How Did the First Jewish Women's Movement Draw on Progressive
Women's Activism and Jewish Traditions, 1893-1936?

Abstract

         The first Jewish women's movement in the United States began after the upsurge of eastern European immigration to the United States in the 1880s and continued until around 1920. Those who composed the movement were mostly middle- and upper-class women who had emigrated from Germany and Central Europe. These women frequently referred to the triumphs of biblical women to help persuade other Jewish women to join their movement, but the Great Migration of 1881 was the primary factor that energized Jewish women to begin an organized fight for social reform. Many of the affluent, German Jewish "uptown" women who had immigrated during the first wave committed themselves to helping these immigrants begin to make a life for themselves in America. Modeling themselves to a large extent on the American settlement-house movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the actions of secular Progressive reformers, the leaders of this first Jewish women's movement identified both with American Progressivism and Judaic traditions. The women who participated in the movement worked in many ways to improve the lives of the poor. As the movement grew, its focus shifted, from an early emphasis on "charity and religion," to broad concerns for immigrants' Americanization, white slave traffic, peace and arbitration, as well as protection for women's and children's health and welfare. The achievements of the first Jewish women's movement were substantial. While the women were unable to eradicate poverty and the myriad problems that beset immigrant Jews, they were responsible for many achievements that provided the foundation upon which future Jewish women's movements would build.

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