American Jewish Women
Jewish women first arrived in North America in 1654 when a boatload of refugees —
four women, six men, and thirteen children — fleeing Dutch Brazil after its reconquest by the Portuguese landed in New Amsterdam, now
New York City. Most of the refugees, known as Sephardim (the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and
1497, respectively), returned to Holland or sailed for the West Indies or Suriname when they were unable to maintain a viable community of their own in
New Amsterdam. Nevertheless, by the eve of the American Revolution,
about twenty-five hundred Jews were in the American colonies, many of
them merchant families clustered in six eastern port cities. It was
another two generations, and with a steady infusion of immigrants, before
Jewish communal life in New York and the other cities became firmly
In this period, the typical Jewish woman, sometimes
herself a seamstress, was the wife of a craftsman or storekeeper. Perhaps
involved in the family business, she most likely kept a home where the
dietary laws were observed. Almost always literate, an important skill
in a family enterprise, these women were barely visible in early American
Jewish communal and religious life and publications. Public Judaism was reserved for males. Women expressed their religion in the home as
the keepers of the spiritual legacy and then publicly as the founders
of associations such as the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society established
in 1819 or the first Hebrew Sunday School dating from 1838, both in
An exception — like poet Emma
Lazarus — was writer Penina
Moise, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, her entire life.
Moise wrote 180 of the 210 hymns that appear in Hymns Written for
the Use of Hebrew Congregations.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class
women played an increasingly active role in philanthropic life, both
Jewish and gentile, while upholding the “cult of true womanhood.”
They embodied the role of pure and pious homemakers who stressed the
ethical, rather than the ritual and ceremonial. In the twentieth century,
the new American Jewish woman, primarily of German descent, sought higher
education, other ways to express her Judaism,
and solutions to the challenges of the Progressive Era. The National
Council of Jewish Women, founded by Hannah
G. Solomon (1858-1942) at the World's Parliament of Religions in
Chicago in 1893, created mission schools and settlement houses and provided
aid for newly arrived Jewish immigrant women and children (see Labor
and Progressive Reform Organizations in the Manuscript section). Between
1881 and 1921 more than two million Jewish immigrants came to the United
States, most often in family units.
By 1920, Jewish women of Eastern European heritage
and their American-born children outnumbered Central European Jewish
immigrants and their native American Jewish children by five to one.
Concentrated in the large urban centers, hundreds of thousands of these
female immigrants made a living in the garment industry and sweatshops,
as reflected in the photographs and field reports of reformer Lewis
Hines (see Prints and Photographs Images from Organizations' Records).
Many of their daughters who took advantage of public schools and higher
education became teachers and others became physicians, dentists, or
lawyers. Other first-generation Jewish women became union leaders and
Five playscripts written by the Socialist reformer,
lecturer, and labor agitator Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), who was
on the staff of the New York Yidishes tageblatt (Jewish daily
news), are in the [Library of Congress] Manuscript Division, as is a
collection of sixteen items from social worker Pauline Goldmark (1874-1962),
who was an executive of the New York office of the National Consumers'
League. Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972), Jewish labor organizer, socialist, and suffragist, was
president of the National Women's Trade Union League of America from
1927 to 1947 and went on to serve in government positions for the cause
of labor. Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the outstanding woman radical in the Jewish community who
spoke out against social injustice for half a century, helped edit an
anarchist journal. She is the best-known Jewish woman represented in
the Anarchism Collection and in the anarchism materials in the Paul
Avrich Collection (RBSC). Deported to Russia with others during the 1919 Red Scare in America, she fled the Soviet
regime and lived in exile in Canada. Upon her death, however, the United
States government allowed her to be buried in Chicago, close to the
graves of the men executed in 1886 for the Haymarket killings. Political
activist Mollie Steimer (1897-1980) is represented in the Paul Avrich
Collection as well. The stage and screen also attracted Jewish women
to the spotlight, first as stars of the Yiddish theater and film and then on the national scene.
Still, marriage was all-important to most American Jewish women, and careers outside
the home for middle-class women were not the norm. The lives of Jewish
homemakers were filled with child rearing, local female mutual-aid societies,
and involvement in religious life, primarily through synagogue auxiliaries
and national Jewish women's groups such as Hadassah, a Zionist organization, or the National Council of Jewish Women.
American Jewish women began to find new voices at the
same time that Americans responded to Betty Friedan's The Feminine
Mystique, which appeared in 1963. Some participated in campus upheavals,
civil rights marches, and protests against the war in Vietnam. The women's
liberation movement also appealed to many American Jewish women. They
entered the Reform and Conservative rabbinate and sought parity with men in religious life, while Orthodox women began to learn traditional texts generally reserved for men. Today
Jewish women are academic scholars, politicians, Nobel
Prize-winners, and astronauts.
The [Library of Congress] Manuscript Division, for
example, holds the papers of the political philosopher, writer, and
lecturer Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who wrote widely on Jewish affairs and totalitarianism
and on the Jewish response to the Holocaust,
and of current Supreme Court Justice Ruth
Bader Ginsburg (b. 1933).
Currently, the Jewish
population of the United States numbers close to six million individuals.
Jewish women in this cohort continue to adapt to change and challenge
even as they seek new ways to maintain their Jewish identities. Sources
on these women are abundant throughout the Library of Congress and may
be found as part of collections discussed throughout this guide, through
catalog searches by individual name or organization, and through the
use of selected reference tools that yield relevant information. In
all cases, as perhaps nowhere else, the immensity and range of the Library's
resources can be used, to synthesize an understanding of American Jewish
women within the broader society.