Women of Valor



Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

In the 1880's, Emma Lazarus became increasingly convinced that "the time has come for actions rather than words." She visited Russian refugees, who lived in miserable conditions on Ward's Island in New York harbor, and volunteered at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Moved by the exiles' struggles, she was also aware of how little she had in common with them. While working among Russian immigrants, she would sometimes joke, "What would my society friends say if they saw me here?"

Lazarus's ideas on the importance of manual labor helped lead to the establishment of the Hebrew Technical Institute. These views also reflected her upper-class status as she spoke of "the wretched quality of work performed by the vast majority of American mechanics and domestic servants."

In 1883, Lazarus also formed the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. On her 1883 European trip, she met with Jewish philanthropists like Claude Montefiore to gather support. However, much to her disappointment, the organization collapsed in 1884.

Emma Lazarus's advocacy included secular causes as well as Jewish ones. She corresponded with the activist Henry George and published a sonnet in honor of his book, Progress and Poverty. She also wrote of her discussions with William Morris in an article in Century. While sympathetic to Morris' socialist ideas, Lazarus felt his theories were not applicable to America where "the avenues to ease and competency broad and numerous."

  1. On Lazarus's work with Russian immigrants, and her quote about "society friends," see Philip Cowen, "A Budget of Letters," American Hebrew 33 (Dec. 9, 1887): 7.
  2. On Lazarus's role in the founding of Hebrew Technical Institute, see Philip Cowen, "Recollections of Emma Lazarus," American Hebrew (July 5, 1929): 240.
  3. For Lazarus's views on manual labor, see An Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York: Jewish Historical Society of New York, 1987) 17.
  4. On Lazarus's formation of the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews, see Young 106 and, for example, "Dear Mr. Seligman," 6 February 1883 in Young 202.
  5. For the sonnet "Progress and Poverty," see New York Times (2 October 1881): 3.
  6. For quotes on William Morris, see "A Day in Surrey with William Morris," in Selections from Her Poetry and Prose 94-5. (p. 95-7 in 1967 edition)

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Advocacy." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/advocacy>.