I was invited by the National Council of Jewish Women to speak at their annual meeting as Hannah G. Solomon, the woman who founded this progressive organization 125 years ago. I learned about Hannah’s life and struggles and this is how I told her story:
Thank you for inviting me here. It’s been so long. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to talk about what went into founding the National Council of Jewish Women. And to share with you a little bit about what I’ve learned with 125 years of hindsight.
My name is Hannah G. Solomon. You can call me Hannah G.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, this thought occurred to me: Jewish women, all women, need to come together to discuss civic matters and we need to act to make this a better world.
Thank you for taking the time today. Just by being here, you’re already doing a small part in making this a better world.
Imagine, it’s 1893. The home is a woman’s domain. I agree it is. As I’ve always said, “A woman’s sphere is the whole wide world.”
This has also been said more recently.
Imagine it’s 1970. A feisty, Jewish woman is running for congress. Her name is Bella Abzug. She says, “A woman’s place is in the House. And the Senate.”
My thoughts entirely.
Women, more than men, have the unique experience of giving life. And this is precisely why we have an obligation to fill every leadership role in the land.
Imagine a world run by women. War would be a curious relic. You want to fight? Go to your room.
I was born in 1858 in a town called Chicago. I had nine siblings. You’d think my parents were Catholic. But they were Jewish. And they instilled in my siblings and me a strong sense of civic responsibility. My dad founded the Zion Literary Society. My mom founded the Jewish Ladies Sewing Society. She and her friends made clothes for poor people. From an early age I understaood Judaism and social welfare as intimately intertwined.
I followed closely in my parents’ footsteps and when I was only 19, I was elected to the Chicago Women’s Club.
An organization that used the word “club” instead of “society” and “women” instead of “ladies” was a radical organization. The Chicago Women’s Club was where I grew up as an activist and organizer.
But it was the 1800s and I didn’t know a single woman who, as they say, “Had it all.” So, I got married. I married Henry Solomon, a dear man. And sexy. We had three children and throughout my 20s, I took fondly and devotely to being a mother and a homemaker. I will tell you, I make the most excellent sweet and sour gefilte fish.
But a women’s sphere is the whole wide world, including the home, so when Chicago was chosen as the site of the World’s Fair, I was chosen to head up a conference for Jewish women.
I don’t intend to brag, but my conference was so well attended, women spilled into the halls. I knew based on the hunger for change I felt in those meetings, that we needed a permanent organization. I was deliberate in naming us a “council” as I was deliberate in using the word “women.”
On the last day we voted and so was born The National Council of Jewish Women.
The work of Council has been controversial and never easy.
At first there was objection to ours being a women’s organization. To this I said, “We will include men whenever they clamor for admission. Up to the present time, they have not clamored.”
My own daughter had her objections. When asked if she wants to be like me. Helen said, “Oh no, when I grow up, I’m going to be a lady.”
But I carried on. I will admit, I wasn’t always on the right side of history. I wanted to move the Jewish sabbath to Sunday. I thought more Jews would observe if our sabbath conformed to American custom. But most of my colleagues disagreed.
I was on the right side of history with women’s suffrage. With the support of my friend Susan B. Anthony, I lobbied my sisters in Council, but 100 years ago almost to the day, antisemitism was on the rise and there was some anti-Semitic sentiment within the women’s movement. There was this idea that religion — Christianity and Judaism — was the force behind a woman’s oppression.
So my sisters in Council felt they had to stand tall as Jews first. They didn’t feel they had the luxury to fight for women’s rights.
And so women’s suffrage is not one of our success stories.
Believe me, I was quite enraged. I may have even called my sisters names.
But I want to say something here about perspective. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, I could not have predicted what was to come. I didn’t know this then, but I know this now: Good people can have bad ideas.
A Sunday sabbath was a bad idea.
The benefit of 125 years of hindsight is reserved for those brought back from the dead to speak at the NCJW luncheon. But the benefit of history is for all of us. So let us learn from history. Let us be more gentle with each other, because we are all doing our best with the information we have in front of us, now.
I want to end by saying: Let us learn from the past and like we say on the National Council of Jewish Women’s website, let us have faith in the future.
This is №47 of my #weeklyessaychallenge. When I turned 50, I challenged myself to write 50 essays in 52 two weeks.