A community slow to change

The history of Jewish women can shed new light on the history of Jewish men, and the community as a whole, writes Dr Anne Summers

July 10, 2017 12:11

Here are two statements in the JC, 80 years apart. One is from Ella Rose, director of the Jewish Labour Movement, who said in April: “I firmly believe the community is 20 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to feminism.” The other, from May 1937, is from Henrietta Adler, daughter of a Chief Rabbi, and former Deputy Leader of London County Council, who said that women were still barred from Synagogue Boards of Management: “On account of the views of certain antiquated gentlemen”.

Feminism is not a movement foreign to Anglo-Jewry but “in each generation” women have felt they were starting from scratch. Here’s an illustration from our history.

At a late stage in the campaign for the female vote, between 1909 and 1912, specifically religious leagues for woman suffrage emerged. The Jewish League, the last to be formed, was seen as one of an assembly of equals. It’s an interesting reflection on British liberal culture that this was the only country where a Jewish suffrage league existed — where Jews participated as Jews — while also being fully accepted in secular suffrage organisations.

All religious leagues belonged to the non-militant wing of the movement and admitted men, including clergy, as members. They held interfaith meetings for prayer and protest, and the warmth of collegiality, particularly between Jewish and Nonconformist groups, is striking. In addition to the vote, they demanded a greater degree of equality within their respective congregations. None demanded a role in religious ministry.

The Jewish League’s key demand was for a synagogue’s female seatholders (subscribing members in their own right) to have the vote on synagogue management. They hoped to alter the Act of Parliament governing the United Synagogue by the omission of the word ‘male’ from Clause 42 —meaning that women would then be enabled to vote at synagogue elections.

The Church of England League, similarly, wanted women to vote and serve on equal terms on parish councils and parochial church councils. Their demand was granted in 1914 and, in 1919, the Church abolished the barrier to membership of higher councils. By contrast, by 1914, the Council of the United Synagogue had debated, and rejected, the demand for the female seatholder vote. A few individual synagogues (West London, New West End, Brondesbury) had already made this reform, and the Great Synagogue, Borough Synagogue, North London, Hammersmith and Hampstead did so in 1914 in direct response to the League’s demand. In 1919, the ultra-respectable, non-political Union of Jewish Women formed a sub-committee to campaign for this reform nationwide. Seatholder voting was finally granted in 1954. Meanwhile, a successor organisation, formed in 1922 principally to campaign for reform of Orthodox divorce law, awaits its breakthrough nearly a century on.

Founder members of the Jewish League included Henrietta Adler, Gertrude Spielman, Nina Davis Salaman, and many members of the Franklin and Montagu families.

They aspired to rights which most women aspire to, or take for granted, today. Within this “cousinhood” an interesting anomaly emerged: while Jewish sons went into the family bank or business, their sisters often received a more liberal education, accessing a broad range of social networks and experiences in the wider, non-Jewish world.

Adler, for example, was regularly in touch and co-operating with Christian colleagues on school boards, care committees, and in after-hours provision for schoolchildren, the springboard for her local political activities. Lily Montagu, daughter of Whitechapel MP Samuel Montagu, was consulted as a national authority on working girls’ clubs. Her older sister, Henrietta Franklin, was actively involved in Millicent Fawcett’s national non-militant suffrage campaign. All were in touch with Christian counterparts whose expectations of agency and equality exceeded the norms of Anglo-Jewry.

Jewish women were accepted as equals, and their achievements validated in the outside world — but not at home. None could be leaders in mainstream Anglo-Jewry. As is well known, Lily Montagu and her sisters were founders of the Liberal Synagogue in 1911; this raises the question whether, if more synagogues had been open to women’s modest demands at the time, the Liberal and Reform movements would have gained much traction in Britain. The history of Jewish women can shed new light on the history of Jewish men, and the community as a whole. It’s time to revisit the past.

Dr Anne Summers is the author of ‘Christian and Jewish Women in Britain, 1880-1940: Living with Difference’ (Palgrave Macmillan), available from both Josephs Bookstore and Pages of Hackney at the special price of £34.99.

July 10, 2017 12:11

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