How Jewish suffragettes helped force a radical shift in British politics

By Jennifer Lipman, May 31, 2013
The Suffragette magazine records the death of Emily Davison 100 years ago

The Suffragette magazine records the death of Emily Davison 100 years ago

When Emily Davison was trampled to death by the king’s horse at Epsom on June 4 1913, the JC recorded the death of a “militant suffragette”.

A century later, Davison remains perhaps the most famous figure in the fight for women’s votes. But across Britain, Jewish women and men were playing a crucial role in the movement.

The “Deborahs of the platform”, as the JC described the women, were among the radicals addressing the crowd in Hyde Park at a suffrage meeting in 1907.

“Several Jewish ladies belonging to the teaching profession have entered the fray,” the paper reported.

The campaign had the backing of high-profile Jews, including writer Israel Zangwill, who at one stage refused to speak to the Times because of its attitude towards female suffrage, which was, he said, as reprehensible “as the old treatment of Jews in the newspapers”.

The JC noted that in Zangwill, “Anglo-Jewry has provided the philosophic orator of the movement, one who is a veritable tower of strength to the cause”.

It added that: “Several ladies prominent in Anglo-Jewish society have not hesitated to sacrifice their liberty for the cause”.

In Parliament, Edwin Montagu and Sir Rufus Isaacs were supportive, while one of the few candidates to contest the 1910 general election on a suffragist platform was Jewish, although Herbert Jacobs received only 22 votes for the East St Pancras seat.

In late 1912 the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage was established with the support of the ministers of Hampstead and Sunderland synagogues, who served as vice-presidents.

The organisation, set up “to unite Jewish suffragists of all shades of opinion”, had the additional goal of furthering the status of women in the Jewish community.

Key early members included Edwin Montagu’s sisters Henrietta “Netta” Franklin, later president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and Lily Montagu, the pioneering Liberal Judaism leader.

Their activities pitted them against their cousin Herbert Samuel, who was in government and opposed votes for women at the time.

Samuel’s opposition prompted a trio of suffragettes to bring the campaign into the synagogue during the Yom Kippur service at New West End shul.

“May God forgive Herbert Samuel and Sir Rufus Isaacs for denying freedom to women; may God forgive them for consenting to the torture of women,” they shouted, before being escorted out and detained by police.

But history was on the side of the campaigners. Parliament gave the vote to women over the age of 30 in 1918, and in 1928, full equality with male voters was achieved. By that time, however, the focus of the Jewish community had move on to events going on in Palestine, and the prospect of a Jewish homeland.

Last updated: 9:45am, May 31 2013