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Driving beyond the autumn oranges, fiery reds and deep yellows of the sumacs and maples of upstate New York's Finger Lakes region, I had to wonder how the sleepy-looking haven of Seneca Falls became the renowned hub of social activism. Even today, no train or public bus reaches the home of America's National Women's Hall of Fame, where this week our own Henrietta Szold was posthumously inducted into the exclusive society of America's most distinguished women.
The answer lies in history. When feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founder of the women's suffrage movement, moved to rural Seneca Falls to improve her husband's health, this mother of seven was bored amid the stunning Cayuga Lake landscapes and rustic environs. She sought like-minded social activists in the nearby towns, and easily found kindred spirits. Numerous stops on the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad - a system for helping fugitive slaves reach freedom in Canada - were hosted by the men and women of this county. Those same persons who had taken risks for one worthy social cause were ready to take on another. Thus, the abolitionist movement prepared women to fight for their own rights.
In July 1848, America's first women's rights convention was organized in Seneca Falls. The convention's Declaration of Sentiments announced: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Progress was painfully slow.
AS IMPROBABLE as it always sounds, women only gained the right to vote in the United States in 1920. By then, Henrietta Szold was 60 - and living in Jerusalem. In Israel, schools, youth villages and major streets bear her illustrious name and honor her contributions to Israeli health care, education, social work and child rescue. But her inclusion in the Women's Hall of Fame reflects Szold's less well-known contributions within the US.
Born in 1860 in Baltimore, before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, Henrietta was the oldest of the five surviving daughters of Rabbi Benjamin and Rabbanit Sophie Szold. By the time she graduated at 16 as valedictorian of her high school, the Szold household was a lively meeting place of Jewish immigrants arriving from Europe. American-born Henrietta realized the waves of immigrants wouldn't succeed in the US without knowing English. She taught high school during the day and was principal of the pioneering night school she established to teach immigrants English and civics.
Emotive photographs show the young Henrietta escorting immigrants for their citizenship examinations in Baltimore. The night school was eventually taken over by the city and became a model of education for millions of immigrants around the US.
She went on to become the "secretary" of the fledgling American-based Jewish Publication Society (with the duties of editor-in-chief), opening the world of biblical and Hebrew texts to English speakers.
Henrietta and Sophie Szold visited Palestine in 1909. The American women were horrified by the appalling health conditions, particularly the children with flies in their eyes, so used to them that they didn't bother to brush them away. Henrietta set out to organize medical care by establishing Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, still the largest women's membership organization in the US. She took on the task with the experience of having organized the night school and the publication company. Later, that organizational expertise served her well when, in her 70s, she became involved (together with Berlin-based Rabbanit Recha Freier) in rescuing teens and children from Nazi Europe through Youth Aliya.
We already mark Israeli Family Day (once Mother's Day) on the anniversary of Henrietta Szold's death, Rosh Hodesh Adar, but last year a bill was proposed by Knesset members Yuli Tamir (Labor) and Etti Livne (Shinui) suggesting that a full Henrietta Szold Day be created.
While that bill lies in limbo, her new American status places Szold among lofty compatriots. Only 225 other American women have been so inducted, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself, and household historical names like Abigail Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Emily Dickinson, Annie Oakley and Eleanor Roosevelt. Contemporary era inductees include Rosa Parks, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Ride and Janet Reno. The 2007 class of nine new impressive inductees (five dead, four alive) includes the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying; ambassador and philanthropist Swanee Hunt; the late Julia Child (America's top chef); less well-known Dr. Eleanor Baum, the first female engineer to be named dean of an engineering college in the US; and infrared astronomer Dr. Judith Pipher; Native American land rights activist Winona LaDuke; the late Catherine Filene Shouse, who established Wolf Trap National Park; and Cady Stanton's fellow-organizer Martha Coffin Pelham Wright, abolitionist and suffragette.
The common denominator of this eclectic group? Vision and guts. I'd say we take Henrietta Szold's own favorite advice, "Dare to dream, and when you dream, dream big," and add to it the National Women's Hall of Fame bumper sticker: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
A message to all of us, at any age, at every age.