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 4: Anita Pollitzer, White Suffragists’ Own Joshua
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was also stranded for 40 years – though in Congress, of course, not the desert.
First proposed in 1878, it would take until 1919 for the amendment to pass the House and Senate. Even then, however, its fate was in doubt, as it required 36 states’ ratification, and much of the South opposed it. Thanks to the efforts of a Jewish suffragist with a Reform Jewish outlook by the name of Anita Pollitzer, victory would finally come for white women in 1920.
During their long and winding road to the Promised Land, suffragists encountered countless defeats, betrayals, and disappointments. Besides mastering the intricacies of political persuasion and power, they had to change hearts and minds on firmly entrenched attitudes about women’s roles and rights in society.
And yet they persisted – for 72 years, to be exact, if you count from the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848 (which launched the movement) to the granting of suffrage in 1920.
Bear in mind that the narrative of a triumphant, steady march toward women’s enfranchisement is at odds with the more complicated and painful reality of Black women’s experience. Like many of her fellow leaders, Anita Pollitzer focused her civil rights efforts almost exclusively on white women’s suffrage, and generally did not venture into protesting race or class inequalities. Blatant and subtle forms of racial discrimination within organized women suffrage campaigns led many Black women to link their right to vote to the restoration of Black male suffrage and civil rights activism.
While ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment meant the battle for the vote was over for white women, it did not address the systematic racism that prevented African-Americans in southern states from voting, regardless of their sex. Black women continued to fight for voting rights until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and up to our own day.
The Israelites, too, labored to reach their Promised Land for far longer than expected. Parashat Sh’lach L’cha provides the backstory for the 40-year delay.
The portion opens with the Israelites presumably nearing the end of their wilderness trek as they approach Canaan. But things go to hell in a handbasket when 10 of the 12 spies sent to do reconnaissance of the land return with negative reports. Their distrust angers God, and only Moses’ intercession with the Divine saves the people from the threat of eradication.
A heavy price is exacted for their lack of faith: The Israelites are condemned to 40 additional years of wandering, which translates into certain death for the wilderness generation (Num. 14:22). As God tells Moses and Aaron, “. . . not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you -- save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun [the pair of optimistic spies]. [Only] your children . . . will I allow to enter the land that you have rejected” (Num. 14:31). As borne out by the subsequent biblical narrative, Joshua leads a new generation of Israelites in the conquest of Canaan after the first generation, including Moses, dies.
I imagine Anita Pollitzer as a “Joshua” among second-generation suffragists. She never gave up hope in the promise of women’s rights and devoted her public life to feminist politics during the twentieth century, culminating in her being handpicked to become chair of the National Women’s Party (NWP). Established in 1913, the NWP was the first political party to support a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage and later championed the Equal Rights Amendment.
Reform Judaism played an important role in Anita’s understanding of women’s liberation. Born in Charleston, S.C. (which happens also to be the birthplace of American Reform Judaism), Anita taught at the Sabbath school of Kahal Kodesh Beth Elohim, among the original Reform temples in the U.S. Proud of, though at times reserved about, her Jewish identity, she ultimately published an article called “Women and the Law,” in which she quoted Talmud and praised Reform Judaism’s promise to recognize women in every religious aspect on par with men.
In January 1917, Anita joined more than 1,000 “Silent Sentinels,” who picketed the White House for 18 months, brandishing signs with such messages as “Mr. President, How long must women wait for liberty?” Anita demonstrated her commitment to the movement when, in 1917, she was arrested along with other sentinels who agreed to cease protesting only once Congress agreed to bring the federal amendment to a vote. When that vote failed, they returned to their post at the White House.
President Wilson finally pledged his support in 1919, and that same year, on May 21, the House passed the amendment by a relatively large 42-vote margin. The Senate followed suit on June 4, with 56 in favor and 25 against. Now, it was up to 36 state legislatures to ratify female suffrage into law.
Anita, known for her powers of persuasion and charm, played a vital role in the process. With the amendment just one state shy of ratification, the NWP deployed her to Nashville to meet with Congressmen. On August 17, 1920, she arranged to dine with Representative Harry T. Burn, who the following day cast the critical vote, making Tennessee the final and decisive state to ratify the amendment. History credits Anita for his change of heart.
After four decades in the wilderness, the second generation of white suffragists had reached the Promised Land, with no little thanks to their own “Joshua ben Nun.”
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.