One of the biggest pleasures in writing American Jewish women’s history is discovering the immensely talented, hardworking, committed women whose activities and beliefs and organizations shaped not only the American Jewish past but the whole social, cultural, political, and religious world we live in today. I decided to begin each of the five chapters of my new book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013) with a biographical sketch of one of these women. All of them were renowned during their own lifetime for their significant contributions to social and political movements; alas, few are known today. For each chapter I had literally dozens of fascinating women upon whom I could have focused. Here are those I ultimately chose to profile.
1. Maud Nathan (1862-1946) took pride in her heritage as the daughter of an elite Sephardic Jewish family. Married to her cousin Frederick Nathan, she was involved in multiple organizations and causes in New York, including the National Consumers’ League and the National Council of Jewish Women. Nathan, a gifted speaker and parliamentarian, earned especial fame for her suffrage activism on both the national and the international stage. She believed that Jewish women had a special civil responsibility that could best be demonstrated through social reform and political participation.
2. Rose Heiman Halpern (1881-1976) immigrated to the United States in 1902 already politically active. After marrying William Halpern, she gave birth to six children in rapid succession and became involved with the American birth control movement from the founding of the first clinic in 1916. Halpern grew close to Margaret Sanger and became an exemplar of a woman who not only used birth control to shape her own life but also remained committed to activism on behalf of the cause for decades.
3. Fanny Fligelman Brin (1884-1961) practically ran the world from the Minneapolis home where she lived with her husband Arthur Brin and three children. Involved in many Jewish and secular causes, she believed especially passionately in world peace, and as a committee chairwoman and then president, she solidified the National Council of Jewish Women’s prominence in the women’s peace movement. Brin earned tremendous recognition in her day and was named one of the most prominent clubwomen in America on a list that also included Eleanor Roosevelt.
4. Hannah Mayer Stone (1893-1941) started her professional life as a pediatrician but made her distinguished reputation in the birth control movement as the longtime medical director of the American Birth Control League. She and her husband, physician Abraham Stone, also pioneered marital counseling. Stone published numerous articles based on clinical contraceptive research, and her untimely death met with an outpouring of appreciation from her colleagues in the birth control movement and medical community.
5. Rebecca Hourwich Reyher (1897-1987), an iconoclastic thinker from her adolescent years, played an active role in the suffrage movement and then threw herself into the peace movement. As a journalist she successfully supported herself, her husband Ferdinand Reyher, and her daughter, and she worked to expand working women’s rights and power. An absolutist, Reyher did not recant her pacifism during World War II and refused to do any war work, directing her time and skills instead to helping Jewish refugees in the United States and Dominican Republic.