Magazine article National Forum

Critical Journey

Magazine article National Forum

Critical Journey

Article excerpt

Belle Lindner Moskowitz (1877-1933) was born in Harlem, New York, where her parents, who had emigrated from East Prussia eight years earlier, ran a small jewelry and watch-repair shop. Educated at city schools, Horace Mann High School for Girls, and, for a year, at Teachers' College, she began her career as a drama coach at the Educational Alliance, a Lower East Side settlement. She later became its director of entertainments and exhibits. In 1903 she left this job to marry Charles Henry Israels, an architect, with whom she had three children. He died of heart disease in 191 1, leaving only a small estate. Belle immediately sought work to support her children and retired parents, who were then living with her in Yonkers.

During her early married years, Belle Israels had worked part-time for the social work journal The Survey and had pursued charity work, primarily through the Council of Jewish Women. Her special area of interest, working girls' recreation, had led her to campaign for the reform of New York's dance halls. When she became a widow, she turned this experience into salaried work, becoming a field worker for the Playground and Recreation Association and later grievance clerk and then Labor Department head for the Dress and Waist Manufacturers' Association. Politically active among reformminded Republicans, she joined the Progressive party in 1912 and supported woman suffrage and the election of reform Republican or "fusion" candidates both in Yonkers and New York City. In 1914 she married Henry Moskowitz, a former settlement worker and reformer then serving as civil service commissioner under New York's mayor, John Purroy Mitchel. The Moskowitzes moved to New York City, where Belle continued in labor mediation until the garment manufacturers, unhappy with her prolabor policies, fired her in 1916. In 1918, despite Alfred E. Smith's Tammany connections, the Moskowitzes supported him for governor because of his legislative record on labor issues. Belle Moskowitz organized the woman's vote for Smith (New York women voted for the first time that year). After his victory, which occurred a few days before the end of World War I, she proposed that he appoint a "Reconstruction Commission" to plan New York State's future. The reports of this commission, which she ran, formed the core of Smith's subsequent legislative program.

When Smith was out of office and promoting the establishment of a bistate "authority" for the Port of New York-New Jersey, Moskowitz devised a public relations program that won popular and legislative support for the idea. After Smith returned to office in 1923, she became director of publicity for the Democratic State Committee, managing not only Smith's subsequent reelection campaigns but also his nomination for the presidency in 1928. During the 1928 race, as the only woman on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, she directed campaign publicity. After his defeat, Smith became head of the Empire State Building Corporation and tried to retain his leadership of the Democratic party. Moskowitz stayed on as his press agent and led his futile bid for renomination in 1932. In December she fell down the front steps of her house and, while recovering from broken bones, suffered an embolism. She died on January 2 at the age of fifty-five.

BELLE: ALMOST A FAMILY SECRET

Writing the life of Belle Moskowitz took me on a long journey. Because she was my paternal grandmother, learning about her meant learning about a part of my family I never knew, and thus more about myself. Because she was a woman who, in denying her own historical importance, had failed to save many of her papers, writing about her forced me to explore new research techniques. Because I am a historian who happens to be a woman, writing her life led me to confront both her and my own relationship to the women's movement. That last experience took me into women's history, permanently changing the personal and professional direction of my life. …

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