American Jewish Women in the 1890s
Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
Ray Frank's career coincided with the emergence for the first time of activist public identities and a broad public sphere for American Jewish women. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of sisterhood-type auxiliaries on a local level, the organization of Jewish women on a national scale, and the beginnings of a Jewish women's press. These new entities unleashed the energies of thousands of women and created dynamic public identities for participation specifically as Jewish women.
While Frank was making a career as a preacher, writer, and lecturer, women as a whole were taking on more visible public and religious roles roles in American society. Mainline Protestant denominations debated women's access to lay and religious leadership, while female Christian activism emerged as an ever stronger cultural force. At the same time, the public roles of acculturated Jewish women expanded radically with the influx of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews in the 1880s and 1890s. With the encouragement of their rabbis, women in New York's major Jewish congregations—from Reform to Orthodox—founded sisterhoods of personal service that undertook organized and significant relief work among their impoverished immigrant co-religionists.
The spread of this type of organization across the nation opened avenues for other public expressions of female Jewish identity, including contributions to the expansion of synagogue life. The convening of the Jewish Women's Congress and the subsequent founding of the National Council of Jewish Women crystallized the emergence of new public identities for American Jewish women. The founding in 1893 of The American Jewess, America's first English-language newspaper specifically for and by Jewish women, then gave female Jews a forum, albeit short-lived, in which to debate their ideas. In the long run, the wide transformations in the patterns of public life available to American Jewish women that occurred in the 1890s reshaped American Jewish life as a whole.
- Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Felicia Herman, "From Priestess to Hostess: Sisterhoods of Personal Service in New York City, 1887-1936," in Women in American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, ed. Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, forthcoming July 2001).