919, when she was made an Honorary Vice President. Throughout this period, Battersea energetically brought Jewish women into the Union, encouraging them partly for the opportunity the organization afforded middle-class women to become active outside the home, partly to help less fortunate women, and partly because she—and other Jewish communal leaders—saw membership as a sign of social acceptance for Jews.
Battersea’s NUWW leadership further involved her in the international women’s movement. From 1899 and throughout her life, she was a delegate at successive Congresses of the International Council of Women (ICW). By her status as a delegate, Battersea indicated a concern with feminist issues that extended beyond strictly Jewish interests.
Still, she worked tirelessly to bring Jewish women into the organization and to bring Jewish concerns to the attention of ICW leadership. In 1902, she persuaded the new Union of Jewish Women to ally itself with both the National Union of Women Workers and the ICW. Battersea’s prominence in the NUWW and the ICW signaled the first crack in English and international feminism’s monolithic Christian façade and drew significant numbers of Jewish women into the English women’s movement. Jewish women’s involvement ultimately helped to broaden the movement’s political base, thereby strengthening English feminism.
By bringing Jewish women into the English women’s movement, Battersea helped lay the basis for the formation of a distinctively Jewish women’s movement in England. The feminist focus was heightened because her creation of the JAPGW in 1885 engaged Jewish women in profound activism on behalf of less fortunate sisters, further influencing the emergence of conscious Anglo-Jewish feminism.
Battersea’s JAPGW had identified itself with women’s movement goals, becoming the first Jewish organization to publicize the exploitation of prostitutes and rescue women forced into white slavery. In the process, it became the first Jewish organization to bring sensitive issues of concern to women to the popular consciousness. Battersea became a link between English and Jewish feminism, as she convinced numbers of upper-and middle-class Anglo-Jewish women to join English feminist groups like the NUWW and encouraged them to create Jewish women’s organizations, such as the Union of Jewish Women, which allied themselves with the women’s movement.
The Rothschild sisters, who were so close in life, died only a few years apart: Anne in 1926 and Constance in 1931. Both were buried in London, at the Willesden Jewish Cemetery.
Battersea, Lady Constance. Reminiscences. Privately printed; Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women. Annual Reports. 1895–1933; Cohen, Lucy. Lady De Rothschild and Her Daughters. 1821–1933. London, 1935; Davis, Richard. The English Rothschilds. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: 1983; Jewish International Conference on the Suppression of the Traffic in Girls and Women. Official Reports. 1910, 1927; Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881–1933. Ohio: 1990.