Portland Equal Suffrage League and the Council of Jewish Women in the 1912 Woman Suffrage Campaign

The woman suffrage movement in Oregon owes much of its success to the numerous organizations dedicated to supporting votes for women in Portland. Organizations such as the Portland Equal Suffrage League, headed by Josephine Hirsch, were involved in fighting for women’s rights. These organizations were headed by strong women who were committed to fighting for rights that they wanted for themselves and for all women. Ida Loewenberg, another woman leader, was involved in the Portland Chapter of the Council of Jewish Women, another organization that contributed greatly to winning more rights for women.

In “Neither Head Nor Tail to the Campaign,” Kimberly Jensen summarizes some of the accomplishments of Josephine Hirsch, who was the president of the Portland Equal Suffrage League (PESL) and also chaired the Portland Chapter of the Council of Jewish Women. Her husband Solomon Hirsch was a founder of Fleishner, Mayer and Co, the largest wholesale dry goods store on the Pacific Coast. Along with Josephine’s father, Jacob Mayer, Solomon was one of the leaders of Portland’s early Jewish community. As Steven Lowenstein notes, by marrying Solomon, Josephine was attaching herself to the family business, a common practice in the Portland Jewish community. Josephine’s suffrage efforts were so extensive that she even targeted many anti-suffrage women and was able to effectively sway them from their former beliefs and onto her side. In Sarah Evans’s chapter in The History of Woman Suffrage, she wrote that Josephine was “one of the most liberal financial supporters of the campaign, went directly into the camp of the enemy and organized a group of society women in the Portland Equal Suffrage League. She also made large donations to Neighborhood House, an organization formed by the Council of Jewish Women, that aimed to educate the community, in part allowing it do accomplish as much as it did.

The Portland Equal Suffrage League worked with many other suffrage organizations in Portland to promote votes for women. Women in the PESL organized many meetings and speeches designed to attract more people to the cause. They had prominent speakers at their meetings to help to attract more attention to the organization, to make them seem more important, and to help attract and motivate members. Large numbers of society women attended the PESL meetings regularly and helped to gain more power for the cause.

One such meeting was featured in the Oregon Journal on January 12, 1912. This meeting, which took place at Josephine Hirsch’s home, was remarkable because it featured the presence of J. Forbes-Robertson, an English actor of the time. The article in the Journal focused on his opinion that votes for women would soon be a reality in Oregon. The article also reported that this meeting attracted many new members. The presence of a notable actor may have attracted more members, and by this time suffrage had probably become a more acceptable cause to support, meaning that more people would be willing to join. Forbes-Robertson spoke on the cruel treatment of women who stood up for suffrage, and explained that some men are against suffrage because “they are frightened at their wives. They are afraid to give their wives equal privileges with themselves.”

An article in the Portland Evening Telegram on February 7, 1912 discussed another meeting of the PESL. At this meeting, Mrs. Helen H. Greeley spoke to the league and asserted that Theodore Roosevelt’s statements had made it seem as if the women leaders of the movement were not serious about suffrage. She also spoke about how essential it is that women realize what rights they should be allowed in politics. The article explained that “although it is one of the youngest leagues to be formed, the Portland Woman’s Suffrage League is destined to be one of the large leagues in the state and doubtless will wield an important influence…” There was another article on the same topic in the Oregonian on the same date. (OR February 7, 1912) It reported that over 200 people attended the meeting at the home of Mrs. J. G. Gauld in order to hear Mrs. Helen Hoy Greeley talk about how Roosevelt’s writing was “sloppy.” Another speaker, Miss Whitney, spoke about how woman suffrage was something that was happening all over the world and that women everywhere should have the right. “The ballot,” she said, “is a silent expression of opinion on a stated question on a certain day. Who will tell me that a silent expression of opinion is unwomanly?” Anita Whitney of San Francisco and Reed College president William Foster were other speakers at the meeting.

Another organization that aimed to educate people about their rights in the world was the Neighborhood House. As Lowenstein notes, Neighborhood House, founded by the Portland Chapter of the Council of Jewish Women, was the most important social institution to Jewish Portlanders. It was the origin of so many community activities such as clubs, health services, bible classes and schools, including the Hebrew School and the Sewing School. There was also a cooking class, the Well Baby Clinic, Citizenship Class, and kindergarten classes, among others. Most of the classes were run by volunteers and were attended by many Jewish people, though anyone was welcome to attend. Funds were always difficult to come by, and so many fundraisers were held to benefit the Neighborhood House. Not only was this a place to make Jewish people feel welcome; the goal was to discriminate against no one. Racism against the Jewish people was not uncommon in Portland and the House worked towards ending all discrimination. Though the House was not one of the places where the fight for woman suffrage begun, it was a place where people tried to make everyone have an equal chance in life, through many varieties of education.

Ida Loewenberg was a driving force in the Portland Jewish community. She was one of the founders of the Portland Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and also helped to found Neighborhood House, where she was the executive director for 33 years. She helped to expand the efforts of the House to include many different programs. Within Neighborhood House she helped work on many projects, including Neighborhood House’s newspaper, the Neighborhood, where she was editor-in chief.

Steven Lowenstein provides much information on the Portland Chapter of the Council of Jewish Women. The council was founded in order to obtain more power for the Jewish women. In the beginning, the council aimed to educate people about Jewish history and culture. With the rising number of immigrants coming to Portland, members increased their efforts to provide welcome and education. The council founded the Neighborhood House, a more official and organized way to dispense free education. The council started up many schools, the first major one being the Sewing School, in 1897. Neighborhood House formed an official board of directors in 1902 and the first actual Neighborhood House was built in 1905.

As for suffrage, the council was not particularly helpful at first, declining to become involved during the state election of 1912. The council decided it wasn’t a good idea to endorse the cause because they didn’t want to seem too political, for fear of straying from their original, philanthropic goals. However, after suffrage was accepted in Oregon, the council did what it could to help further progress in that direction. The council also fought for many other women’s rights such as raising the salaries and improving working conditions for women.

One of the meetings of the council was featured in the Oregonian on October 3, 1912. Held in the Selling-Hirsch building, this meeting was focused on a fundraising event in the form of an art exhibit which was being held in order to benefit Neighborhood House. Dr. Jonah B. Wise, a rabbi who was an influential member of the Jewish society in Portland, was also there to speak to the women. He was involved in various efforts to help Neighborhood House along with his friends and family. Mrs. Isaac Swett summed up the accomplishments of the past year and Miss Wold also spoke about suffrage.

The strength and cohesion of the Jewish community helped a lot to make progress towards the acceptance of woman suffrage. Josephine Hirsch contributed much to the campaign through her hard work and the way that she was an inspiration to other women. The organizations working towards suffrage and other equal rights causes were so effective because of the tight-knit community and the women who were so dedicated to seeing the cause through. The exceptional motivation of a few women attracted so many more women and helped to hold everyone together. As the different organizations worked together, they made the campaign even stronger by trying to draw together as many people as possible.


Primary Sources:

“Jewish Council Meets,” Oregonian, October 3, 1912, 14.

“Roosevelt Made Fun of by Women,” Oregonian, February 7, 1912, 4.

“Suffrage Certain to Come Verdict of English Actor,” Oregon Journal, January 12, 1912. 10.

“Suffragist Declares T.R. is Halfhearted,” Portland Evening Telegram, February 7, 1912, 2.

Secondary Sources

Harper, Ida Husted, History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6 1900-1920. New York: Arno and The New York Times, 1969.

Jensen, Kimberly, “Neither Head Nor Tail to the Campaign” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108 no. 3 (Fall 2007): 350-383.

Lowenstein, Steven. The Jews of Oregon. Portland: Jewish Historical Society of Oregon, 1987.

About The Author

Marina Jaschek participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Spring 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program [History Department] at Western Oregon University. Marina is a Sociology Major.