1856 – 1938
Rosa Welt was born in 1856 in Chernovsty (Ger. Czernowitz; Rom. Cernauti), a city in Bukovina. She and her three sisters were educated in the classical gymnasium, which enabled them to continue on to higher education. Rosa Welt studied at the Universities of Vienna and Berne, which in those days were the only places where women could study medicine (Sarah Azaryahu Archives, 15/3/6). In 1878, she received her medical degree and was one of the first women in Europe to practice medicine. Two of her sisters also finished medical school and another sister became a chemist. The family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and Rosa Welt, together with one of her sisters, immigrated to the United States, where she worked for many years as an eye surgeon in New York in the eye hospital and also in the eye clinic at the Women’s Hospital. In New York, she married Louis Straus, a successful businessman. They had a daughter, Nellie (Nellie Straus-Mochenson, 1939).
In addition to her professional work, Welt-Straus was active in the struggle for women’s suffrage in New York and a partner in forming the International Woman Suffrage Alliance founded by Carrie Chapman-Catt. (Jus Suffragii, 1939). In 1904, she participated in the first congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance as a member of the American delegation (Azaryahu, 1977). She continued to take part in the organization’s congresses and after she moved to Palestine in 1919, representing the UNION OF HEBREW WOMEN FOR EQUAL RIGHTS IN ERETZ ISRAEL at these assemblies.
Welt-Straus came to Palestine together with her daughter Nellie Straus when she was sixty-three years old and within two months of her arrival she was elected head of the Union of Hebrew Women, a position she filled until her death in 1938. The Union’s decision to elect Welt-Straus as its chairwoman so soon after her arrival indicates that the members were aware of her activities in New York. In September 1919, the newspaper Hadshot ha-Arez published a letter in which Welt-Straus wrote about American Jewish women who together with other women took part in the struggle for women’s right to vote in the United States and who were sure that there would be no need for such a struggle in Erez Israel.
“…[E]ven as we American women fought the battle for our rights, we often felt great pride, since this problem had been solved long ago in our own country, our national community. . . . We, women who lived in countries where we had full citizenship, came to the land of our forebears. We want to work and be active. . . . It is clear that only those who possess equal rights can, hand in hand, perform successful and fruitful work (Welt-Straus, 1919).
However, when she came to the country to participate in building a national home for the Jews, she discovered a different reality—one in which women had been promised the right to vote, but where implementing that promise entailed a long and stubborn struggle which nobody could have anticipated.
On the eve of her departure for Palestine, Carrie Chapman-Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), suggested to Welt-Straus that she organize the women in Palestine and have them join the Alliance. In a letter published in Jus Suffragii, the monthly publication of the IWSA, Welt-Straus responded that it had been easy to organize the women of Palestine, since upon her arrival she had discovered that women’s organizations already existed and were in the process of unification. Convinced that women in Palestine had won the right to vote a year earlier, Welt-Straus anticipated no problems (Jus Suffragii, July 1920).
When she accepted the position of Union chairwoman, Welt-Straus, like many women, had no idea how difficult the struggle would be. Doubtless, her contacts with the American movement and the IWSA were the main reasons for the women of the Union having chosen her to lead the organization, which had only just come into existence. Her international activity contributed a great deal to the establishment of contacts with women and organizations outside the country. In July 1920, a year after she arrived in Palestine, she traveled to London to participate in the assembly at which the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) was established. That same year, she represented the Union of Hebrew Women at the IWSA congress in Geneva. She participated in all the IWSA Congresses, represented the Alliance on important international committees, and was frequently included in delegations to the prime ministers of the various countries which hosted the congresses. In letters she sent to Sarah Azaryahu from the International Alliance congresses, she reports on her wide-ranging activities during the assemblies, of the participants’ enthusiastic response to her proposals, and her sense of the interest and connection that the women showed for everything related to Palestine. As always in the international women’s movement, these assemblies were a source of feelings of solidarity and strength among the members (Shaarawi, 1986), and Rosa Welt-Straus continued to participate in them and report back to her colleagues in Palestine on all her appearances and activities during the conferences.
As a veteran member of the International Alliance, Welt-Straus was a representative on the Mandates Committee in Geneva and in the coalition of nine international women’s organizations which was formed by the League of Nations. The goal of this coalition was to find a solution to the nationality problems of numerous women all over the world who, after emigrating, were dependent on men for citizenship in the countries in which they now lived. This problem had additional significance in Palestine since married working women could not submit a request to the British administration to bring their families to Palestine by virtue of themselves being working women, but only by virtue of their husbands’ employment. The appeal of the Union of Hebrew Women to the Mandate authorities was rejected on the grounds that, in Jewish law, a woman’s salary belongs to her husband (Ha-Isha, 5686 (1926), 5689 (1929).
Despite her status in the Union, Welt-Straus seldom appeared in public because she did not speak Hebrew well and felt that it was inappropriate to speak in public in a foreign language. In consequence, she was not a candidate to represent the Union in the election to the Asefat ha-Nivharim (The Elected Assembly). This did not adversely affect her role in the organization, which she continued to chair and in the running of which she was an active participant for twenty years, until her death. As Sarah Azaryahu’s son relates, the members viewed her as
a great treasure, since she introduced a cosmopolitan perception that the problem was that of all women in the world. And here it began with the lone woman in Haifa, and then with other women, and suddenly it turned out that women all over the world were concerned about and dealing with this same issue. Straus was not only the one who made contacts and connections but also one who brought a world perspective into the meetings. Mother [Sarah Azaryahu] always felt that she had power because she was part of such an international movement (Interview with Ornan Azaryahu , Safran, 1998).
Welt-Straus gave women a feeling of international connectedness and continued to represent the Jewish women of Palestine at international assemblies and in activity on behalf of women in Palestine.
American Jewish women also saw her as an important figure in the work for women’s rights in Palestine. In the opinion of Sarah Kussy, a member of Hadassah who visited Palestine in 1923, Welt-Straus was the one who organized the Union and affected its achievements. In the report she wrote for a local American newspaper, Kussy wrote:
Dr. Straus has organized the Women’s Equal Rights Association which is very influential in advancing the political status of the women in Palestine. Her work has had an influence on the formulation of the constitution of that country (Kussy, 1923).
Sarah Kussy realized and also pointed out the importance that the struggle for suffrage would have on the laws relating to women, but in Palestine the British government had no intention of writing any sort of constitution. Despite the importance of the struggle for suffrage and the other changes women demanded, their achievements did not become part of the body of legislation as it did in the United States.
In her final years, Welt-Straus fell ill and went to her family in Geneva, where she died at the age of 82. Upon her death on December 15, 1938, Sarah Azaryahu wrote: “Her extraordinary and captivating personality, her exalted talents and wide education, enabled Dr. Welt-Straus to win a place of honor among women who headed large international organizations. She was the life and soul of the Union of Hebrew Women (Ha’aretz, 1939).” Welt-Straus’s activity in the union was undoubtedly vital and significant, as her twenty years as chairwoman can testify.
Conversations with Sarah Azaryahu (German), in Rome, May 20, 1923, and Paris, August 6, 1926; Sarah Azaryahu Archives, Yad Tabenkin, 15/3/6; Azaryahu, Sarah. The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel. Haifa: 1977, 94; Jus Suffragii 4 (July 1920); Ha’aretz, March 1, 1939; Kussy, Sarah. Newark Evening News, January 25, 1923; Minutes of the WIZO Founding Convention, November 7, 1920; Safran, Hannah. “International Struggle, Local Victory: Rosa Welt-Straus and the Achievement of Women’s Suffrage, 1919–1926.” In Jewish Women in the Yishuv and Zion (Hebrew). edited by Margalit Shilo, Ruth Kark and Galit Hasan-Rokem, 315–330. Jerusalem: 2001; Safran, Hannah. Interview with Ornan (Sinai) Azaryahu, Kibbutz Yiron, August 20, 1998; Huda Shaarawi. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. London: 1986; Straus-Mochenson, Nellie. Our Palestine. Tel Aviv: 1939; Welt-Straus, Rosa. Letter to the Editor, Hadshot ha-Arez, September 29, 1919.