First meeting of The United Order of True Sisters
April 25, 1846
Organized at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, the United Order of True Sisters (UOTS) held its first meeting on April 25, 1846. Conceived as a female counterpart to the male Jewish B'nai B'rith organization (founded in 1843), but functioning separately, UOTS claims to be the first independent national women's organization in the United States.
Some of the Order's goals resembled those of earlier Jewish women's mutual aid and charitable societies. The Sisters sought "refinement of the heart and mind and moral improvement," and paid regular dues to be used for burial fees and material aid to members struck by illness or sudden poverty.
Unlike earlier charitable women's organizations, however, the UOTS also had explicitly political goals. In the words of the group's 1864 constitution, the Order sought "particularly the development of free, independent and well-considered action of its members. The women are to expand their activities, without neglecting their obligations as housekeepers, in such a manner, that if necessary they can participate in public meetings and discussions." The structure of the lodge, with secret passwords, degrees of membership, and closely-guarded rituals, mirrored the organization of men's fraternal organizations like B'nai B'rith, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows.
The members of UOTS were mostly middle-class German-Jewish women, as evidenced by the fact that meetings at most lodges were conducted in German until the end of the First World War. Many members were wives of B'nai B'rith members. The UOTS provided these women a place to exercise their leadership abilities and develop a role in the public sphere, without being subject to the authority of men. Although most probably did not fear material want, the system of mutual aid provided an unusual degree of security and independence.
Initiated under the leadership of Henriette Bruckman, and founded with just ten other members, the original lodge counted over 100 members by 1851. In the same year, the UOTS established a Grand Lodge as an umbrella organization to connect lodges in different cities and to centralize authority. By the mid-1860s, lodges existed in Philadelphia, New Haven, and Albany as well as New York. Active in public life from the beginning, the UOTS established its own newspaper, Der Vereinsote, in 1884.
Today, the UOTS continues to maintain chapters across the country, although its focus has changed and is no longer identified as an exclusively Jewish organization. Since 1947, the main activities of the Order have been raising money for cancer research and providing support to cancer patients. The most recent chapter was formed in Suffolk County, New York, in 1978.
Sources:Cornelia Wilheim, "The Independent Order of True Sisters: Friendship, Fraternity, and a Model of Modernity for Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Womanhood," American Jewish Archives Journal 54:1 (2002), http://www.americanjewisharchives.org/aja/journal/PDF/Article54v1-Wilhelm.pdf; http://www.uots.org; http://www.americanjewisharchives.org/aja/FindingAids/uots.htm.