November 14, 2019

This is (Not) What a Jewish Feminist Looks Like: San Francisco Women’s Clubs and Jewish Literary History

By Lori Harrison-Kahan –

Bettie Lowenberg

Courtesy photo

In 1893, San Francisco socialite Bettie Lowenberg traveled to Chicago to visit the Columbian Exposition. There she attended the Jewish Women’s Congress at the World’s Parliament on Religions, where she heard activists such as Hannah Greenebaum Solomon and Sadie American speak about the need to create a national organization. The event famously led to the formation of the National Council of Jewish Women, but it also inspired Lowenberg to take local action. Upon her return to San Francisco, she decided to launch her own women’s club. Unlike the NCJW, whose agenda included religion as well as education and philanthropy, Lowenberg’s club began as a literary venture for middle-class Jewish women who had not had the opportunity to attend college because of their sex and who were excluded from many of the city’s cultural groups because of their religion.

The organization’s name, the Philomath Club, united its members through their love of knowledge and summed up the club’s primary mission: study and learning. “I was imbued by the idea that there were many intellectual and brilliant Jewish women in San Francisco who lacked the opportunity of development by organization,” recalled Lowenberg of her club’s inception. In response to this need, she envisioned a “conservative, but progressive” woman’s club that would “promote the general culture of its members through discussion of educational, moral and social topics.”

Philomath Club

From The San Francisco Blue Book: Fashionable Private Address Directory (1902)

Membership in the Philomath Club was drawn from the city’s Jewish elite, primarily the Sisterhood of Temple Emanu-El to which Lowenberg belonged. The main focus of the club was not, however, Jewish texts. The women undertook a more traditional course of study, which included English writers such as Carlyle and Tennyson, the German legend of Faust, American history, and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Under Lowenberg’s leadership, the club extended its reach over the years, holding “reciprocity days” with the city’s non-sectarian women’s clubs (several of which not only admitted Lowenberg, but also elected her their president) and expanding its interests beyond the literary. By 1918, the Philomath Club’s activities included the adoption of French war orphans, Americanization programs, and raising money for the Palestinian Restoration Fund with the goal of establishing a “spiritual center” for worldwide Jewry.

Lowenberg is one of the central figures in my book manuscript, West of the Ghetto: Pioneering Women Writers, Progressive Era San Francisco, and Jewish Literary History, which tells the stories of Jewish women who made significant contributions to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature and culture. While most readers of Jewish American literature are familiar with the turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York literary scene and its key players (most prominently, immigrant writer and editor Abraham Cahan), these West Coast Jewish women have largely been forgotten. The vibrant secular literary culture they produced in San Francisco deserves consideration for the way it complements, and complicates, the established canon, providing alternatives to the culture of the East Coast ghetto that has long dominated studies of early Jewish American literary history.

IMG_2364

Arianna Unger (l), Lori Harrison-Kahan (r)

Out of all the fascinating and complex women I am researching for this book, Lowenberg is, for me, the most perplexing. Her seemingly contradictory thinking and behavior frustrates 21st-century women who identify as Jewish and feminist—as exemplified by a series of recent exchanges with Brandeis undergraduate Arianna Unger, who is assisting me with research during my residency at HBI. Arianna and I have been combing old California newspapers for mentions of the Philomath Club and Lowenberg, whose name was ubiquitous in the society pages. An active member of Temple Emanu-El, Lowenberg was proud of the fact that the organization she founded had “the distinction of being the first club composed of Jewish women with a regularly adopted constitution in the world.” Yet she also hosted an annual Christmas reception for Philomath members. “Assimilation!” wrote Arianna, flagging the article for me. And although Lowenberg, a formidable public speaker and civic leader, was unabashedly political, she paid frequent lip service to the “sanctity” of the home and the belief that women’s place was in the domestic sphere. She was also staunchly anti-suffrage. So much so that during her presidency, members of her clubs were forbidden from taking up the topic of votes for women. “Seems ironic,” noted Arianna when she came across that tidbit.

But it is precisely because of these contradictions that Lowenberg intrigues me. What appears counterintuitive to us today was much less so in Lowenberg’s time. Nineteenth-century women’s clubs often operated under the “ideological cover” of what historian Karen Blair calls “Domestic Feminism”—the notion that the woman’s sphere of the home could be extended further to have a positive moral influence on public affairs. For Jewish women, the promotion of bourgeois feminine ideals took on additional layers of meaning. By emulating the genteel practices of gentile, white society, upwardly mobile women on the ethno-religious margins displayed their attributes as “ladies” and proved themselves deserving of respect.

That Bettie Lowenberg—or “Mrs. I. Lowenberg,” as she preferred to be called—cut a contradictory figure may help explain why she has spent the past century in obscurity. Scholars of American women’s writing and women’s history tend to be more interested in historical figures who can be reclaimed as proto-feminists. Meanwhile, scholars of Jewish American literature have gravitated towards writers such as the Cahan and Anzia Yezierska who, with their Yiddish-speaking immigrant characters and ghetto settings, fit the broader paradigms of ethnic studies. Jews with money rarely qualify as “ethnic.”

Lowenberg’s story differs from more familiar narratives of Jewish life in the United States. Born in Alabama to parents who had immigrated from Prussia and Germany, she migrated to the far West by way of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where she was educated at the local convent school. In San Francisco, she married Isidor Lowenberg, a Prussian immigrant. Isidor struck gold in denim. Along with his partner, banker Lewis Meyerstein, who married one of Bettie’s sisters, Isidor started a successful menswear business, first as distributors and later as manufacturers, making them direct competitors of Levi Strauss. Bettie played the role of society wife, raising their two children, supporting patriotic and philanthropic causes, and hosting lavish affairs.

Lowenberg may not look like a precursor to Jewish feminism, but she was instrumental in fostering a cultural milieu that connected Jewish women first to each other, then to their gentile counterparts and, more broadly, the nation. Her wealth, erudition, and charisma made her an irrepressible force in the California’s women’s club movement. To cite just some of her accomplishments: she assumed the presidency of multiple women’s clubs (often simultaneously), was an elected officer to the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, served on state commissions, ran Red Cross committees during the Spanish- and Philippine-American Wars, helped plan the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, and hosted gala events for the city’s Jewish and non-Jewish elite, all while writing speeches, short stories, and plays and reading everything from Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Charlotte Bronte to law books and both testaments of the Bible.

In the last decades of her life, Lowenberg combined her literary inclinations with her civic ideals as the author of three novels that advocated a variety of reforms, from marriage and divorce law to labor unionism. The first of these novels, The Irresistible Current, published in 1908, took up the subject of religious intolerance. The novel, which bears resemblances to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the use of Victorian sentimentalism as a form of protest, ends with the tragic death of its young Jewish heroine after the taboo on intermarriage prevents her from marrying her soul-mate, a Unitarian minister. The book’s thesis is that the ideal of equality can only be achieved if America does away with religious denominations in favor of universal religion.

IMG_2370As Arianna and I sat looking over newspaper clippings, we wondered: how did this woman do it all? Virginia Woolf famously proposed that the woman writer needs “a room of one’s own.” Lowenberg, who created an entire community of readers and writers, needed a room with other women. In the posh halls of the Palace Hotel, and later in their own private clubroom, the members of the Philomath Club gathered to study and debate. They listened to lectures by invited speakers, often male professors from nearby Berkeley and Stanford. They wrote speeches, essays, toasts, poetry, fiction, and plays. They researched and read. They engaged in these activities in the company of—and for audiences of—other women. Their strong bonds are evidence of what Anne Ruggles Gere, in her book on women’s literary clubs, calls “intimate practices.” Upon the publication of her first novel, Lowenberg was feted by many of the city’s women’s clubs, who invited the author to “[hear and reply] to friendly criticism” of the book.

The women of the Philomath Club broke intellectual barriers and ethno-religious ones, helping to build a pluralistic community in which they were increasingly accepted by their gentile peers. As Jewish women, they banded together against male authority and knowledge. On one occasion, for instance, their invited speaker, a Berkeley philosophy professor, referred to all non-Christians as “heathens” during a theology lecture. According to the Associated Press, the women responded “with murmurs of disapproval and whispered indignant comments” and then, when he had finished lecturing, promptly took him to task.

I have long been aware that my own intellectual life is made possible by the bonds formed between women. Since graduate school, I’ve been a member of all-female writing groups, which have supported me through the roughest patches of my academic career. Collaborative projects have similarly sustained me. Over the past few years, for instance, I’ve been working with University of Birmingham scholar Karen Skinazi to recover the work of Miriam Michelson, another forgotten turn-of-the-the-twentieth-century Western Jewish writer. (Michelson is much easier for the feminist in me to embrace; she was a fearless newspaper reporter and bestselling novelist who played a significant role in California’s suffrage campaign.)

My experiences at HBI have brought the message home once again. Sharing the thrill of discovery with Arianna and participating in the spring seminar series with other scholars-in- residence has infused my research and writing with a communal spirit. Lowenberg and her fellow clubwomen may defy our expectations for what a Jewish feminist looks like, but they fostered alternatives to the notion of the “solitary male scholar,” modeling an intellectual culture that is enriched through interchanges with other literary-minded women.

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Lori Harrison-Kahan is an HBI scholar-in-residence and the author of The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary (Rutgers University Press/American Literatures Initiative, 2011). She is currently an Associate Professor of the Practice of English at Boston College.

Arianna Unger, a sophomore, is the HBI Student Research Assistant for Lori Harrison-Kahan.

Comments

  1. Marion Freedman-Gurspan says:

    I wonder if the Christmas reception mentioned in the article is really assimilation. I have a close who traditionally had a Christmas eve party, called that, which was to offer a place for her Jewish friends to congregate while most others in the community were celebrating Christmas.

  2. gila Kornfeld-Jacobs says:

    Thanks for this information. I have, as you say, never heard of her. Most likely she did not spend time on cleaning, cooking etc. Who were the women who did it for her and does she mention the “help”?

  3. Did the group know that Judaism has a no-fault pre-nuptial (Ketubbah) wherein either party can divorce the other. This dates back to the time of Ezra.

    http://jeworld.goldharry.com/marriage-divorce/divorce.htm

  4. Kim Plater says:

    I loved reading your article and am still researching our archives for information about Mrs. I. Lowenberg and the California Federation of Women’s Club. I have a very old book “A Record of Twenty-Five Years, California Federation of Women’s Clubs, compiled by Mary S. Gibson, 1927. Unfortunately, it does not have an index, so I have been going through it looking for Mrs. Lowenberg’s name. How lucky, the first entry I found was on page, 20. I will compile all of the information for you and send it along. Mrs. I. Lowenberg was the Recording Secretary for the California Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1900 – 1902. At the first Biennial Convention of 1902 she made a statement on unity of action. I am still working on the Redwood connection and hopefully I will find it in this book.
    Kim Plater, California Federation of Women’s Clubs, Women’s and History Resource Center, Chair.

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