Union of Jewish Women
Jewish women in England had emerged out of the home and into the public sphere by the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the leadership of a coterie of aristocratic Anglo-Jewish women who had ventured into social service as volunteers in the mid-nineteenth century (see Louise Lady Rothschild). As opportunities expanded, they brought respectable middle class Jewish women into the field as paid professional social workers. Then, as a vast wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants flooded England’s shores in the 1880s, significant numbers of upper- and middle-class Jewish women gradually became prominent in social service to fill the urgent need to help this new wave of Jewish poor.
To showcase Jewish women’s leadership abilities in social service and other fields, in 1902 a committee of prominent aristocratic women organized the first Conference of Jewish Women in England. Touted as “a great triumph” by initially reluctant male communal leaders, the Conference in its final session founded the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), the first national umbrella organization for Jewish women’s social service groups. The UJW determined the social service agenda for Jewish women until World War I. Its success was rooted in following the precedents of Christian women who formed women’s social service organizations, adapting those methods to Jewish concepts of zedakah.
Moreover, in class-conscious Britain, the leadership of the UJW guaranteed its acceptance. Leadership included Julia Cohen (Mrs. Nathaniel), whose husband’s family virtually ran London’s Jewish Board of Guardians (Anglo-Jewry’s charitable arm), and a coterie of Rothschilds and other prominent Anglo-Jewish women. Moreover, the leadership reflected the UJW’s link to the secular movement for women’s rights that was then sweeping western Europe and America. The chairman [sic] of the International Council of Women (ICW) joined the Executive Committee, initiating the process that eventually led the ICW to join the international women’s movement. The ICW was the umbrella organization for women’s social service organizations around the world and its leader’s presence on the UJW’s Executive Committee publicly identified that organization as part of the international women’s movement.
Indeed, the Union declared itself to be an “all-embracing sisterhood,” forming a “bond between Jewish women of all degrees and all shades of opinion, religious, social and intellectual.” In reality, however, the UJW before World War I was composed primarily of upper-class women who came in contact with the working class only when providing food, clothing or medical care.
The UJW adopted the ostensibly scientific methods of social service promoted by the Christian Organization Society, the leading social service organization in England. Condemning the “thoughtless pity” for immigrants that allegedly ran “rife” in the Jewish community, the UJW focused on public activities deemed suitable for women: “friendly visiting” in homes and schools, teaching, sanitation and nursing.
Unlike America’s National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which focused on immigrant concerns, the UJW concentrated initially only on helping “the better educated Jewess.” Its professional staff trained upper-and middle-class Anglo-Jewish women as volunteers for a range of educational and philanthropic organizations. Avoiding charities benefiting from the male-run Jewish Board of Guardians, the UJW served as a direct link between charitable institutions and women who needed help.
The Union organized a system of volunteers trained to help gentlewomen seeking employment and to assist Jewish charitable institutions. The UJW’s small loan fund supported a limited amount of job training and personal assistance to gentlewomen in temporary need, “allowing them to tide over a difficult period.” By the end of its first year, the UJW was hailed by the London Jewish Chronicle as more effective than its male-run counterparts.
By the end of the Union’s first few years, its education and job training programs helped to increase middle-class Jewish women’s financial security and social mobility. The UJW’s large-scale enrollment of volunteers and vocational education for “gentlewomen” also substantially increased opportunities for female Jewish volunteers, nurses, social workers and teachers in the Jewish community. These accomplishments laid the groundwork for later UJW campaigns.
By 1912, the Union expanded its training program. Boasting roughly1,600 members throughout Great Britain and the colonies, the UJW’s training program placed women as social workers, teachers, nurses, secretaries, embroiderers, gardeners, kindergarten teachers, lamp-shade makers, seamstresses, printers, photographers and even musicians and singers.
By the eve of World War I, the Union also placed women as “plan tracers” for architects, physical drill and dancing instructors and accountants. Aware of antisemitic discrimination against Jewish doctors and nurses, the Union helped mount a community-wide campaign to build Beth Holim Hospital.
At the same time, a world-wide network of Union volunteer correspondents assisted Anglo-Jewish women in several countries and represented the Union at meetings of national and international Jewish women’s organizations.
Rejected for membership by the male-run Jewish Board of Guardians, the Union aligned itself with secular women’s organizations. Constance Lady Battersea, daughter of Louise Lady Rothschild, had been elected president of the National Union of Women Workers in 1901. She persuaded the UJW to affiliate with a number of national and international women’s organizations, including the NUWW and, in 1904, the International Council of Women. These affiliations ultimately persuaded the Union to become active in the national and Jewish suffrage movements and other feminist causes.
As early as 1913 the Union had expanded its mandate to include international feminist goals: equal employment, improved living conditions and political and religious rights for working-class as well as middle-class Jewish women. The UJW even cooperated in creating the World Council of Jewish Women in 1923. This led to the Union’s broadening its mandate to seek political, religious and communal change for women of all classes, along similar lines to America’s NCJW and the International Council of Women. The result was UJW establishment of settlement houses in the Jewish East End of London and support of Jewish religious and national English secular suffrage campaigns.
After World War I the rising influence of the middle-and working-classes forced the Union to expand its governing council to include middle-class women. The Union now also trained Jewish women as social workers, dentists and even policewomen. It added affiliate social service organizations concerned with Jewish women and children.
Involved in a mix of English social feminist and Jewish projects, the Union worked closely with suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett and affiliated with the socialist Fabian Women’s Group. Insisting that Jewish women use their recently acquired political power, the UJW lobbied for improved services and protective legislation for working-class women and children and helped to build the Jewish community’s War Memorial with its educational programs in the East End of London.
Realizing that it would never achieve significant political influence in Jewish life until women gained improved religious and communal rights, the UJW undertook a campaign of equality in all aspects of Jewish religious and communal life. It won confirmation of girls and mixed seating in synagogues that still did not permit them and won votes for women in several liberal synagogues. The Union also persuaded seven synagogues to pass resolutions in favor of confirmation classes for girls by 1923. In the same year it began a campaign for mixed seating at the West London Synagogue. The UJW’s campaign for women’s rights in the synagogue was widely opposed by male-dominated organizations. Nevertheless, England’s Liberal and Reform synagogues, influenced by the UJW and efforts of other Jewish women’s groups, began to involve women in Jewish ritual and study.
All of these changes strengthened the case for granting voting rights to women in England. The Union had not formally taken a position on suffrage before the war, but now its middle-class base demanded participation in the national and Jewish campaigns for universal suffrage.
The UJW affiliated with several English suffrage groups and revived a prewar campaign by the activist Jewish League for Woman Suffrage to secure the franchise for women seatholders in all congregations affiliated with the umbrella United Synagogue.
By 1918, as a result of work by the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, seven synagogues had granted the franchise to women. By 1920, thanks to the UJW’s efforts, sixteen out of eighteen synagogues in the United Synagogue granted the franchise to women seatholders. However, the UJW failed to persuade the United Synagogue to grant the vote to women seatholders in all its synagogues.
By the late 1920s, thanks in part to the UJW, Anglo-Jewish women’s progress in the synagogue had also increased their communal influence. Jewish women served on the boards of many Anglo-Jewish synagogues and communal institutions and were involved in discussions affecting internal communal life. The UJW played a critical role in this process.
Gibbon, Monk. Netta. London: 1960; Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause: Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881–1933. Ohio: 1990; London Jewish Chronicle (1902–1933); London Jewish Guardian (1921–1926); V. D. Lipman. Social History of the Jews in England, 1850–1950. London: 1954; Union of Jewish Women. Leaflet. London: 1914. Union of Jewish Women. Reports 1902–1933 London: 1933.