- Reviewed by
Melissa Klapper’s Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace provides a compelling and precise navigation through the largely unknown territories of American Jewish women’s social and political activism in the early twentieth century. While historians have focused primarily on American Jewish women’s contribution to the labor movement or to radical movements like socialism and communism, Klapper concentrates on suffrage, birth control and peace, movements in which Jewish women were found [End Page 33] in significant numbers. She argues convincingly that for these women, many of these causes were connected, and that they sprang from deep roots in their Jewish experience, including both the desire for social justice and the wish to acculturate. One of her most intriguing findings is that Jewish women’s activism provided an effective path to social integration into communities of politically active non-Jews, even while their participation in these movements expanded their own Jewish identities. Pathways for Jewish men often differed: Gender mattered.
Focusing on the early feminist movements through the late 1930s, Klapper finds that “thousands and thousands of American Jewish women” engaged in activism, whether as participants or leaders of these three movements, and in the case of birth control as consumers as well. (206) Some became involved through Jewish organizations, like local sisterhoods or chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women; others were affiliated with nonsectarian groups like the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Klapper maintains that these women became activists largely because of their Jewish values and sometimes in spite of their own class privilege or the constraints of religious faith. More surprisingly, very few denied being Jewish when they entered the movements. Klapper finds not dissonance but complementarity between activism and Jewish identity. She suggests that this organic fusion of identities and affiliations was largely a product of the congruence of suffrage, birth control, and peace work with an ideology of maternalism that motivated many Jewish activists.
Nevertheless, Jewish women were often tested by the prejudice they encountered in the movements. By the end of the 1930s, haunted by antisemitism and the peace movement’s failure to take a stand against Nazism, some began to turn their attention away from universalist ideals and toward the protection of Jewish rights, altering their path toward Americanization. Klapper’s story ends at this pivotal moment, but she suggests that the legacy of Jewish women’s activism in the interwar period would have a considerable effect on the social and political movements of the later twentieth century.
Jewish women’s activism in the suffrage, birth control and peace movements made a difference to the larger world and to the Jewish community. Their dynamic leadership improved women’s lives and community well-being in local, national and international arenas. The prominence of Jewish women within the movements generated respect from American women leaders and nonsectarian organizations. Finally, through this work they achieved greater power within the Jewish community, though their influence was never fully realized. On a personal [End Page 34] level, political activism fulfilled a desire for service and provided unusual opportunities for female agency at a time when gender roles were limited.
Klapper’s meticulous research and tightly focused arguments provide a thorough and nuanced portrait of this complex and heretofore muted history. Her analysis takes us behind the scenes of women’s and Jewish organizations, struggling to accomplish their missions in difficult times, while providing the intellectual and political context for their ideas and the collaborations and conflicts that often beset them. She also gives us fine sketches of many leading Jewish women activists, like suffrage leader Maud Nathan, birth-control advocate and physician Hannah Mayer Stone, and peace workers Fanny Fligelman Brin and Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, interweaving their stories with the organizations to which they lent their skills. Her focus on the three movements, with sometimes overlapping actors, allows for a comparison among goals, strategies and achievements, while reinforcing the key point that political...