In the early 1970s, when I was active in the newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus, I found a piece of paper at a Boston flea market headed “Women Suffrage Bazar” (yes, “Bazar”), advertising a fundraiser for the New England Women’s Suffrage Association, 100 years before .
I felt a sense of recognition for these early feminists, doing then what we did now: raising money, seeking publicity, trying to build support. Today, my suffrage material fills loose-leaf books, a cabinet, and a bookcase. I am strengthened by that connection to women working for women’s rights – doing it with far fewer resources and a lot more social constraints than we had to face.
But there was one connection that I didn’t find. Many of the women I admire and work with in the modern feminist movement are Jewish, sharing my personal commitment to the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world). But there was little evidence of Jewish women in early feminism, beyond the brilliant, atypical Ernestine Rose.
So I was particularly pleased to come upon these books by Maud Nathan, suffragist and president of the New York Consumer League, which was organized to win better working conditions for retail clerks and other working women.
In Once Upon a Time and Today, Nathan speaks of her work for suffrage, for municipal reform, and for relief for new Jewish immigrants. She reports that Woodrow Wilson said, after hearing her speak, “When I hear a woman talk so well in the public interest, it almost makes me believe in woman suffrage.” (And she tells us Wilson voted for suffrage in the next election.)
At a time of growing anti-Semitism, Maud Nathan was proud of her Jewish heritage. In The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement, about the Consumer League, she refers to “an old Talmudic adage” and says “the Hebrew word Tzedakah stood for justice as well as charity.”
Here was my moment of recognition: a woman who understood the value of the vote both as end in itself, recognizing the full citizenship and humanity of women, and as means to important substantive ends; for whom tzedakah was a valued – and acknowledged – guide.
I might never have heard of Maud Nathan if I had not found these books, just as we know that too much of Jewish women’s history has gone untold. Now I treasure them for the example she set in her time, and as a reminder of the importance of telling – and recording – our stories today.
Ann Lewis, Director of Communications for HILLPAC and Friends of Hillary, served in the White House from 1997–2000 as Director of Communications and then Counselor to President Bill Clinton. She was Director of Communications and Deputy Campaign Manager for the Clinton-Gore Re-Election Campaign in 1995-1996, and Senior Advisor to the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton for U.S. Senate in 2000. As the National Chair of the DNC Women’s Vote Center, she led the Democratic Party’s major initiative to reach, engage, and mobilize women voters from 2002- 2004. Lewis was appointed by President Clinton as Co-Chair of the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History and was appointed by the President and Senator Daschle to the Women’s Progress Commission, established by Congress to report on women’s historical sites. Lewis also chaired the U.S. Government Working Group for the Women 2000: Beijing Plus Five Special Session of the General Assembly. She is a member of the board of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Ann Lewis." (Viewed on May 25, 2015) <http://jwa.org/feminism/lewis-ann>.