Melissa R. Klapper is a trained historian of American women with a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. She was disheartened by what she says is “the standard narrative of American history, leaving Jewish women out. Jewish women were recognized at the time of the movements, especially in the peace and birth-control movements, but historians haven’t paid much attention to it.”
That discovery, as well as a passion for research, led to her latest book, “Ballots, Babies and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940” (NYU Press). Klapper, who attended Bais Yaakov School for Girls, speaks at her collegiate alma mater, Goucher College, next month.
Much is known about women in the later labor movement, but Klapper is interested in uncovering women’s involvement during the first wave of feminism. In her book, she focuses on the deep involvement of Jewish women in the early labor, birth-control and suffrage movements. She believes their activism is inherent.
“Jewish women typically grew up in a culture of caring about the community because there were Jews all over the world, and from within Judaism come the ideas about social justice, what today we would call tikkun olam. We’re taught that it’s our job to make the world a better place as a Jew and a woman, and this was a powerful message they grew up with,” she said.
Anti-Semitism was present in the movements, but Jewish women believed the cause was more important than the obstacle.
Klapper, whose parents, Dr. Mitchell and Ferne Klapper, and younger sister, Jennie Fine, still live in Baltimore, conducted her research across the country, accessing primary sources such as Jewish newspapers, National Council of Jewish Women meeting minutes, letters and diaries. The res-ult is the stories of many impassioned, educated and influential women who helped shape the early social and political movements.
“That’s what I love about being a historian, you hear the voices speak to you across the generations,” she said. “One of the things I loved about doing this book is I could feel myself as a link in [the] chain. I was helping connect a legacy of Jewish women who are making this a better world.”
At the Jewish Museum of Maryland she uncovered the stories of several prominent Baltimore Jewish women. One is Sadie Jacobs Crockin, who as a college student wrote an essay that pushed for world peace during the Spanish-American War. Then, as an adult, she became involved in the National Council of Jewish Women and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and she marched in parades and lobbied politicians. Klapper described Crockin’s involvement as the “standard activist Jewish woman, not a radical per se, but it was part of her being to be involved in politics and to advocate.”
“Radical” might better fit Bessie Louise Moses, a 1915 Goucher graduate and a 1922 Hopkins Medical School graduate. Moses was a gynecologist and family planning pioneer. She founded the first Baltimore birth-control clinic in 1927 and later became nationally known for her work in family planning and advocacy.
Klapper was surprised to find out “how many first-generation birth-control doctors were Jewish. In almost any city you could think of, most of the women who ran them were Jewish. And the National Council of Jewish Women was radical at the time, too, something nobody knew about, not even them.”
She’s fascinated with the late 19th century and early 20th century because it was “a period of such transformation of life” so her next book will focus on the 20th-century social history of ballet class in America and the history of gender in childhood and education.
Melissa R. Klapper will speak at Goucher College on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Batza Room of the Athenaeum. The event is free, but tickets must be reserved at goucher.edu/tickets or by calling 410-337-6333. Books will be available for sale and signing.
An audio interview with Melissa R. Klapper about her new book can be found here.