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Rose Rosenberg: A Young Jewish Woman Behind the Scenes of No.10 Downing Street

When I attended the JWA Institute for Educators in 2012, I learned about Jewish women who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. I was particularly struck by the importance of taking into account those who did behind-the-scenes support work that made the social movement possible. We were encouraged to look beyond the iconic image of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching beside Martin Luther King, Jr., and to think about the many other people whose involvement was so crucial to the movement. We were asked to consider the lives of those who were not the figureheads of the movements, and who perhaps didn’t even hold leadership roles, but who took part in teaching or marching or making phone calls; who managed offices, coordinated with the press, and disrupted their lives to perform the quotidian logistical work that supported the many organizations that made up the Civil Rights Movement. We were taught that without learning about these people, many of whom were women and many of whom were Jewish, we would not have a full picture of what the Civil Rights Movement, what any social movement, actually was. The Civil Rights Movement was the cumulative effort of many individuals who, for a variety of personal and political reasons, devoted themselves to the task of changing their world, one stuffed envelope, one classroom, or one phone call at a time. 

Since then, I have been keeping my eye out in my own research for profiles of individuals who were not famous, who did not make policy decisions, but whose lives can tell us something about how the events of history actually came about, who was in the room while decisions were made, and who supported that work and helped to make it possible. I stumbled upon one such individual recently while looking through a Yiddish newspaper. I was instantly charmed by a description of Rose Rosenberg, a young Jewish woman who served as personal secretary to the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the first ever Prime Minister from Britain’s Labour Party (who, incidentally, is mentioned as the new prime minister in the most recent season of Downton Abbey). I think what interested me most about her was that she reminded me of many of my friends: strong, empowered women who take their work seriously, fun-loving women who find time for themselves even in the midst of an extremely demanding work schedule, politically engaged women who work for people and organizations they believe in. Rose Rosenberg represents so many women whose names are lost to history because they worked in supportive and administrative roles rather than in the limelight, but who, in pursing work in male-dominated environments, paved the way for women to have leadership roles today. Her story gives us a richer sense of what women have done in behind-the-scenes roles and how that fits into the narratives of history’s “great men.”

On October 7, 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Ramsay MacDonald became the first British Prime Minister to speak before the U.S. House of Representatives. His speech, thanking Members for their kind and hospitable reception of his goodwill visit, was among a series of events staged to bolster the growing alliance between the United States and Great Britain in the early twentieth century.

While the Prime Minister offered words of friendship before esteemed audiences, behind the scenes his personal secretary, one of the few individuals chosen to accompany him on his American visit, was working furiously to dictate responses to hundreds of letters and telegrams from well-wishing Americans welcoming the Prime Minister to their country. Businesslike and efficient, Rose Rosenberg managed a team of three stenographers as they briskly executed this important task.

The American press was enchanted by this young Jewish woman and several newspapers profiled her. An article in the New York Times was translated and reprinted in the Warsaw-based Yiddish newspaper Haynt, bringing to Eastern European Jewish readers a picture of a capable Jewish woman whose tenacious efforts in a male-dominated work environment brought her success, recognition, and fulfillment.

Known as “Miss Rose of No. 10,” a reference to the famous No. 10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister lives and works, Rose Rosenberg, London-born daughter of a Jewish workingman, was a highly capable and influential individual privy to the inner workings of the British government. An article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1930 profiling Rosenberg noted that “never in the 150 years of American history has any President had a woman secretary in any capacity at all comparable to that held by this girl still in her twenties.” Her responsibilities, which kept her busy in her office from 8:00 AM until midnight every day, included managing the Prime Minister’s personal and business calendar, screening visitors, averting the prying pens of reporters, dealing with the parliamentary party, taking some dictation, and keeping an eye on the Prime Minister’s personal needs.

Rosenberg was engaged with politics from a very young age.  While in school she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union to fight for woman’s suffrage, and at the age of seventeen she joined the Fabian Society, an organization devoted to advancing the principles of socialism. She launched her career in the political world when she joined the office staff of the Parliamentary Labour Party, working during recesses for the press department of the Labour Party.  From there, she applied and was accepted in 1923 as private personal secretary to Ramsay MacDonald, who was Parliamentary leader of the Labour Party. She continued to work for MacDonald during his two terms as Prime Minister, in 1924 and 1929-1931. For her service to the country, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1930.

Although she was reluctant to speak to reporters about herself, describing herself as “just a little cog in a great machine,” the few descriptions of her private life reveal that she strove to find opportunities to rejuvenate and relax in the hours outside her stressful work environment.  Rosenberg enjoyed music and dancing, and in her small Chelsea apartment she owned a piano, a phonograph, and a radio. She found it important to “have a place that in some way reflects my personality” and to “fuss around and cook,” insisting “I can manage a stove as well as a typewriter.” To reporters she added that her life demonstrated that “domesticity and a public career are possible” for women.

Rosenberg was deeply aware that she was a woman working at a moment when women’s opportunities were changing at a clip pace. “The finest thing about my job” she explained, was that she was working for a party and a man who supported the growing role of women in the public sphere – the first woman to serve a cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield, was appointed under MacDonald. Rosenberg believed that “women could wield an enormous influence for good, politically and socially.” She saw herself, in her own small way, as working for the common good. That, in my mind, makes her a Jewess with Attitude that we can continue to admire almost a century later.

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Woman with Underwood Typewriter circa 1918
Full image
A woman sits with Underwood typewriter circa 1918.
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.
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How to cite this page

Kirzane, Jessica. "Rose Rosenberg: A Young Jewish Woman Behind the Scenes of No.10 Downing Street." 19 February 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 16, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/rose-rosenberg-young-jewish-woman-behind-scenes-of-no10-downing-street>.

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