By Dr. Melissa R. Klapper
October 26, 2021
This is part of a series of blog posts on women’s history and the long Progressive Era, honoring the legacy of the late Elisabeth Israels Perry. Perry served as SHGAPE President from 1998-2000 and had a long and distinguished career that highlighted women’s political activism in GAPE and in the “long Progressive Era” that stretched into the 1920s and 1930s. This blog series coincides with the July issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which includes a roundtable (available to subscribers online) on Perry’s After the Vote: Feminist Politics in La Guardia’s New York (2019). Read the other posts in the series here and find the CFP here.
Elisabeth Israels Perry never met her paternal grandmother, Belle Linder Israels Moskowitz, who died in 1933 after complications from an accident. Getting to know her as both a family member and a historian proved complicated, since Moskowitz kept incomplete records of her life and her son disposed of most of what was left after she passed away. But Moskowitz was so central to public life in New York (city and state) and so important to the national Democratic Party during the early twentieth century that once Perry decided to write a biography of her grandmother, she found her everywhere.
Social reform? A young Belle Lindner worked at the Educational Alliance, a famed Jewish settlement in New York that served the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants pouring into the Lower East Side. Journalism? After she married her first husband Charles Israels, she worked part-time for the influential reform journal The Survey. Club work? She volunteered with the rapidly expanding National Council of Jewish Women, developing recreational and vocational programs for young working Jewish women and advocating for the regulation of dance halls. Child welfare? When Charles died suddenly in 1911, she first went to work for an insurance company, writing a pamphlet on child care, and then took a job with the Playground and Recreation Association. Labor activism? Belle Linder Israels spent several years as the grievance clerk for the Dress and Waist Manufacturers Association, though the vigor with which she tried to enforce the recently signed “Protocols of Peace”–the 1910 worker/management labor compromise that ended a nine week walkout of garment workers–endeared her to no one and she was ultimately fired. Municipal reform? She was involved with the Citizens Committee, which investigated police corruption around gambling dens. This work reacquainted her with Henry Moskowitz, a labor mediator, settlement house worker, and NAACP founder, whom she married in 1914.
These public activities on their own would have been enough for Belle Moskowitz to embody the gendered realities of turn-of-the-century reform movements which Perry later explained, tongue firmly in cheek, as “Men are From the Gilded Age, Women are From the Progressive Era.” But the reason Moskowitz’s obituary ran on the front page of the New York Times, the reason that 3,000 people attended her funeral at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, was her prominence in partisan politics. As soon as the 1917 New York state referendum enfranchised women, Moskowitz went to work as a publicity director and campaign strategist for Al Smith’s successful 1918 New York gubernatorial campaign. Throughout his four terms in office she remained his chief advisor and managed his failed 1928 presidential bid as well as rising through the ranks of the Democratic Party and ultimately serving on the executive of the Democratic National Committee.
Perry’s 1987 biography, Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith, made many contributions to the then burgeoning history of American women beyond filling out the life of one fascinating, influential, but somewhat forgotten figure. I will highlight two here. One was Perry’s careful use of the term “feminine politics” rather than “feminist politics.” Moskowitz may have been a feminist by virtually every definition, but she did not use the term to describe herself and instead deployed conventional gender norms to more effectively wield the levers of power. Like many activist women of the early twentieth century she practiced a maternalist politics that justified women’s public activity through their traditional roles as mothers. She played up her femininity, shunned the spotlight, and publicly deferred to Smith at every turn. As a result, the men in her high level political sphere never saw her as threatening and freely acknowledged her acumen and judgment. Smith, in particular, nearly always took her advice and as governor followed her lead in instituting a broad array of social welfare programs in New York that helped set important precedents for the New Deal. This mode of gendered political behavior might not have appealed to all of her contemporaries, let alone all those who have come after her, but it was a calculated and successful strategy.
Another of Perry’s contributions was to emphasize the importance of Moskowitz’s Jewishness. The turn-of-the-century Jewish milieu of philanthropy and innovative welfare work and, especially, American Jewish women’s social and political activism, formed the bedrock of Moskowitz’s life. Even as she rose in party politics, she never stopped working with groups like the United Hebrew Charities and the National Council of Jewish Women, and she frequently contributed to the American Jewish press. In an April 6, 1917 American Hebrew article she wrote, “To think of others is as natural to the Jewish woman as to breathe,” an oft-quoted epigram in books on American Jewish women’s history, including my own Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940.
I don’t know how Perry felt about this, but Moskowitz actually became better known by historians of American Jewish women—who wrote about her in Charlotte Baum, Paula E. Hyman, and Sonya Michel’s pioneering 1976 The Jewish Woman in America, Pamela S. Nadell’s 2019 America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today, and everything in between—than historians of American women more generally. This reflects a chronic marginalization of Jewish women in every aspect of American women’s history, with the possible exception of labor activism. In her book Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Joyce Antler points out that the many Jewish leaders of second wave feminism frequently chose not to discuss or acknowledge their Jewishness, seeing it as a distraction. During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, however, Jewish women involved in suffrage, birth control, peace, labor, Zionism, and party politics were highly likely to credit their Jewishness, whatever religious or cultural or ethnic meaning that carried to them, as equally important as their gender identities in encouraging their activism. In Perry’s biography of Moskowitz she masterfully demonstrated the importance of integrating all elements of women’s lives into the history we write. In today’s intersectional times, that lesson bears repeating.
New York State Capitol, looking north, Albany, New York, ca. 1910-1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Dr. Melissa R. Klapper
Melissa R. Klapper is Professor of History and Director of Women’s & Gender Studies at Rowan University. Her two most recent books are Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU, 2013), which won the National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies, and Ballet Class: An American History (Oxford, 2020).