Sara Landau was a respected economist who paired her scholarship with inexhaustible volunteerism both in her local community and through national organizations. Landau served briefly as a Red Cross volunteer before earning a master’s degree in economics from the University of Louisville in 1921. She began teaching at the university while still a student, eventually rising to assistant dean of women before resigning in 1928 to protest the president’s anti-Semitism. During this time, she volunteered with new immigrants, teaching English and citizenship. She briefly headed the department of economics and sociology at Wheaton College before returning to Louisville, where she wrote articles, book reviews, and plays. At age 85 she was still active in her work as president of the Women’s Overseas Service League.
“I’m determined to amount to more than one row of pins some day,” Sara Landau wrote in her diary in 1912, and by the time she died three-quarters of a century later, she had indeed earned a reputation as a talented economist, a devoted teacher, and a tireless community activist.
Sara Landau was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 4, 1890, to Morris (Fred) and Frieda (Shapiro) Landau, who had married in Poland before coming to America in the early 1880s. Sara was the first surviving child of the Landaus, who later had two other daughters, Minnie and Mathilda. She spent part of her early life in Louisiana, graduating from high school in Crowley in 1906, attending Southwest Industrial Institute in Lafayette, and teaching business courses for several years. Around 1914, she and her family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where her father operated a boys’ clothing factory until the Depression of the 1930s.
In Kentucky, Landau continued her formal education. She graduated from the Bowling Green Business University in 1916 and, after interrupting her studies to serve as a Red Cross volunteer in France in 1918–1919, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville in 1920 and a master’s degree in economics from the same institution in 1921.
While still a student, Landau began teaching at the University of Louisville, and continued on the faculty after earning her master’s degree, taking a leave from 1924 to 1926 to pursue doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, although she never completed her Ph.D. She was promoted from instructor to assistant professor at the University of Louisville in 1926 and to associate professor in 1927. She also served as the assistant dean of women at the university. In 1928, she resigned from the university in protest against the actions of university president George Colvin, which were perceived by many as anti-Semitic and which prompted the departure of history professor Louis Gottschalk. Throughout the 1920s, Landau was also active in community affairs. She taught English and citizenship to newcomers, worked with young women at the Louisville YMHA, and met immigrants at the New York docks on behalf of the National Council of Jewish Women.
After leaving Louisville, Laudau became a teaching fellow at the University of Chicago, and then headed the department of economics and sociology at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. In 1931, she returned to Louisville, where she managed some of her family’s affairs, held several government jobs, and again became active in several service organizations. At a time when only about one in five college teachers was a woman, Landau’s achievements as a university professor and community volunteer led to her inclusion in Who’s Who in American Jewry in both 1928 and 1938.
Teaching and Service
During World War II, Landau held research positions with various government agencies in Washington, D.C., and a number of college teaching posts in Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. In 1946, she joined the faculty of the newly established Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she remained until 1954. After her retirement, she returned to Louisville for good, although she did accept invitations to offer courses at Berea College in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Even in retirement, Landau was a civic activist and a prolific writer. At age eighty-five, she became president of the Women’s Overseas Service League, an organization of World War I volunteers. Throughout her life, she wrote articles, book reviews, plays, and hundreds of letters, many to political figures. She also produced a primer on economics for women, which she attempted on several occasions to publish. She traveled widely, visiting Japan, Holland, and Iceland as early as 1913, and embarking on a year-long world tour by freighter and steamer in 1960.
In 1980, she received the Louisville Jewish Community Center’s prestigious Ottenheimer Award, a prize named for its donor, Blanche B. Ottenheimer (one of Landau’s mentors), and bestowed annually for contributions in the field of human relations. Sara Landau died in Louisville on September 17, 1986, survived by her sister Mathilda. Landau represented a whole category of economically independent middle-class Jewish women in twentieth-century America who both developed their own careers and devoted their energy to volunteer efforts, especially on behalf of their fellow Jews.
Landau, Herman. Adath Louisville: The Story of a Jewish Community (1981).
Landau, Sara. Papers. University of Louisville Archives.
Schiavone, Colleen, et al. Sara Landau Papers (1991).
WWIAJ (1928, 1938).