Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

ROSA FASSEL SONNESCHEIN
(1847-1932), editor and publisher of the American Jewess SANDRA J. BERKOWITZ

Woman's rights, broadly defined, addressed the concerns of all women, whereas woman suffrage was a tool that women of diverse backgrounds saw as a way to achieve their ends. However, as illustrated by the rhetoric of such figures as MARIA W. MILLER STEWART, SOJOURNER TRUTH, and IDA B. WELLS, some issues were of special concern for women of distinctive ethnic backgrounds. In this instance, Jews of German heritage immigrated to the United States prior to the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia that aroused intense anti-Semitism in the United States (e.g., Cohen, 1984; Howe, 1976). Given their Western European heritage, German Jews found it easier to fit into the new society. Moreover, Reform Judaism, which had taken hold in Germany earlier, eased this process. By the 1890s, Louise A. Mayo notes that "social mobility had enabled a sizable number of Jews to become wealthy. The children and grandchildren of the German Jewish immigrants of the middle of the century were increasingly educated and genteel" ( 1988:183). However, despite their education and their ability to adapt and prosper in their new country, German Jews continually dealt with the problem of creating an identity for themselves that would decrease, if not eliminate, anti-Semitism.

In American society, Jews, even German Jews, were still viewed as "others," but in Europe, more systematic, organized, and legally sanctioned forms of anti- Semitism were built into the political and social systems. In the United States, the emphasis on individualism and separation of church and state meant that anti-Semitism was not codified in law. Although very different from European anti-Semitism, Jews in the United States still faced a social, private form of anti- Semitism ( Endelman, 1986; Mayo, 1988). One result of anti-Semitism is a questioning of the self:

The Jew who feels rebuffed by gentiles inevitably asks himself [sic]: "Was it I who erred by some inappropriate word or act, or was it my Jewishness that gave offense irrespective of what I said or did?" The effect of this uncertainty is a recurrent anxiety that taxes emotional equilibrium. It arouses fear that a false move will provoke prejudiced judgment: "That is indeed what one would expect from a Jew." ( Meyer, 1990:36-37)

In answer to such questions, some Jews gave up their Jewish identity to seek complete assimilation into U. S. society. For many this was not acceptable. Naomi Cohen contends, "First and foremost, the psychological and emotional needs of the immigrant Jews kept them within the fold. Nineteenth-century Americans also preferred immigrants to identify with any religion rather than with none at all" ( 1984:161). The desire to remain Jewish sparked a debate within American Judaism ( Braude, 1981). Jonathan Sama explains the substance of this debate:

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