Citizens of New York who braved the inclement weather to vote in Tuesday’s off-year elections were treated to a sticker of a suffragette with a bullhorn proclaiming, “I voted! Honoring 100 years of a woman’s right to vote.”
“We think of it as a simple wave-that-banner, raise-that-picket, but it was very complicated politically,” Elaine Weiss, the author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote,” told The New York Times this week, calling the state the “linchpin” in the struggle towards the US Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920.
What is now taken almost for granted was once a battle of clashing ideals and rights, pitting friend against friend. In at least one well-healed, entrenched New York Jewish family, it saw a longtime struggle between sister against sister.
The Nathan sisters were Daughters of the American Revolution — eighth-generation Americans who were descended from the Gershom Mendes Seixas’ Sephardic Jewish family which settled the New World in pre-Colonial times. Social activists Maud Nathan (October 20, 1862 – December 15, 1946) and her younger sister Annie Nathan Meyer (February 19, 1867 – September 23, 1951), uniquely played out their existential disagreement in a very public way, using their husbands’ money, large assemblies and letters to newspapers as their vehicles.
On the forefront of the pro- and anti-suffragist movements leading up to New York state’s constitutional amendment in 1917, the sisters’ difference of opinion influenced the thinking of their cousin, a New York judge on the Court of Appeals and eventual Supreme Court Justice, Benjamin Cardozo.
According to Cardozo biographer Andrew L. Kaufman, ahead of New York’s 1917 vote on an amendment for the right of women to vote, “Cardozo split the difference.”
Kaufman quotes Maud Nathan, who wrote that Cardozo “voted in favor of the [NY state suffrage] amendment because he could not conscientiously vote against it. Obviously it was common justice that women should have the vote, but he was sorry we had won as he had sore doubts as to the results of the experiment.”
Maud was a tireless champion of the working woman and Annie would go on to found Barnard and work to end racism. Looking at who these sisters were and how they lived their lives is as fascinating as their mutual, but different, struggles on the frontlines of social activism and feminism from the well-cushioned seats of New York’s high society.
Maud the socialite crusader
“Of all the American Jewish women who participated in the suffrage movement, Maud Nathan was probably the best known at the turn of the century… She believed that Jewish women had a special civic responsibility that could best be demonstrated through social reform and political participation,” writes author Melissa R. Klapper in the 2014 prize-winning book, “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940.”
Born into wealth and social status in New York, Maud Nathan’s life took a dramatic turn when her stock broker father lost most of the family’s fortune in the Crash of 1873, which forced the nation and much of the western world into an economic depression. According to a profile on the Jewish Women’s Archive, in 1875, the family moved from New York to Green Bay, Wisconsin. There, “one of her mother’s admirers controlled railroad interests that allowed him to employ her father and her eldest brother, Robert.” They were one of only two Jewish families in the Midwest town.
The change did not go smoothly for the family, used to social life and the New York culture scene.
Later, as quoted in an article by author Louise Bernikow in the Barnard College alum magazine, Maud described her mother as “transplanted to an obscure village life, surrounded by strangers who would look at her askance, as though she were from another world.”
The marriage suffered, with each parent bringing home their own “admirers.” Eventually her father left the marital home and returned to New York. The mother, Maud, a brother called Harold and little sister Annie moved again, this time to Chicago. There, the mother found solace in drugs after yet another failed investment. Utterly depressed, she killed herself in 1878. The children returned to their family in New York.
By 1880, and now in charge of running the Nathan household, 17-year-old Maud married her 35-year-old first cousin Frederick and began the life of a wealthy New York socialite — hosting parties by night and volunteering with the lesser fortunate by day. In 1895, however, her life took a turn at the death of their 8-year-old only daughter, and Maud began her social activism work in earnest.
She turned first to the plight of the working woman. In 1890, she and other women, including her friend Josephine Shaw Lowell had founded the Consumers’ League of New York. At Lowell’s urging, by 1897, Nathan had became the league’s president, an office she held for two decades.
But quickly, Nathan learned that without a vote, women had no voice in Albany, the New York state capital. At this realization, she became a stalwart suffragist and by 1912 was eventually even appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as head of the women’s suffrage committee in his National Progressive Party Bull Moose campaign.
According to Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Nathan was “a noted speaker who was admired for her sense of humor, she also lectured about American women’s struggle for suffrage at international conferences.”
Nathan was becoming very well known in the global arena for her work with women. And this when her little sister Annie allegedly became jealous, and rabidly anti-votes for women.
Annie takes on the green-eyed monster
Five years younger than Maud, Annie was raised in a very different milieu. Unschooled an unused to the company of peers, she was self-taught and boasted of having read the complete Dickens by age 7. A serious, committed writer, the acquisition of a quality education would continue to be of utmost importance to her.
After her mother’s death, the family’s return to New York, and Maud’s marriage, Annie kept house for her father. At the same time, as an admirer of the writings of women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller, she created a reading circle with like-minded independent scholars, based on Fuller’s feminist “conversations,” including on the subject of equal education for both genders.
She met her future husband Alfred Meyer, a 13-years-older German-Jewish physician who specialized in the then-rampant tuberculosis. They met at a sight-reading piano group, where, according to an essay in the Jewish Women’s Archive, “he claimed love at first sight and convinced her to marry him, promising her explicitly that he would support her writing and her use of Annie Nathan Meyer as her legal name. They married on February 15, 1887, four months after they met, and literally played piano duets for the next sixty years.”
That same year, Meyer met Columbia chief librarian Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame). With a few others, they began to plan for an affiliate women’s college at the university. In an awareness-raising campaign, Meyer wrote letters decrying New York’s deficient cultural scene, including a 2,500-word letter to The Nation, and began soliciting donations.
In a stroke of genius, the team decided to name the women’s college after the recently deceased Columbia president, Frederick Barnard, who was a strong proponent of equal education. Barnard College opened on October 7, 1889 — with three years’ rent paid by the Meyer family. Today, Barnard College is an elite American school and is one of the “Seven Sisters” all-women colleges. The other six are: Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe (now part of Harvard), Smith, Vassar and Wellesley.
Having aided in breaking the glass ceiling in women’s education with Barnard’s foundation, Meyer continued later in her life, by breaking the color barrier with the enrollment of Zora Neale Hurston from 1925-28. Meyer was instrumental in Hurston’s time there and found donors to support the budding author and civil rights activist.
In many other ways, however, Meyer was a social snob. “Cardozo” biographer Kaufman portrayed Meyer’s class snobbery in an excerpt in The New York Times. Discussing a case in which Jews were excluded from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga in the 1880s, Meyer wrote to her judge cousin:
“We are all Sephardim which is defined in the Jewish Encyclopaedia as those whose ‘many sufferings, which they had endured for the sake of their faith, had made them more than usually self-conscious; they considered themselves a superior class — the nobility of Jewry.’ Looking back on it, it seems to me that this intense pride, accompanied by a strong sense of noblesse oblige among the Sephardim was the nearest approach to royalty in the United States. The Nathan family possessed this distinguishing trait to a high degree. Noblesse oblige is certainly not a bad slogan to live by.”
At the same time, in her copious writings, much of which was published during her life, in novels and plays she explored double standards and hypocrisies.
“Meyer dramatized the ‘woman question’ and reflected a ‘separate spheres’ ideology, which evolved into a conservative anti-suffrage position,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. “To Meyer, motherhood placed a woman into a protected, if not sacred, class. Childless women were free to pursue the professions, but not vote.” (Meyer had one daughter, Margaret, born in 1894, who predeceased her in a gunshot accident shortly after her marriage to Dr. Ira Cohen in 1923.)
According to JWA, “Meyer saw no inconsistencies in her indisputable achievement in expanding women’s higher education and her anti-suffragism. This enigmatic stance may be traced to her intense jealousy of her sister, Maud, who was a progressive activist and well-known suffragist, and her impatience with the suffragists’ claims about the social and political changes the women’s vote would bring.”
Supportive husbands and differing relationships to Judaism
In all matters Jewish, the sisters were also of differing opinions of the religion’s use and purpose. Maud was the founder and first president of the Sisterhood of Shearith Israel, which she established in 1896. The synagogue was founded by members of the family and still used by the Nathan clan.
The following year, Maud was the first woman to speak in an American Jewish worship service when she gave a talk in place of the rabbi’s sermon on “The Heart of Judaism.” According to “Women in World History,” the speech “espoused her belief that Judaism is basically a love of righteousness, including social justice.”
According to a 1934 Jewish Daily Bulletin article (the precursor to today’s JTA), “Though always strongly conscious of her Jewish heritage and proud to belong to a race that has given the world the first conception of ethical duties toward stranger as well as neighbor, she did not limit her activities to purely Jewish causes.”
Meyer for her part, spurred on by her secular German-Jewish husband, left the large Sephardic family synagogue after her marriage and the couple joined the Ethical Culture Society, a humanist congregation founded in 1876.
At the same time, Alfred Meyer “supported his wife’s writing as she delved dangerously into racial themes in plays she wrote in the 1920s and in a long-delayed confrontation with anti-Semitism as Hitler came to power in the 1930s,” according to an article on the sisters in the Barnard alum magazine. She didn’t abandon her Jewish heritage and cited anti-Semitism as a reason her contribution to Barnard was largely overlooked for many years.
Maud’s husband Frederick Nathan also supported his wife’s suffragist endeavors with boots on the ground. According to the Barnard article, Frederick joined philosopher John Dewey, radical writer Max Eastman, and others to form a Men’s League for Equal Suffrage. Later, he helped organize the International Men’s League at Stockholm.
“When the men stepped out together into a suffrage parade, thousands of onlookers hooted at them in derision; they were gender traitors,” states the article. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, he was often labeled, “Mr. Maud Nathan.”
When the men stepped out together into a suffrage parade, thousands of onlookers hooted at them in derision; they were gender traitors
The sisters did find peace following the 1917 New York state vote and the 1920 national amendment.
“The house divided appears to have found a measure of peaceful coexistence after that, especially as World War II approached. As survivors of a traumatic childhood, complex and articulate women with ideas of their own, Annie and Maud Nathan were, in the end, well pleased with each other as sisters,” states the Barnard article.
Today, with voting rights again in the news, there is a sense that history is being recycled.
“All of these issues we’re dealing with now — voter suppression and voter rights and racial bigotry — they all come up in the fight for suffragists,” author Weiss told The New York Times. “It’s a lesson for today; it’s not just history.”
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