February 15 marks the bicentenary of the American social reformer Susan B. Anthony. Deemed an “incomparable organizer” by historian Eleanor Flexner Anthony grew up in a Quaker family that possessed only a handful of history books. Yet these included two different editions, in two and six volumes respectively, of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote during the reign of the Roman emperor Flavius Domitian to explain Jewish history to non-Jewish readers.
Awareness of Jewish history was part of her upbringing, as Anthony fought to abolish slavery and promote equal rights for women and African Americans. In 1876, Anthony and colleagues began work on what became a massive six-volume “History of Woman Suffrage,” in which public speeches are quoted referring to Jews in traditionally pejorative terms, but also from more enlightened, progressive points of view.
One reason that Anthony never echoed the occasional anti-Semitic comments of her abolitionist colleagues was her intense admiration for a women’s rights predecessor, Ernestine Rose (1810-1892.
Born in Piotrków Trybunalski, Russian Poland, Rose, the daughter of a rabbi who taught her Talmud, arrived in America in 1836, where she soon galvanized audiences with vivid speeches on married women’s property rights and woman suffrage.
Rose had powerful chutzpah and a continental allure. She also was vehemently independent-minded; Rose rejected all religion, profoundly annoyed by the Orthodox prayer for males: “I thank thee, Lord, that Thou hast not created me a woman.”
After leaving Poland, she traveled through Europe, encountering the noted Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, himself reported to be of Jewish ancestry, in 1829.
When Rose reached America, her activism predated the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, usually considered the birthplace of America’s woman’s rights movement. Ideological opponents and even allies were quick to denigrate Rose’s Jewish background, as her biographer Bonnie S. Anderson noted, but Anthony was not among them.
In 1854, the American suffragist Lucy Stone wrote to Anthony to complain that Rose was“avaricious” and her “face… so essentially Jewish” that she was unfit as a representative of women’s rights. Anthony ignored such caveats and displayed a portrait photo of Rose on the wall of her study alongside other women she admired, likening her to the 18th century English advocate for women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft.
The self-confessedly prosaic-minded Anthony relished the poetic flair in Rose’s speeches which also appealed to an early biographer, the Galician Jewish poet and novelist M. A. Sul (1908-1986) who published Yiddish poems with the pen name Yuri Suhl. Suhl produced a reverent semi-fictional life of Rose on commission from Morris Schappes (born Moishe ben Haim Shapshilevich), editor of “Jewish Currents.”
Rose, a non-believer who referred to herself as an “infidel,” countered anti-Semitic arguments when they appeared in such atheist periodicals as “The Boston Investigator.” Allergic to self-promotion even for the sake of posterity, in that respect Rose was entirely unlike Anthony.
At the Third National Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York in 1852, Rose was introduced to the crowd by the Quaker Lucretia Mott as “a Polish Lady and educated in the Jewish faith.”
At the time, Jews were few in America, so Judaism retained an exotic Old Testament allure. In 1868, “The New York Independent” termed the staunchly Protestant minister Parker Pillsbury, an advocate for abolition and women’s rights, a “sombre Hebrew, bound back to Jerusalem,” because of the granitic way that he expressed his views.
At the 1852 convention, Rose described herself as a “daughter of poor, crushed Poland, and the downtrodden and persecuted people called the Jews, a ‘child of Israel’ [who] pleads for the equal rights of her sex.” Rose’s impact was such that the presence of Jews may have seemed de rigueur at such events; in 1893, the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones wrote to Anthony suggesting that “perhaps a Jewess” should be included among the discussants at an upcoming Liberal Religious Congress.
As Lillian Faderman’s “To Believe in Women” notes, an even more intimate friend of Anthony’s was Emily Gross, identified as a “Jewess” by one biographer. Wife of a wealthy Chicago businessman, Gross showered Anthony with gifts and paid for the education of her nephew and niece.
Jewish support for Anthony’s campaigns arrived even from quasi-anonymous sources. One now-forgotten speaker in March 1863, identified in “History of Woman Suffrage” only as “Mrs. Chalkstone of California,” addressed the audience as a German émigrée and mother of a Union soldier: “It took eighteen hundred years in Europe to emancipate the Jews, and they are not emancipated now. Among great and intelligent peoples like Germany and France, until 1814 no Jew had the right to go on the pavement; they had to go in the middle of the street, where the horses walked.”
On tours to California, speaking for women’s suffrage, Anthony would address audiences at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, where in 1884 Julie Eichberg Rosewald became America’s first female cantor.
In San Diego, she was presented with a bouquet of pink roses by a local Jewish women’s group. At these and other events, Anthony included mention of the Jews as an aspect of the universal reach of her ambitions for the advancement of human rights.
Even on trial in U.S. federal court in 1873 after being arrested for voting in Rochester, New York in the 1872 elections, she evoked the Jews, telling the courtroom: “If Jewish women had had a voice in framing Jewish laws, would the husband, at his own pleasure, have been allowed to ‘write his wife a bill of divorcement and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house?”
Anthony was further reminded of Yiddishkeit in 1897, on the occasion of her 77th birthday celebrations in Rochester, New York, when the local Jewish Council and Sisterhood of Berith Kodesh, participated. She wrote to the former association: “I was glad at the answer one of your women made to the criticism of your holding a meeting on Sunday. It is time to teach some of our Protestant women that it is just as worthy to do a good thing on Sunday as on Monday or any other day in the week, and no worse to do a bad one. They should learn also that they have no more right to ask you to hold their Sunday sacred than you have to demand that they shall observe your Jewish Sabbath.”
Anthony was accompanied by such strong advocates as Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, (1858-1942) a Chicago clubwoman and welfare worker, who went with Anthony to Berlin in 1904 to attend an International Council of Women meeting. Fannie Rosenberg Bigelow (1861-1937), president of the Rochester section of the National Council of Jewish Women, was another reliable ally.
Of all of these sisters in spirit, Anthony wrote most ardently in “History of Woman Suffrage” of Rose, a “noble Polish woman… [who] not only dealt in abstract principles clearly, but in their application touched the deepest emotions of the human soul.”