BORN: January 14, 1858 • Chicago, Illinois
DIED: December 7, 1942 • Chicago, Illinois
Hannah Solomon is best remembered as the founder of the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), a volunteer organization that sought to improve the lives of women and children throughout the United States. Solomon spent her entire life in Chicago, Illinois, where her tireless efforts in social welfare brought her into contact with leading social activists of her day, including Jane Addams (1860–1935; see entry) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). She formed lasting friendships with both women. The social activist was a writer as well and published a volume of essays and speeches in 1911. Her autobiography, The Fabric of My Life, was published in 1946, four years after her death.
"In a democracy, all are responsible."
Activism in her blood
Hannah Greenebaum Solomon was the fourth of ten children born to German immigrants Sarah and Michael Greenebaum. She was born on January 14, 1858, into a close-knit Jewish community in Chicago. Within that community, Solomon's parents were active in civic and social organizations. In 1883, Sarah founded the city's first Jewish Ladies Sewing Society, a club whose members made clothing for the needy. In 1907, a sister branch of that club was established and named after Sarah. Michael was a volunteer firefighter and helped establish the Zion Literary Society, a book discussion group for youth, in 1877.
Solomon's extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—had also immigrated to Chicago and were equally active in civic and social activities. Having grown up in a household that frequently included these family members as well as friends and activists, Solomon was instilled with a sense of duty as well as a great love of family. As stated in her autobiography, "Even in our formative years, we children of Sarah and Michael Greenebaum were unconsciously affected by their spirit of joyous citizenship in a beloved country whose reverse side, our parents never forgot, imposed civic obligation." Her achievements in later years would surprise no one who knew her.
Another important aspect of Solomon's family life was religion. The Greenebaums kept a kosher home (a household adhering to strict guidelines for food preparation and rituals) and honored traditional Jewish rituals and ceremonies. Yet Michael Greenebaum helped establish Chicago's first Reform synagogue (Jewish temple). Reform Judaism broke away from the Orthodox (strict, traditional) practice of the Jewish religion and incorporated a more modern interpretation of both Jewish religious texts and practices. In the twenty-first century, Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish denomination in America.
Begins a life of activism
Solomon's father was a prosperous hardware merchant in the city. His success allowed him to send his children to the best schools in the area. Solomon attended a religious school, where she was taught both Hebrew and German. From there, she attended and graduated from public high school. In 1876, Solomon and her older sister were invited to join the elite (upper-class) and newly formed Chicago Woman's Club (CWC). They became the organization's first Jewish members. The CWC had been established by women who wanted to become involved in civic work on an organized basis without having to gain approval from men's civic organizations.
In her work on the subject of civic women in Chicago, author Maureen Flanagan explained how male and female reformers of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era went about their work differently. (The Gilded Age was the period in history following the Civil Warand Reconstruction [roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century], characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption. The Progressive Era was the period that followed the Gilded Age [approximately the first twenty years of the twentieth century]; it was marked by reform and the development of a national cultural identity.) Men's charity efforts were more concerned with who was the most deserving among the poor. Each men's organization had a basic set of guidelines to follow when determining how money and relief efforts would be spent. Women reformers were traditionally less concerned with who was considered worthy of assistance; they saw need and were less likely to compare the degree of neediness. Without their own civic clubs and associations, women could not help out in the ways they believed were most beneficial to the greatest number of people.
The CWC operated with a strong sense that education was the key to success and prosperity. Many of its philanthropic (charitable) efforts focused on this idea. Among its first causes was the improvement of public schools and work conditions for female teachers. In order to be a member, a woman had to complete a course of study that was as rigorous and demanding as many college courses. Solomon, the club's youngest member, wrote several academic papers as part of her course. One of them, titled "Our Debt to Judaism," was the first religious paper ever presented to the CWC.
Whereas the earlier efforts of the CWC focused on social improvement and education, the focus by the end of the club's first decade had switched to reforms at the state level. The CWC was the driving force behind a movement to improve state facilities for orphans and female prisoners. The women of the CWC also successfully pushed for the passage of laws to restrict child labor and to enforce mandatory education for children (the idea that children had to go to school instead of work). In 1899, Illinois was the first state to create a juvenile court system. Members of the CWC were among the most active and vocal advocates of such a system.
Family and activism: her greatest loves
Solomon married businessman Henry Solomon in May 1879 when she was twenty-one years old. She devoted those early years of her marriage to raising her young family, which would eventually include three children: Herbert, Helen, and Frank. She gave up all outside activities willingly, as her love of family and her desire to be a supportive wife and mother consumed all her energy.
In 1890, Chicago was chosen as the site for the World's Columbian Exposition, a cultural event that would celebrate the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and the country's progress since that time. America wanted the fair to prove to the world that as a nation, it had become an advanced, enlightened society. By 1891, the fair's Board of Lady Managers decided to organize events for women of all religions. Hannah Greenebaum Solomon was the obvious choice to lead the Jewish population. Even though her civic activism had taken a backseat to raising her family, she maintained her social connections with people who had the money and power to make important decisions.
The next two years were spent planning and organizing. Solomon wanted to establish a women's congress (a gathering of people, usually for a political purpose) to represent Jewish women across the nation. In an initial effort to get the group established, Solomon handwrote more than ninety letters seeking participants and assistance. By the time the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) was founded in 1893, more than two thousand letters had been exchanged between Solomon and others.
The National Council of Jewish
Women is formed
Jewish men were preparing their own congress, the Jewish Denominational Congress, and they approached Solomon to join them. Despite asking, the men expected the women to do nothing more than support the men's efforts by showing up. Solomon explained that the women desired their own representation and would join the men if they could guarantee active participation. Her request was denied.
The Columbian Exposition opened in 1893. The Jewish Women's Congress was a four-day event, held that year from September 4 through 7. Speakers from across the country came to lecture on subjects such as religion, philanthropy, and Jewish history. The event was so popular that each day, all the seats were filled and women stood in the hallways for hours, just to hear the speakers. By the end of the fourth day, the enthusiastic crowd voted to form the National Council of Jewish Women. The organization's goals were to fulfill its commitment to Judaism through social reform, education, and activities against anti-Semitism (hatred of the Jews). Solomon was unanimously elected president of the NCJW.
The enthusiasm of NCJW members did not diminish after the close of the Congress. By the time of the council's first triennial (every three years) convention in 1896, the organization boasted more than three thousand members across the country. Reforms were already in place; the council was proving itself to be an effective, dedicated group of women. Already in the first three years of the NCJW's existence, the organization worked closely and tirelessly in the settlement house movement, which provided much-needed social services to the urban poor. Together, they designed programs to train girls and women so that they would have the skills needed to get steady jobs. They also developed free health clinics and programs that went door-to-door to help those who needed it most. The NCJW advocated for children in court during an era when children had few rights. In a very short period of time, these women had made their mark on society, and they had only just begun.
As often happens when an organization is still in its early stages of growth and development, the NCJW began to question its identity. Would it be primarily a religious organization, or a philanthropic organization? Solomon's belief was that philanthropy was a way to uphold a Jew's commitment to her religion; charity was an expression of faith. She encouraged members to make their Judaism the defining element of the council.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish men relied on their women to take over the responsibility of religious observance. It was up to the women to keep homes kosher, to see that the children obtained religious instruction and faith, and to prepare for religious holidays and rituals. The council took their obligations seriously and focused their efforts on fighting the assimilation (absorption of one culture into another) of Jews into American society. They did this through study circles, which was basically the religious education of Jewish women. This was a radical (extreme) idea at the time, as only men had religious authority in the synagogues.
The council's argument was hard to combat, though. How could women be expected to uphold the religious responsibility of her family if she did not know what that responsibility was? Solomon had the idea of inviting rabbis (Jewish religious leaders) to speak at and lead the study circles. This idea was in keeping with the traditional belief that the true power of Jewish women lay not in their authority but in their ability to influence others.
Controversy amidst the council
Part of Reform Judaism involved the moving of the Sabbath (Holy Day) from Saturday to Sunday. Solomon supported this shift because she believed American Jews could more fully observe the Sabbath if it were held on the same day as the Christian Sabbath. It was, in a sense, assimilation, and this point did not escape the more conservative Orthodox Jews in the council. To them, the movement of the Sabbath was the first step toward converting to Christianity.
Much of that first triennial convention was spent debating this all-important issue. Those who were against it were intensely outspoken about their beliefs. So firm were they on their stance that they tried to block Solomon's reelection to the presidency of the council. When attacked as a blasphemer (one who speaks disrespectfully of sacred things) and one who does not consecrate (observe) the Sabbath, Solomon's famous response, as reported on the Jewish Women's Archive Web site, was, "I do consecrate the Sabbath. I consecrate every day of the week!" Solomon won the reelection, but her presidency continued to be plagued with problems rising from the Sabbath issue. In an effort to avoid the conflict, the organization agreed to refrain from discussing religious principles and dedicated its efforts solely to philanthropy. Solomon resigned from her position in 1905 and was given an honorary presidency for life. Meanwhile, her eldest son, Herbert, had died suddenly in 1899. His death would have a major impact on both her physical and her mental health.
Beyond the council
Although her work with the NCJW took much of her time, it was not Solomon's only civic activity. In 1897, she founded the Bureau of Personal Service, an organization that gave much-needed assistance to the Russian Jewish immigrants who flooded Chicago in the 1890s. With financial assistance from the NCJW, the Bureau worked with other relief organizations to give new immigrants legal advice and guidance during those first overwhelming months in a new land. Solomon was the Bureau's head for thirteen years.
In addition to her work within the Jewish community, Solomon teamed with Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and led activists in the fight for women's suffrage (right to vote). Regardless of Solomon's firm belief in suffrage, she was never able to convince the NCJW of the value of having a political voice. Its members believed women did not need the power of the vote to make a positive change in society.
Solomon herself identified her role as president of the Illinois Industrial School for Girls as the one that affected her most. The school was for girls who were wards of the state (those who had been orphaned or abused). The facility had fallen into serious disrepair because of a lack of money, but by the end of her first year as its president in 1907, the school's debt had been paid. Solomon improved school policies and procedures, which in turn improved the care the girls received.
Solomon worked with city officials to improve Chicago's sanitation system, and she is credited with establishing a penny lunch program for the city's poor children within the public school system.
A lasting legacy
In 1910, Solomon helped establish the Chicago Women's City Club, an organization whose members worked to improve and increase social offerings in Chicago. One of its first major efforts was the Public Beach Campaign. Members researched various locations throughout Chicago and worked with various commissions to clean up the sites so they could be turned into public swimming beaches. The following year, the reformer published A Sheaf of Leaves, a collection of essays and speeches.
The second decade of the twentieth century was not entirely kind to Solomon. Her husband and most devoted supporter died in 1913. Yet she turned her grief into constructive effort. During World War I (1914–18), she worked with people of more than forty various nationalities living within the city to coordinate war efforts to support troops overseas.
Solomon's reform activities—and those of many other women (see box)—made life in Chicago during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era easier for its residents. She was a prime example of the ideal Jewish woman: strong, tireless, and compassionate, able to use her influence to better her community and the city in which its members lived. The NCJW in the twenty-first century has branched out to become a global organization, with members around the world who work together to improve the quality of life in both America and Israel. The organization joins with human rights groups, reproductive rights groups, and child welfare groups to enact legislation that protects men, women, and children from all walks of life.
Rebel Women of Chicago
During the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, Chicago was an active city, filled with women who chose to dedicate their lives to the betterment of all. Chicago has a rich history of women activists, each of whom impacted her society in a unique way. Here is a very brief list of some of the Windy City's lesser-known female movers and shakers.
Katherine Dunham (1909–2006): Dancer and choreographer who established the Chicago Negro School of Ballet.
Marion Lucy Mahoney Griffin (1871–1961): First woman to earn her architect's license in the state of Illinois and second woman to graduate from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Designed the Woman's Building for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Bessie Abramowitz Hillman (1889–1970): One of several leaders of the 1910 garment workers' strike in Chicago; founding member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America labor union.
Ida Platt (1863–c. 1940): First African American female lawyer admitted to the Illinois bar in 1894; she would be the only African American female attorney in the state until 1920. She was also the second African American woman allowed to practice law in the United States.
For More Information
Diner, Hasia R., and Beryl Lieff Benderly. Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Felder, Deborah G., and Diana Rosen. Fifty Jewish Women Who Changed the World. New York: Citadel Press, 2003.
Flanagan, Maureen A. Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City, 1871–1933. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Slater, Elinor, and Robert Slater. Great Jewish Women. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1994.
Solomon, Hannah G. The Fabric of My Life: The Autobiography of Hannah G. Solomon. New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1946.
"Chicago Women's History." Chicago Public Library.http://www.chipublib.org/003cpl/chgowomen.html (accessed on September 5, 2006).
"Clubs, Women's." Encyclopedia of Chicago.http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/306.html (accessed on September 5, 2006).
"Hannah Greenebaum Solomon." National Women's Hall of Fame.http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=148 (accessed on September 5, 2006).
Library of Congress. "American Jewish Women." American Memory: American Women.http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awas12/jewish.html (accessed on September 5, 2006).
PBS. "The Golden Land, 1654–1930s; Jewish Cultural Life in Chicago." Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.http://www.pbs.org/wnet/heritage/episode7/documents/documents_8.html (accessed on September 5, 2006).
"Women of Valor: Hannah Greenebaum Solomon." Jewish Women's Archive.http://www.jwa.org/exhibits/wov/solomon/ (accessed on September 5, 2006).