Panel looks at women’s suffrage
The year was 1920. With World War I past, Jewish women in Mandatory Palestine were fighting for suffrage. That same year, American women won the right to vote.
This was the focus of a panel on Sunday, which was sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and moderated by its associate director, Lisa Fishbayn Joffe.
“Paradoxically, women had more opportunities in this backwards country,” Margalit Shilo, a professor of women’s studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University said. She talked about numerous female Jewish pioneers who came to Jerusalem, including educators like Sarah Azaryahu, writers like Nehama Puhachevsky, and doctors like Rosa Welt-Straus and Helena Kagan. Shilo continued, “The newly established national entity in Mandatory Palestine opened up opportunities for women.”
Many of these women fought for women’s suffrage in the New Yishuv, or the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine, by creating the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel. At the 1920 election for the Assembly of Representatives — the “mother of the Israeli Knesset,” in Shilo’s words — they argued that the Jew’s right to self-determination could not be divorced from the woman’s right to vote. The Assembly deferred the final decision to a future Assembly, though, in the face of ultra-Orthodox opposition.
Riki Shapira-Rosenberg, a scholar in residence at HBI, went deeper into the conflict between the suffrage movement and ultra-Orthodox society. An advocate for ultra-Orthodox women in Israel, she argued that the state has long been lukewarm on women’s rights. Women knew that “if they did not fight for themselves, no one would do it for them,” she said.
Moreover, if they wanted to put up a good fight, they needed to take part in the legal process. Many women sought to reform Jewish law, working to raise the age of marriage and give Jewish women the right to inherit. As Shapira-Rosenberg put it: “They had come not to break the law but to make it.”
Israel is still lukewarm on women’s rights, she said, pointing to the slow response to gender-based censorship in ultra-Orthodox news media. She also noted that until recently, the government had dragged its feet regarding gender segregation on the public buses that run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; in 2011, the Israeli government outlawed these bus lines.
Despite the opposition and backlash, the future bodes well for women’s rights, Shapira-Rosenberg said, adding, “There can be no doubt that the borders of discourse … have expanded due to the legal struggles of the women of the world.”
Those struggles were also apparent for Jewish women in the United States during the suffrage movement, which Rowan University professor of women’s history Melissa Klapper discussed. Jewish suffragists felt at odds with the movement, she said, particularly in light of figures like Harriot Stanton Blatch who blamed “foreigners on the Lower East Side” for a failed referendum in New York. However, Klapper argued, Jewish opposition to suffrage was at most “mild,” and heavily Jewish districts leaned more in favor of suffrage on the referendum.
Closing the event, the Institute’s Founding Director Shulamit Reinharz spoke on women’s rights today and the significance of feminist values.
“We think that suffrage is so taken for granted as a good,” she said. The movement for women’s rights, she argued, is not as smooth as it may seem in retrospect. If anything, she said, feminism is made up of “fits and starts all over the place.” Movements like that come in waves, all building on each other, even if contemporaries underestimate their strength and significance.