To celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States this year, Rabbi Carole Balin, Ph.D., is sharing eight chapters of an "alternative Book of Numbers” designed to tell the stories of Jewish women who combined civic engagement with Jewish values in a 40-year struggle “in the wilderness” to pass the 19th Amendment. Learn more in her introductory essay, a commentary on Parashat B'midbar.
Chapter 6: Like Her Namesake, Miriam Michelson in the Feminist Wilderness
In 1905, The Washington Post dubbed suffragist Miriam Michelson a "California Jewess who has succeeded with her pen."
Not only did she write articles on gender equality for San Francisco’s major dailies, as well as popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but she was a best-selling author. Her 1912 feminist utopian novella, precociously-titled The Superwoman, about an imagined matriarchal society in which women wield power over men, preceded DC Comics’ character of the same name by 31 years (not to mention Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, with a similar premise, which won the prestigious Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017).
Yet like her biblical namesake, whose death is mentioned in this week’s joint Torah portion Parashat Chukat-Balak, Michelson’s contributions have been largely eclipsed by those of her brothers. She appears, at most, as a footnote in the biographies of her male siblings.
Historians proudly acknowledge that her oldest brother, physicist Albert A. Michelson, known for his work on measuring the speed of light, was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in a field of science, in 1907. But Miriam didn’t receive even a shout-out in the 1962 TV episode of Bonanza, known as “Look to the Stars,” which features Albert’s confrontation with antisemitism as a schoolboy genius. Historians also recognize her youngest brother, journalist Charles Michelson, as the first publicity director of the Democratic National Committee under FDR.
In fact, Miriam Michelson was largely forgotten until last year, when scholar Lori Harrison-Kahan unearthed and re-printed her writings in time for the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The truth is that biblical Miriam receives far more attention than any of the handful of female characters in the Book of Numbers, which contains two censuses tallying up 603,500 men. (Women make up .0001 percent of the total Israelites mentioned in the book). Even her death is inscribed into the narrative, while most biblical figures do not merit an obituary. Readers of Parashat Chukat are told about the timing, the place, and the fact that Miriam was buried: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Num. 20:1)
Though the Bible is silent about the communal response, later commentators describe how Miriam’s death plunged all into deep mourning. Moses apparently wept for six hours straight, oblivious to the fact that his people lacked water – a consequence, according to Rashi, of Miriam’s death (whose name has embedded within it the Hebrew word for “water,” mayim). When she dies, the well runs dry. That Miriam is buried in Kadesh – which translates into English as “sacred” – is further proof of her sanctity in Jewish memory.
As the modern commentator Carol Ochs sums up, “Miriam’s gift was to…help women recognize and claim their…sacred place.” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 934). Like her biblical namesake, Miriam Michelson influenced how women would come to recognize and claim their place in early-twentieth century America.
Born in the mining town of Murphy’s Camp in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1870, Miriam was the seventh of eight children of East European Jewish immigrants, Samuel and Rosalie (Przylubska) Michelson. When the family moved to Virginia City, NV, her parents became merchants, proffering supplies to miners in the aftermath of the Gold Rush.
Michelson launched a career in journalism, where she broke gender barriers by covering crime and politics rather than stories on the so-called “Women’s Page.” She also became a commercial success as a fiction writer, supporting herself by publishing short stories in a range of mass circulation magazines. Like her biblical counterpart, she never relied on a man and chose not to marry or have children.
By 1895, Michelson had become an outspoken advocate for suffrage, writing and speaking on the topic, especially to the young women of her generation. On June 30, 1911, she addressed a crowd of more than 300 at the annual meeting of the College Equal Suffrage League in San Francisco, established a decade earlier to encourage female students to engage in political activism.
In a speech titled “The Reproach of Unladylike Behavior,” she traced, with irony, the practices of “real ladyhood” to “crippled feet in China” and “disfigured bodies in America,” which “hobble our brains.” But a new day has dawned, she argued. “Now it is most ladylike to stand up, face things as they are, and accept them like a man; to be an athlete is possible, if not a trained nurse or physician.”
Four months later, on October 10, 1911, voters in California passed Proposition 4, making the state the sixth in the union to grant suffrage to women.
According to her biographer, Lori Harrison-Kahan, Michelson’s Jewish ancestry “definitely shaped the way in which she regularly gave voice to the underrepresented in society, including women fighting for the vote.”
“When you look at her career,” Lori Harrison-Kahan added, “there’s no question being Jewish shaped how she saw the world.”
Who will be the next Miriam to be recorded for the ages? How will our voices resonate into the next century to assure that all will have an opportunity to be counted?
Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D. is the first woman to earn tenure at her alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s New York Rabbinical School, where she is professor emerita of history. She serves as chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive board and publishes widely on gender and the Jewish experience, including Sisterhood: A Centennial History of Women of Reform Judaism. She is currently writing a narrative non-fiction work on bat mitzvah, which will appear in 2022. To share your bat mitzvah story, visit her website.