Stern, Elizabeth G(ertrude Levin)

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STERN, Elizabeth G(ertrude Levin)

Born 14 February 1889, Skedel, Poland; died 9 January 1954, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Wrote under: Eleanor Morton, Leah Morton, E. G. Stern, Elizabeth Stern, Elizabeth Gertrude Stern

Daughter of Aaron and Sarah Rubenstein Levin; married Leon T. Stern, circa 1911

The infant Elizabeth Stern emigrated with her parents in 1890 from Poland to Pittsburgh, where she was raised and educated, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1910. After a year at the New York School of Philanthropy, she married penologist Leon Stern, and began a career that successfully combined marriage and motherhood with social work and writing. Stern was a night school principal in New York and Galveston, supervised welfare work for Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, and directed two New York settlement houses. A journalist from 1914 to 1937, Stern included features in the New York Times and a regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer among her accomplishments. In the 1940s she wrote, lectured, and was active in many Quaker and philanthropic organizations. She died at sixty-four after a long illness.

Stern's best works are fictionalized autobiographies that focus on her movement from Polish-Jewish ghetto to American mainstream. Theodore Roosevelt introduced Stern's first book, My Mother and I (1917), which poignantly describes how education loosens bonds between an immigrant mother and her daughter. While the young protagonist is proud of her achieved status as middle-class housewife, she regrets her mother's alienation from the world maternal self-sacrifice helped her reach. In I Am a Woman—and a Jew (1926), Stern explores the confrontation between a rebellious daughter and her rabbi father, with the mother as mediator. The first person narrator's rejection of both orthodox Judaism and feminine domesticity is complicated by a lingering sense of responsibility to both traditions, and inability to escape anti-Semitism and sexism.

Stern also used her work experience as raw material for fiction. With her husband, she wrote A Friend at Court (1923), the "casebook" of an idealized female probation officer. The work is marred by a predictable romantic subplot and panegyrics on probation as a social panacea. The middle-aged social worker in When Love Comes to Woman (1929) provides no such pat answers to women involved in unconventional living arrangements; Stern's ideal is a dual-career marriage promising lifelong friendship. Her telling comparisons between the sexual experimentation of the "new women" of the 1920s and the seriousness of the suffragists of her youth offer insights into important and still-contemporary issues.

Family relationships are central to Stern's other novels. In A Marriage Was Made (1928), a mother's domination of her daughter thwarts the girl's promising career by making her too passive to express emotion in her music or life. The mother-daughter theme is also important in Gambler's Wife (1931), which traces a strong but self-sacrificing woman from her youth in the Arkansas hills, through her elopement with a drifter who repeatedly abandons her, to her last years with her grown, but immature children.

Later in life, Stern moved from fiction to essay and biography. A collection of her newspaper columns, Not All Laughter (1937), reveals her consuming interest in relationships, and her version of woman's true role: the thinking wife, the comrade. Stern wrote biographies of a businesswoman (Memories: The Life of Margaret McAvoy Smith, 1943) and a Quaker inventor (Josiah White: Prince of Pioneers, 1946). In her last book, The Women Behind Gandhi (1953), Stern concentrates on Gandhi's wife and his Indian and European female disciples, highlighting the women's rights phase of his movement for India's full liberation.

In her works, Stern accurately accounts the costs and benefits of both the Americanization process and the application of feminist principles to life. Her books may appear dated by their romanticism and frequent concentration upon battles considered long won (particularly on the right of married women to work), but Stern's emphasis upon the sacrifices involved in family relationships complicated by cultural change is of continuing interest, and her perspective as a daughter of immigrants makes her insights especially important.

Other Works:

This Ecstasy (1927).


Baum, C., P. Hyman, and S. Michel, The Jewish Woman in America (1976).

Reference works:

NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Bookman (Aug. 1917). NYT (8 July 1917, 24 April 1929, 19 Feb. 1928, 12 April 1931, 10 Jan. 1954). SR (18 Dec. 1926, 7 Sept. 1929, 8 Aug. 1953). Survey (15 Oct. 1923, Feb. 1947).