Bal­lots, Babies, and Ban­ners of Peace: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Wom­en’s Activism, 1890 – 1940

  • Review
By – July 15, 2013

Amer­i­can Jew­ish women have long been respect­ed for the mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tions they have made to pro­gres­sive caus­es, and now his­to­ry schol­ar Melis­sa Klap­per tells the col­or­ful sto­ry of their social and polit­i­cal activism span­ning the decades from 1890 to 1940.

A pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty in New Jer­sey, Klap­per had pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten exten­sive­ly about Jew­ish women and girls, trac­ing their his­to­ry as immi­grants and telling their com­ing-of-age sto­ries. In Bal­lots, Babies, and Ban­ners of Peace, she turns her atten­tion to the major move­ments in the U.S. – women’s suf­frage, birth con­trol, and the push for peace – and exam­ines the role of Jew­ish women in each. To write this book, she searched dozens of archives and hun­dreds of pub­lished pri­ma­ry-source mate­ri­als, suc­ceed­ing in paint­ing a vivid pic­ture of Jew­ish women’s pub­lic engage­ment with the issues of the day. Both mid­dle-class and work­ing-class women are por­trayed here, often seen join­ing with their non-Jew­ish sis­ters to push for­ward their activist agendas.

Care­ful­ly foot­not­ed and with an exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy, this book will edu­cate and enlight­en read­ers look­ing for a detailed dis­qui­si­tion on a thought-pro­vok­ing top­ic. In the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, while the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was in the peri­od of its great­est con­sol­i­da­tion, Amer­i­can Jew­ish women were work­ing to achieve their goals by bring­ing a fem­i­nine – and fem­i­nist – aware­ness to the major issues of the day. They did so by ini­ti­at­ing press cov­er­age, form­ing orga­ni­za­tions, and estab­lish­ing women as active par­tic­i­pants in major caus­es, and in so doing cre­at­ed a mod­el for con­tem­po­rary women to follow.

The book suc­ceeds on three lev­els: as a study of pre­em­i­nent social move­ments, an inves­ti­ga­tion of mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, and an exam­i­na­tion of the role of women in mod­ern times. Its con­sis­tent­ly well-researched facts are ana­lyzed into a set of cogent con­clu­sions about the pri­ma­cy of Jew­ish women in both social and polit­i­cal caus­es, and it is emi­nent­ly readable.

With­out sen­ti­ment but with a keen eye and a sharp pen, Klap­per man­ages to illu­mi­nate the diverse hearts and minds of the many women who, by man­ag­ing to rec­on­cile their mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties as women, Jews, and Amer­i­cans, suc­ceed­ed in giv­ing shape to the move­ments that shaped Amer­i­ca. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions