Jewish Women’s Lives in Context

New from historian Pamela Nadell, a book you should know about, before we tell Women’s History Month good-bye.

By Sue Tomchin


America's Jewish Women cover image.jpg

When I read Pamela Nadel’s new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today (Norton) I finally understood my late mother.

I finally understood the challenges she faced and the strength it took to become the first girl in a large extended immigrant family to go to college; I understood what a bold move it was for a young woman from a traditional family to work for a defense contractor during World War II; and I understood how conflicted she must have felt to put aside her independence and embrace the role of stay-at-home mom in a 1950s marriage.

You may think that kind of understanding is beyond the scope of a book, but, whether you are a Gen Xer, a Millennial, or, like me, a Baby Boomer, this book is a revelation, offering a well of insights about how our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers lived.

In writing her book, Nadell, the Patrick Clendenen chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of Jewish Studies at American University, draws on the vast body of research that has emerged over recent decades as feminist historians delved into the lives of women previously obscured by a male-centric view of the past which relegated women to the role of “appendages to famous men.”

“I came to AU in 1982,” Nadell told me in a recent phone interview. “That was really the beginning of women’s history becoming a serious academic subject, especially the beginning of Jewish women’s history becoming a serious academic subject.”

America’s Jewish Women was published this month to coincide with Women’s History Month, which exists, Nadell informs us, because writer, scholar, and activist Gerda Lerner, who escaped the Nazis and came to America, lobbied her adopted country to designate a week each year recognizing women’s role in history. In 1987, Congress made March Women’s History Month.

While grounded in solid academic research, the book is both accessible and readable, even if fiction is your usual fare. Her draft of the book was substantially longer than its current length of 262 pages, Nadell said, but she and her editor at Norton made the decision to carefully limit what was included in order to keep its length from becoming too imposing.

“The reality is that even if I had written a 500-600 page book, which frankly nobody would ever read, [there was so much material] I still would have had to make incredibly difficult choices,” Nadell told me.

She doesn’t regret her decision to limit the book’s length despite the fact that she was unable to include an extensive amount of research (including, she said, a significant amount of material on JWI and its predecessor, B’nai B’rith Women, although they are still mentioned a couple of times).

“I think there is a tremendous value in being able to distill a very big history into something that can be read by a larger audience,” Nadell said.

Nadell casts a wide net, depicting Jewish women in all their infinite variety: religious and secular; wealthy and working class; native born and immigrant; matron and businesswoman; married and single.

Her subjects are, she writes in her introduction, “Jewish women who made homes in colonial seaports, frontier towns, urban ghettos, and suburban streets, whose lives were most closely bound up with family, neighborhood, work, and community.”

She places these women within the context of their times, conveying their struggles and their hard-won successes in often inhospitable circumstances. Along the way, she shows how their multiple identities as women, Jews, and Americans informs their activism on such issues as suffrage, reproductive rights, and working conditions; their passion for education and their drive to succeed as entrepreneurs; and their support of Israel and their stands against anti-Semitism and racism.

Such boldface names as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appear in the book. But many more of the women Nadell writes about aren’t particularly  well-known, even though they bravely worked for change in the face of intense societal pressure.

Take Polish-born Jewish immigrant Ernestine Rose, a supporter of rights for both women and African-Americans, who became “the only Jewish woman to win acclaim as a suffragist in her day” and spoke at the Second National Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. She achieved this despite the fact that the women’s movement of her era distanced itself from black and immigrant women for fear of alienating potential supporters of the women’s cause.

In 1909, Clara Lemlich was only 23 when she became a leader in the cause of “industrial feminism,” thanks to an impassioned speech she made in Yiddish that helped spur a massive strike of the shirtwaist makers, many of whom were young single women from immigrant families. The issues they fought for included a 52-hour work week, higher pay, and overtime pay. Their endurance in the nearly three-month long strike “forced union men to reassess their attitudes toward workingwomen,” Nadell writes.

Hannah Bachman Einstein, president of the sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, campaigned for the Widowed Mothers Pension Act, breakthrough 1915 legislation in the state of New York that enabled widowed and abandoned mothers to stay home to care for their children. Previously, mothers were forced by poverty to work long hours and often resorted to putting their children in orphanages because they couldn’t be around to care for them.

And then there’s the fearless Sherri Chessen Finkbine, “Miss Sherri” on the Phoenix edition of the children’s program Romper Room. This mother of four became an outspoken activist for the need for abortion reform. In 1962, she became pregnant with her fifth child. Early in her pregnancy she took Thalidomide for morning sickness, but subsequently learned that the drug had been shown to cause devastating birth deformities. She applied to, and received permission from, her hospital’s medical board for a therapeutic abortion. Hospital administrators, however, refused to allow it, concerned they would run afoul of the law. Finkbine openly told her story to the press, before flying to Sweden, where abortion was legal, to have the procedure. Though fired from her job, she demonstrated to pre-Roe v Wade America the implications of restrictive abortion laws.

Nadell shows how issues that we struggle with today impacted women of earlier generations. Sexual harassment, for example, was, for many decades, “a problem with no name, since the term wasn’t coined until the 1970s,” she said. Yet, “It was definitely a factor for women who were in the workforce in the garment industry and those who were out in the clerical workforce.”

As she explains in the book: “No law protected a sixteen-year-old girl from the foreman who pinched and stroked her body each time he passed, or the co-worker who tickled her and made lewd remarks. Nothing stopped a boss from demanding that a shopgirl go to dinner and spend the night with him at a hotel.”

And as women increasingly sought to control their reproductive lives and limit the size of their families, they had to contend with the Comstock laws. Passed in 1873, these laws made it a crime to sell or distribute materials that could be used for contraception.These laws were not overturned until 1936, when the courts ruled that the government could not interfere with physicians providing contraception. (However, restrictive laws persisted until 1965 when the Supreme Court ruled “that prohibiting contraception violated a constitutional right to marital privacy.”)

Nadell Pamela (c) Sophia Myszkowski

Nadell Pamela (c) Sophia Myszkowski

While abortion had been illegal in most states since the Civil War, it nevertheless became the primary means of birth control from the late 19th into the 20th century.  In the 1890s, Nadell notes, doctors estimated that there were more than 2 million abortions a year.

In the predominately Jewish Lower East Side, women lined up on “Saturday evening outside of the ghetto apartments of the neighborhood’s abortionists,” she writes. Nadell includes a powerful detail from the writer Kate Simon, who recalled in her memoir that her baby sister was born when a “careful doctor” refused to give her mother a fourteenth abortion.

Nadell knows from her classes that many young women regard the rights that we now enjoy as something “we’ve always had….People forget about what the world was like before there were options, before there were choices.”

America’s Jewish Women provides a potent reminder of how far we’ve come and the women who worked so hard to get us here.