They say history repeats...

I became a historian not just because I like poking through people’s stuff (though I am pretty nosy), but because I believe that history offers us the best way to understand how to make change in the world – and our world could use some serious change. I draw inspiration from the stories of people who came before us and made a real difference. But sometimes looking back at history makes me depressed, especially when it seems like we’re stuck in the same arguments and issues, or even losing ground.

Today is one of those days. I was reading This Week in History, JWA’s weekly series of historical facts marking the accomplishments of Jewish women in North America. Today’s entry hearkens back to the world of 1921, when the journalist and playwright Lily Winner published an essay about one of the hot issues of her day: immigration restriction. Winner was a progressive, which at that time meant that she opposed immigration restriction but favored the “Americanization” of immigrants. Like many other advocates of immigrant rights, Winner was also an ardent supporter of the birth control movement – which linked the poverty of immigrants to women’s inability to control their fertility – and a frequent contributor to Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review.

Historical hindsight teaches us that Winner (despite her name) didn’t win immediately in either of these causes: Congress severely restricted immigration in 1924, and birth control didn’t become legal until 1965 (and still wasn’t legal in many places for unmarried women until 1972). What particularly drew my attention to this story is that 85 years after Winner’s article, both of these issues are once again in the news and under attack.

As a Jew, the granddaughter of immigrants, and as a woman (actually, a pregnant woman, who is thrilled to be pregnant now but relieved that I could avoid this state at other times in my life), I feel a responsibility to fight for immigrant rights and reproductive rights. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes the fundamental value to protect strangers and treat them fairly, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. My own grandmother came to this country from Poland under the shady circumstances of a fake passport. Ironically, the same people who claim to uphold biblical values and who want to celebrate the success of the American dream that allowed my family to move in one generation into the Ivy League-educated upper middle class, would be fighting tooth-and-nail to keep my grandmother out (or send her home) today. And whatever success I’ve managed to achieve would be threatened by many of the same people, who are steadily chipping away at my right to control my own reproduction.

So how do we keep history from rolling back the clock? What lessons can we draw on to keep these hard-fought and -won rights?

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There are a couple of things we learn from history. First, people make the same mistakes over and over. Winning battles a century ago was great. That should never have been understood to mean that questions were settled and the world moved on. In an age when Fox News does its best to put the Hearst papers to shame as sensationalist reactionary pablum, it comes as no surprise to realize that a woman's right to control her own body is, pardon the pun, up for grabs again.

As for immigration, for all that my own great grandparents were welcomed into this country over a hundred years ago, thousands of Jews were turned away in their time of direst need as they tried to escape Nazi Germany. I would fight hard for ensuring that political refugees are never again turned away, but I'm not sure that our country should be swamped by the current migration.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "They say history repeats...." 18 May 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 16, 2024) <>.