100 Years On: The Jewish Suffragists Who Helped Women Win the Right to Vote

While there was occasional pushback against the anti-Semitism, these Jewish suffragists had their eye on the prize.
August 14, 2020
Photograph of (left to right) Alice Paul, Sue White, Florence Boeckel, Anita Pollitzer (center, holding hat), Mary Winsor, Sophie Meredith, and Mrs. Richard Wainwright of the National Woman’s Party standing on front steps in front of new national headquarters building, across from the U.S. capitol in May 1922; Public Domain

Aug. 18 marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Certified on Aug. 26, 1920, it was the culmination of a 72-year battle beginning with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York, where the women’s suffrage movement was launched. 

Since the Colonial period, married women were legally nonentities under the coverture laws. Their property, wages and custody of children were controlled by their husbands. They didn’t have the right to sue or to sign a contract.

Suffragists understood that the vote was key to achieving equality. They endured ridicule, imprisonment and violence in their struggle. Nevertheless, they persisted until enfranchisement was won. Unfortunately, from Jim Crow laws of the past to the more recent purging of voter rolls, the right to vote has been challenged through the years and continues to this day.

“During this pandemic, obstacles to voting by mail are a form of voter suppression,” Ellen Carol DuBois, UCLA History and Gender Studies professor emeritus whose most recent book is “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote,” told the Journal. “Because women usually change their names when they marry and tend to work longer hours, voter ID laws and confining when and how people can vote hurt women in particular.” 

While Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth are some of the more celebrated suffragists, there’s a long list of important but lesser-known activists, including Jewish women. Among them were Gloria Steinem’s grandmother Pauline Perlmutter Steinem — Toledo’s first female elected official; Rose Schneiderman — New York City factory worker turned trade union leader; and Montana’s Belle Fligelman Winestine — aide to the first Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin. 

“Social justice is one of the foundations of our tradition,” Sally Priesand, the first female ordained rabbi in America, told the Journal. “Anyone raised with Jewish values knows the importance of tikkun olam. I’d like to think that Jewish suffragists were inspired by their religious background.”

Although suffragists filled their ranks, not all Jewish women’s groups, such as the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), formally supported the 19th Amendment. (Suffragist leaders were invited to speak at NCJW conventions, however, and several chapters held pro-suffrage programs and donated money to suffrage groups.) Hadassah, founded in 1912, took six years to get on board and send a pro-ratification telegram to President Woodrow Wilson.

Anti-Semitism within the suffrage movement, where leadership was overwhelmingly white and Protestant, might have been one reason some groups hesitated.

Still, Jewish women were accepted in mainstream suffrage organizations (unlike their African American sisters, who largely were excluded and formed separate clubs). And while there was occasional pushback against the anti-Semitism, Jewish suffragists were committed to working for the cause despite leaders who made bigoted remarks. Above all, they had their eye on the prize.

Here’s a closer look at four Jewish suffrage heroines:


circa 1860: Ernestine Louise Rose (1810-1892). Polish born reformer. Only child of a rabbi, 1826, age 16, fought in Polish courts her arranged betrothal, lived alone in Berlin from age 17, supported herself inventing & selling perfumed paper. Settled in England ’29, became friend & follower of utopian socialist, Robert Owen, married William E. Rose & they lived in US from ’36. Worked & lectured with Susan B. Anthony and others for women’s rights. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

ERNESTINE ROSE (1810-1892)

Long before Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, there was Ernestine Rose, considered the first Jewish feminist. And she had chutzpah (the good kind).

Born in Poland, Rose was educated in religious studies by her father, a rabbi.

After her mother died, her father arranged a marriage without the 16-year old’s consent. The contract included a clause forfeiting the inheritance from her mother to her fiancé if she backed out. Alone, in the dead of winter, the young girl made her way to a civil court to sue and — she won. 

“She reminded me of the biblical daughters of Zelophehad, who successfully stood up for their inheritance rights,” Priesand said. “It shows that change comes about when those discriminated against demand it.”

Before she left home at 17, Rose gave most of the money to her father and used the earnings from her invention of a room deodorizer to help pay for her travels throughout Europe. In London, she became a follower of Robert Owen, a utopian socialist, and married fellow Owenite William Rose.

Soon after the couple settled in New York City in 1836, Rose submitted a petition to the state legislature in support of women’s property rights. Canvassing lower Manhattan, she managed to persuade only five people to sign, but that didn’t stop her. It was the first petition in New York by a woman and for women. Perhaps galvanized by her own inheritance fight, she devoted herself to the cause until these rights were secured.

“Social justice is one of the foundations of our tradition. Anyone raised with Jewish values knows the importance of tikkun olam. I’d like to think that Jewish suffragists were inspired by their religious background.” — Rabbi Sally Priesand

Rose was a Jewish atheist, an immigrant with an accent, whose first language was not English. Yet she was a brilliant orator and became a sought-after speaker on abolition, education, religious freedom and women’s rights — earning her the title “Queen of the Platform.” Susan B. Anthony was an admirer, and they went on lecture tours together.

A leader in the suffrage movement, Rose attended numerous conferences and served as president of the 1854 National Women’s Rights Convention. She believed women’s rights should not be predicated on the Bible but instead on the inalienable rights of humankind. Additionally, DuBois explained, for Rose, the point wasn’t to figure out what God wanted but instead to determine what actions people should take to achieve social justice.

DuBois pointed out that Judaism is a religion of law whereas Christianity is one of creed, and Rose, educated in the Torah and Talmud, stressed law as central to reaching gender equality. “On the issue of marriage, crucial to the denial of equal rights for women, Rose thought it should be a legal contract rather than a holy sacrament,” said Dubois, who also is a board member of the Ernestine Rose Society.

In a religious Christian America, Rose’s message sometimes was met with jeers and threats. She never wavered. She had disavowed Judaism and all religion, but when the editor of a free-thought newspaper wrote a series of editorials attacking Jews, she was quick to respond in defense of the Jewish people. 

In 1869, the Roses returned to England, where they lived out their final years.

Anthony recognized Rose as one of three foremothers of the suffrage movement and hung her picture on her wall.

Priesand recalled reading an editorial written during the trailblazer’s lifetime: “It said talking about suffragists without mentioning Ernestine Rose is like doing the play ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet.”

Selina Solomons’ “How We Won The Vote” Photo by Wikimedia Commons


There were two approaches to winning the vote for women: a nationwide push and a state-by-state fight. Selina Solomons was a key player in the California campaign. The oldest of seven, Solomons came from a San Francisco middle-class family of community leaders. 

Her mother, Hannah Marks Solomons, was a well-known educator, and her father, Gershom Mendes Seixas Solomons, was one of the founders of San Francisco’s 

Congregation Emanu-El. His was from a distinguished Sephardic family that included his grandfather, Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first American-born Jewish leader of a congregation. Seixas was known as the “Patriot Rabbi” because of his stance on the Revolutionary War and was invited to participate in George Washington’s first inauguration.

An upstanding citizen in public, behind closed doors Selina’s father was addicted to absinthe and ultimately left the family. Despite the setback, the children went on to become leaders in their fields, including Adele, a child psychiatrist, and Theodore, an explorer.

Solomons’ passion was women’s rights, and as the author of “How We Won the Vote in California: A True Story of the Campaign of 1911,” she became the foremost chronicler of the California women’s fight for the vote.

Selina Solomons’ passion was women’s rights, and as the author of “How We Won the Vote in California: A True Story of the Campaign of 1911,” she became the foremost chronicler of the California women’s fight for the vote.

California suffragists lost their first campaign in 1896. In 1910, progressive Republicans had come to power, and in early 1911, the suffragists successfully lobbied them to place a referendum before the voters. With only eight months to organize, they adjusted their strategy.

The earlier proposition fared poorly in Northern California, so they focused on Southern California. The liquor industry, powerful opponents, campaigned in the cities, so they concentrated on the rural areas.

Solomons wrote in her book, “Automobile tours were conducted … throughout the interior. The College League had a special car called the Blue Liner, which held college girls who performed various ‘suffrage stunts’ for the edification … of the country-folk.” Coeds and cars, a novelty at the time, attracted the suffragists’ target audience — male voters.

The women mounted a publicity blitz, flooding the public with billboards, posters and handbills. “California Women Win the Vote!” a film by Martha Wheelock and Marita Simpson, described suffragists throwing flyers from a hot air balloon over a Los Angeles park.

There were parades, pageants and plays, including Solomons’ “The Girl From Colorado,” which according to The San Francisco Call newspaper, was “the first suffrage drama to have been written by the California advocates of political equality.”

Solomons had her own take on one of the reasons the 1896 campaign failed: The women’s clubs, dominated by elites, never reached out to working women. New recruits were needed, and what better way to a woman’s heart than through her stomach.

In 1910, Solomons opened the Votes-for-Women Club, where shop girls and shoppers alike were served a nutritious meal — a nickel a dish — with a generous helping of suffrage literature, lectures and entertainment. She hoped those who came to eat would stay to organize for the vote. Many did.

Solomons spearheaded the precinct campaign, walking in previously ignored working-class neighborhoods. Alerting the press ahead of time, she also staged a protest with club members at the voter registrar’s office that displayed the placard: “All Citizens Must Register.” Denied their request to register, the women demanded to know whether or not they were citizens. Stunts like these demonstrated to the public how absurd it was to deny women the vote.

The suffragists’ efforts were rewarded. On Oct. 10, 1911, Proposition 4 passed by an average of one vote per precinct. California became the sixth state to enfranchise women and that state’s campaign became a standard for other states. Was Solomons’ club the model for the Suffrage Cafeteria that later opened in New York City? It’s possible, filmmaker Wheelock said: “I think it’s safe to say her book was informative to the East Coast campaigns.”

The San Francisco Call reported on a Thanksgiving victory banquet held at the Hotel Bellevue. Male speakers were mansplaining how women should use their newly won vote. According to the paper, the mayor of Berkeley “made a stirring appeal to attack the problems of politics as women, with the mother instinct dominant.” In her speech, suffrage leader Lillian Harris Coffin responded, “I think we women have learned what the ballot is.”

Solomons captured how most of the suffragists felt when she told the dinner guests: “October 10 was the greatest day of my life, in the life of my city, of my state, I might say, of the world.”

Maud Nathan; Photo by Wikimedia Commons

MAUD NATHAN (1862-1946) 

A personal tragedy set New York City socialite Maud Nathan on the path to becoming a champion of suffrage.

She was a descendant of pre-Revolutionary War Sephardic Jews, who founded America’s first synagogue, Shearith Israel, in 1654. Many notable names on the family tree include Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, poet Emma Lazarus and great-grandfather Gershom Mendes Seixas — the same great-grandfather of Selina Solomons.

Wealth and a distinguished family didn’t shield Nathan and her siblings from a painful childhood. When their father lost his fortune in the economic crash of 1873, the family moved to Wisconsin. The transition didn’t go well, and the father returned to New York. After their mother committed suicide in 1878, the children moved back with their father.

At 17, Nathan married her wealthy, 35-year old first cousin, Frederick Nathan, and began the life of a society wife. When their only daughter died at the age of 8 in 1895, Nathan’s friend suggested she pour her energies into social activism to overcome her inconsolable grief. Nathan became involved in several community-minded organizations, most notably the Consumers’ League of New York, which strived to improve the working conditions of women in stores and factories. She served as its president for 20 years.

Nathan, who started the Sisterhood of Shearith Israel in 1896, a year later became the first woman to address an American synagogue (Shearith Israel). Her talk urged congregants to fight racism and social injustice.

“[An editorial] said talking about suffragists without mentioning Ernestine Rose is like doing the play ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet.” — Rabbi Sally Priesand

When lobbying the state legislature on behalf of working women, Nathan realized she wasn’t taken seriously because she couldn’t vote. She then turned her attention to suffrage and joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and later, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA).

A gifted speaker (in several languages) and a prolific writer, contributing articles and letters to the editor published in leading publications, Nathan was a powerful advocate. A talented organizer, she came up with the idea of the 24-hour speech marathon given by a tag-team of suffragists in the most populated areas of the city.

She participated in demonstrations and marches, always fashionably dressed to counter the “mannish” suffragist stereotype. Her husband heartily supported her cause. One of the founders of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, he was derisively called “Mr. Maud Nathan” by reporters.

President Wilson praised her eloquence, and in 1912,  Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for president that year on the National Progressive Party ticket, appointed her the head of the suffrage committee of his party.

As public as Nathan was on the side of suffrage, her younger sister Annie Nathan Meyer, was just as vocal against it. They weren’t Cain and Abel exactly, but the enmity between them was palpable and amplified by the press. 

Meyer’s position was perplexing, given she was a founder of Barnard College, a women’s school. But to Meyer, motherhood was a protected class, and she objected to the argument that suffrage would cure the nation’s problems. 

Some historians question Meyer’s sincerity and speculate she simply was jealous of her sister’s prominence. After all, when the 19th Amendment was adopted, Meyer joined the League of Women Voters. Their rivalry, however, is emblematic of how controversial suffrage was — pitting sister against sister.

Anita Pollitzer; Photo by Wikimedia Commons


The Pollitzers of Charleston, S.C., were active members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the birthplace of American Reform Judaism. Civic engagement was part of the family DNA. All three Pollitzer sisters were suffragists, but it was the youngest, Anita, who rose to national leadership.

Majoring in art and education, Pollitzer befriended fellow student Georgia O’Keeffe at Columbia University and introduced her work to photographer Alfred Stieglitz — changing the art world forever. (Pollitzer later wrote a memoir about her friend, which was published posthumously.)

Pollitzer put aside her own art career after graduating in 1916 to join the National Woman’s Party (NWP), considered the “militant” wing of the movement and headed by Alice Paul.

Paul had made her mark when she, along with Lucy Burns, organized the 1913 suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with thousands participating. It was the first-ever major march on Washington, D.C. 

While NAWSA, under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, followed the two-prong strategy for winning the vote, the NWP was laser focused on passing a federal amendment. Suffragists from both groups lobbied Congress for its needed two-thirds approval of the measure.

Paul shook things up further by picketing the White House — another first. 

For two years starting in 1917, through World War I and — like Black Lives Matter protests — during a pandemic, the “Silent Sentinels” quietly held placards targeting President Wilson, who refused to endorse the amendment. They were heckled, assaulted, jailed and, during hunger strikes, force-fed. 

In 1918, Pollitzer was one of these brave “Silent Sentinels” on the Capitol steps, protesting the Senate’s failure to act on the suffrage amendment. (The House of Representatives had already passed the measure in January.) Pollitzer and her cohorts were pushed, shaken and roughly yanked down the steps by the police. They were arrested but didn’t serve time.

“The petite [Anita] Pollitzer might appear an ingenue, but gullibility was not one of her traits, and gumption was. The combination of a vivacious brunette who could knowledgeably talk shop … enchanted more than a few flinty backroom characters ….” — Elaine Weiss in “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote”

Sympathy for the suffragist cause grew after the public learned about the brutal mistreatment of the peaceful protestors. That, plus the help patriotic women gave to the war effort, and Catt’s careful cultivation of President Wilson, prompted him to switch positions and call on Congress to pass the amendment.

Finally, in 1919, both houses of Congress approved the amendment but celebrations would have to wait. To become part of the Constitution, three-quarters of the states now needed to ratify.

Pollitzer’s political savvy and lively personality made her an ideal lobbyist. Paul sent the young woman to lobby members of Congress to pressure their state governments and to individual states to talk directly to state lawmakers.

“The petite Pollitzer might appear an ingenue, but gullibility was not one of her traits, and gumption was,” wrote Elaine Weiss in “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.” “The combination of a vivacious brunette who could knowledgeably talk shop … enchanted more than a few flinty backroom characters….”

By 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment; Tennessee remained the suffragists’ last best hope. If Tennessee came through, women nationwide would be able to vote in the November presidential election.

Pollitzer was dispatched there to work her magic. Twenty-four-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest-elected Tennessee legislator, was one of her targets. 

The Nashville campaign was called War of the Roses because the “suffs” wore yellow flowers and the “antis” wore red.

Pollitzer and her colleagues were dismayed to see Burn wearing a red rose when he entered the chamber on that fateful day but then surprised everyone by casting the critical vote to ratify.

Silent Sentinels; Photo by Wikimedia Commons

His mother had sent him a note: “… be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” He later told reporters, “… a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow ….” Did Pollitzer tee him up for his mother’s final push?

“According to Anita’s nephew, William Pollitzer, the family lore was Anita had dinner with Harry Burn the night before the vote,” Amy Thompson McCandless, dean of the graduate school and professor of history at College of Charleston, told the Journal. “I imagine he wasn’t immune to her charm.”

Pollitzer later married press agent Elie Edson (keeping her last name) and went on to be Paul’s handpicked successor as chair of the NWP. She spent a lifetime fighting for the ERA and women’s rights worldwide.

In the end, it’s fun to think it was a nice Jewish girl from the South who carried the 19th Amendment over the finish line.

Adrienne Wigdortz Anderson is a freelance writer who lives with her family in the Conejo Valley.

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