In 1973, in her nineties, Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg declared that her eighties had been the best decade of her life. She had published the revised edition of her monumental four-volume The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Child Care and Guidance (1967) and had earned more money than in any previous decade.
Writer and director of the Child Study Association of America from 1923 to 1950, Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg is best known as a leader and publicist in the parent education movement and as an authority in the larger field of child study. She was born on June 10, 1881, near Vienna, Austria, the oldest of four daughters and two sons of Idore and Augusta Olivia (Besseches) Matzner. Her mother was the daughter of a wealthy German Jewish grain exporter. Her father, the son of an Austrian town mayor, was educated at the University of Cracow. The Matzners immigrated to New York in 1895, where they became involved with Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society. Augusta and Idore Matzner had been involved in reform Jewish activities before leaving Europe, and they transferred their reform impulses to the charismatic vision of Felix Adler’s secular humanism.
Sidonie grew up within the decidedly reform atmosphere of the Ethical Culture Workingman’s School and later the Ethical Culture Normal School. She married Benjamin Gruenberg, a biology teacher, in 1903. Her husband also came from an educated Jewish background, and as he was attracted by Adler’s reformist and egalitarian ideas, they both became active in Ethical Culture activities. In 1907, with the birth of her first child, Gruenberg joined the Federation of Child Study, a study club of Ethical Culture mothers, and made it her life’s work. The Gruenbergs had four children: Herbert (b. 1907), Richard (b. 1910), Hilda (b. 1913), and Ernest (b. 1915).
In her first book, Your Child Today and Tomorrow (1913), Gruenberg exhibited her talent for synthesizing the best sources of child development information and translating them into language that parents could understand and trust. The combination of conventional wisdom and new ideas that characterizes this book is found in all her work. We, the Parents (1939), written in the shadow of World War II, won the Parents Magazine award in 1940. Gruenberg recognized the complex needs of modern women and warned mothers to prepare for a number of life stages. “We have to choose not once, but many times and at each stage with the same degree of uncertainty.” Her writing for parents includes twenty-six books, numerous pamphlets, and many articles that appeared in Child Study Magazine and elsewhere.
Before it received substantial financial support from the prestigious Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation in 1923, the Federation for Child Study was subjected to an undercover investigation of its “Jewish leadership.” While the organization had a religiously mixed membership and remained affiliated with its secularized parent organization, the Ethical Culture Society, the Rockefeller Foundation nevertheless perceived it as a Jewish organization and made changing its public image a condition of funding. Gruenberg did not step down, as was suggested, but the newly named Child Study Association of America did hire a non-Jew to be its field representative outside New York City. Gruenberg continued as director until her retirement in 1950.
The Gruenbergs neither denied their Jewish background nor experienced conflict with their Ethical Culture affiliations. Benjamin Gruenberg was involved with various Jewish organizations throughout his life, and during World War II both he and his wife worked to bring German and Austrian relatives out of Europe. Professionally and personally, Gruenberg was largely driven by her beliefs in assimilation, in the era’s progressive views of the behavioral and natural sciences, and in the power of education to improve the lives of parents and children.
Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg died on March 11, 1974, in her home in New York City.
SELECTED WORKS BY SIDONIE MATZNER GRUENBERG
The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Child Care and Guidance. 4 vols. (1954. Rev. ed. 1967); Sons and Daughters (1916); We, the Parents (1939); The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born, with Benjamin Gruenberg (1952. Rev. ed. 1970); Your Child and You (1950); Your Child Today and Tomorrow (1913).
AJYB 24:151; BEOAJ; Gruenberg, Sidonie Matzner. Papers. Benjamin and Sidonie Gruenberg Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and Professional collection. Social Welfare Archive, University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Mainiero, Linda, ed. American Women Writers (1980); NAW modern; Obituary. NYTimes, March 13, 1974, 44:1; UJE; WWIAJ (1938); WWWIA 6.
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Wollons, Roberta. "Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 5, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gruenberg-sidonie-matzner>.