Nathan, Maud (1862–1946)

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Nathan, Maud (1862–1946)

American social reformer and suffragist. Born on October 20, 1862, in New York City; died on December 15, 1946, in New York City; daughter of Robert Weeks Nathan (a member of New York Stock Exchange and a railroad general passenger agent) and Annie Augusta (Florance) Nathan; sister of Annie Nathan Meyer (1867–1951); educated at private schools in New York and a public high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin; married Frederick Nathan (a stockbroker), in 1880; children: Annette Florance Nathan (c. 1887–1895).

Formed Consumers' League of New York with Josephine Shaw Lowell and others (1890); became president of the league (1897); became probably the first woman to give a speech in a synagogue in place of a rabbi's sermon (1897); was first vice president, Equal Suffrage League of New York, and chair of the suffrage committee of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party (1912); resigned as president of the Consumers' League and named honorary president for life (1917).

Selected writings:

The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement (1926); Once Upon a Time and To-day (autobiography, 1933).

Born in New York City on October 20, 1862, Maud Nathan was the second of four children of Robert Weeks Nathan and Annie Florance Nathan , both members of prominent New York City families of Sephardic Jewish descent. She was the elder sister of Annie Nathan Meyer , an author and founder of Barnard College, and a cousin of the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Educated at private schools in New York until her father, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, failed in business and was forced to take a job as a railroad general passenger agent in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Maud completed her formal education in the Green Bay public high school and graduated in 1876. After her mother died in 1878, Maud and her siblings returned to their mother's and father's families in New York City. At the age of 17, she was married on April 7, 1880, to her first cousin Frederick Nathan, a prominent stockbroker twice her age. The couple had one child, Annette Florance, some seven years later.

Following her marriage, Nathan became involved with several charitable organizations, and served as director of the nursing school at the Mount Sinai Hospital as well as a director of the Hebrew Free School Association. She also lent her support to the New York Exchange for Women's Work and the Women's Auxiliary of the Civil Service Reform Association. In 1890, Nathan, reformer Josephine Shaw Lowell , and other women formed the Consumers' League of New York, an organization devoted to industrial and retail reforms. She also served in 1894 as a vice president of the Woman's Municipal League of New York. In addition to her philanthropic work, Nathan was noted for her needlework skills and singing ability, and was a prominent society figure in New York City and Saratoga, New York. This period of her life came to an abrupt end when her eight-year-old daughter died in 1895. At the urging of her friend Lowell, Nathan attempted to overcome her grief by becoming more active in public affairs. In 1897, she was elected president of the New York Consumers' League, a post she would hold for 20 years. She later was a member of the executive committee as well as vice president of the National Consumers' League after its founding in 1898.

The league attempted to involve the public in forcing businesses to treat employees more fairly. It published "white lists" of stores that acted properly and allowed well-run businesses to add a "consumers' label" to their product. The league excluded all employers and employees from its membership, and urged not only fair employment practices but also an honest day's work from employees. The organization worked effectively for state legislation, and fought to protect this legislation when challenged in court. Although not as influential as Lowell or the general secretary of the national body, Florence Kelley , Nathan was recognized as an important and unceasing advocate for reform. From 1902 to 1904, she also served as chair of the industrial committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs.

While she was lobbying state lawmakers, Nathan discovered that the opinions of voteless women were most often ignored. Eventually, she devoted more and more of her time and effort to fighting for women's suffrage, through the Equal Suffrage League of New York, of which she served as its first vice president, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her efforts in this direction were strongly supported by her husband, who traveled extensively with her throughout the country in a car hung with American flags, rounding up audiences to listen to her speak. However, her two brothers and her cousin Benjamin Cardozo were critical of her position on female suffrage, and her sister Annie Nathan Meyer even wrote letters to newspapers denouncing Nathan's views. (Nathan wrote back to the same papers.) She concentrated most of her energies for suffrage in New York State, although in 1912 she served as women's suffrage chief in Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose campaign. A noted speaker who was admired for her sense of humor, she also lectured about American women's struggle for suffrage at international conferences. (Fluent in French and German, she occasionally served as an interpreter at these conferences as well.)

Descended from Sephardic Jews, Nathan regularly attended an influential old synagogue in New York City, although she has been described by one biographer as "cherish[ing] Judaism for its universal truths rather than for its traditional forms." In 1897, she was asked to read a paper on "The Heart of Judaism" at New York's Temple Beth-El in place of a rabbi's sermon, making her probably the first woman to play such a part in an American Jewish worship service. This speech espoused her belief that Judaism is basically a love of righteousness, including social justice.

Nathan's husband died in 1919, one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Although she remained a strong supporter of the Consumers' League (about which she wrote in The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement, published in 1926) and the League of Women Voters, she devoted most of her later years to traveling, her friends, and the writing of her autobiography, which was published in 1933 as Once Upon a Time and To-day. In the middle years of the Depression, she attacked Franklin Roosevelt's tax policies and (as a wealthy woman herself) what she regarded as his hostile attitude towards the wealthy. Maud Nathan died at her home in New York City on December 15, 1946, at age 84, and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens, New York.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

suggested reading:

Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. NY: The Free Press, 1997.

Lagemann, Ellen Condliffe. A Generation of Women. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont