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His/Her Story: The mother of Jewish feminism

In February of 2008, an entire conference was held in Jerusalem that dealt with Bertha Pappenheim.

Ahoti feminist organization empowers poor women
Photo by: Lauren Laines
In February of 2008, an entire conference was held in Jerusalem that dealt with Bertha Pappenheim. It consisted of sessions devoted to different aspects of her life, ranging from social work to German Jewish history to psychoanalysis. While it is no easy task to try to sum up Pappenheim’s life, there is no doubt that it merits serious attention.

In 1859, a third daughter was born in Vienna to a wealthy Hungarian merchant and his wife who had roots in Frankfurt. Bertha felt that her birth was a disappointment to the Pappenheims; her brother’s appearance the following year was a far more joyous event in this religious family. This son was doted upon, although the girls were not exactly neglected. Their formal education was obtained in private (non-Jewish) schools, and private tutors were employed by families of their status. A young lady was expected to complete high school, prepare her trousseau and wed, anticipating a life of leisure.

This option was entirely inappropriate for Pappenheim, the intellectual polyglot, who was nursing her dying father around 1880. The boredom she experienced (and her father’s death) led to psychological problems that were treated by Josef Breuer for two years. He discussed the case, known as that of Anna O., with his colleague, Sigmund Freud; the diagnosis was hysteria. Her therapist noted her strong social consciousness, but Victorian society had no outlets for women with such proclivities. In the following years, Pappenheim slowly recuperated while seeking a means to express herself.

In the 1890s, she began to read the German feminist periodical and to publish short stories and plays using a pseudonym (Paul Berthold). In addition, she published translations of the 18th-century British feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft; the 16th-century Bible for women, Tsene-rene; and a collection of medieval folk tales. Other writings include books dealing with women’s education, anti-Semitism, Jewish prostitution and white slavery.

At the same time, she became involved in charity work and organized a nursery school, sewing classes, an orphanage where she served as house mother for 12 years and later as director, and a club, “Care by Women.”

Pappenheim had tremendous vision, planning sophisticated enterprises that included social and employment services to provide less fortunate women and girls with training and jobs.

In 1904, she founded the League of Jewish Women, a national organization modeled after the German Christian women’s organizations. She convinced middle-class women to volunteer in order to enrich their own lives.

Her charm and charisma attracted numerous bourgeoisie women; by 1914, membership reached 35,000, and the number climbed to 50,000 in the 1920s. She was the group’s leader until 1924 (the Nazis dissolved it in 1938).

As pointed out by Marion Kaplan (see: The Making of the Jewish Middle Class, Oxford, 1991, and her other publications), Pappenheim realized the potential power of organizing women and aimed to awaken a feminist consciousness along with a sense of solidarity.

She engaged in three major campaigns: fighting “white slavery” (aiding unwed mothers, prostitutes and illegitimate children), helping women train for careers and seeking equality for Jewish women in communal affairs. It was no easy feat for her to remain Orthodox while stationed at the forefront of feminism; her organization advocated equal rights for women in religious as well as secular realms.

Illustrating the impression Pappenheim made on German society, the government issued a stamp in her honor.

Although she required time to find her way, she ultimately became a selfless, charitable, idealistic and energetic mover and shaker. A woman lacking a role model for herself actually became one. Despite her unmarried status, she considered the children in the orphanage “her children.” Perhaps it would not have been possible for her to function as she did if she had been married.

Pappenheim had a lovely sense of humor as well, and the idea that she might best be remembered as Anna O. would probably have amused this sophisticated, charming, insightful German Jewish feminist.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history and the dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.


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