Ottenberg, Nettie Podell (1887–1982)

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Ottenberg, Nettie Podell (1887–1982)

American social worker, one the first formally trained in the U.S., who worked for more than 60 years to improve laws and social policies affecting women and children. Pronunciation: OT-in-berg. Born Nettie Podell in Ukraine, Russia, on April 5, 1887; died in Washington, D.C., on May 11, 1982; daughter of Mordecai "Max" Podell (a bookkeeper) and Mannie Podell; attended New York School of Philanthropy and graduated in first class, 1905; married Louis Ottenberg, on April 10, 1912 (died May 10, 1960); children: Regina Ottenberg; Miriam Ottenberg; Louis Ottenberg, Jr.

Immigrated to America (1893); spent childhood in New York, NY; moved to Washington, D.C. (1912); worked as juvenile probation officer, Philadelphia (1906–09); examined newly arrived immigrant girls, Brooklyn Council of Jewish Women (1909–11); organized and ran first political settlement house for suffrage workers, Harlem, New York (1909–11); was state organizer and speaker, New York State Suffrage Association (1912); helped manage suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue (March 1913); was a founding member of a Voteless D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters (1920), and served as president (1937–39); served as president for Washington, D.C. Section, National Council of Jewish Women (1937–39) and representative to its Women's Joint Congressional Committee (1928–77); appointed to Public Welfare Advisory Committee on day care (1963); won first federal funding for day care (1964); was a board member, National Child Day Care Association, Washington, D.C. (1964–70s); advocated use of federal Medicaid money for early and periodic screening, diagnosis and treatment for underprivileged children (1971); given Official Commendation for Meritorious Public Service from the District of Columbia (1971).

On July 17, 1962, 75-year-old Nettie Podell Ottenberg testified before Senator Robert Byrd and his District Appropriations Subcommittee. Given just five minutes, she wasted no time in asking for $100,000 to establish a day-care center for the children of welfare mothers. Representing 23 organizations, she argued that providing day care would enable poor women to get off relief rolls and into the work force. Ottenberg was grateful when Byrd gave her five more minutes. "Finally, he looked over my head and asked those who were supporting me to stand," she later recalled. "My heart was in my mouth. I turned around. The whole room was standing up." The committee eventually allocated $50,000; Nettie Ottenberg had won the first federal money for day care in Washington, D.C.

Ottenberg was no stranger to poverty. She was born in the Ukraine, in Russia, in 1887, the daughter of Mordecai Max Podell and Mannie Podell . Her father had gone to America in 1893, where, working as a bookkeeper, he saved enough money in six months to send for his family. Mannie and the children had to bribe officials and cross the Russian border quickly. In 1893, the family moved into a tenement in New York's Lower East Side Jewish neighborhood; Nettie was then five. As a young teenager, she often took neighborhood children to Central Park to get them off the streets. At 16, she stumbled over a starving woman in a tenement stairwell. She asked a Jewish social service organization for assistance, but was disappointed when they sent investigators instead of food and clothing.

Only an eighth-grade graduate but determined to help fix the system, Ottenberg passed a high-school equivalency exam and entered the first class of the New York School of Philanthropy to study social work. She supplemented classroom seminars with field work, studying working conditions for women firsthand. She took a job in a feather and flower factory, steaming feathers in a basement, receiving one dollar for her 54-hour work week.

After graduating in 1905, Ottenberg went to work organizing a settlement house on New York's Upper East Side. She dealt with hostility between Irish and Jewish residents and convinced rival gangs to use the playroom and other settlement house services. The experience led to an interest in juvenile justice, and she left New York to work as a probation officer in Philadelphia's juvenile courts in 1906.

In 1908, she began reading about women's efforts to win the right to vote. Her experience with poor families in New York and Philadelphia convinced her that suffrage could empower poor women to improve conditions for themselves and their children. She returned to New York and convinced Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont (Alva Smith Belmont ) to rent a house in Harlem as the United States' first political settlement house. Ottenberg ran the settlement as a home base for suffragists organizing nearby from 1909 to 1911. From February to July 1912, she traveled for the New York State Suffrage Association, organizing statewide support. She had married Louis Ottenberg that April and finally joined him in Washington, D.C., at the end of the summer. In Washington, she helped organize the pivotal 1913 suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The parade marked suffragists' first public demand for a constitutional amendment and gave birth to Alice Paul 's radical National Woman's Party.

After women won the right to vote in 1920, Ottenberg still had a battle to wage for the citizens of Washington, D.C. Legislative control of the city rested with Congress, and residents had no congressional representative, no local elections, and no vote for the president. The city government was run by a three-man commission appointed by the president. Ottenberg helped found a "Voteless D.C." chapter of the League of Women Voters. Most local chapters worked toward a national platform, but Ottenberg and other members of the D.C. chapter met with League leaders Maud Wood Park and Belle Sherwin in 1925 and obtained permission to work toward independent goals.

The Voteless D.C. chapter fought only for federal voting rights until 1938, when they saw the Lewis-Randolf Joint Congressional Resolution as a possible route to local as well as federal representation. Ottenberg had taken over as president of the chapter in 1937, and she rallied support for the resolution, convincing the National League of Women Voters to accept this broader platform for District suffrage. "I'd hate to think women were working just for women," she said. "We feel that our work is for the good of the country as a whole. When we worked for the ballot we urged that we could become good citizens. I think we have proved that we can and that we can work in a nonpartisan way for legislation that will benefit the group as a whole." District citizens finally won the right to vote for the president in 1962 and for a city council in 1964.

Ottenberg led the Voteless D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters to other victories. As chair of the Social Hygiene Committee, she saw the abolition of taxi dance halls in 1934. Her committee also won congressional sponsorship for a new adoption law, doing away with the practice of baby brokers. On behalf of the chapter, Ottenberg fought to establish a Police Department Women's Bureau and better facilities for women prisoners. During her presidency in 1938, the chapter succeeded in its efforts to improve the juvenile court system.

Well into her 60s, she was still searching for new solutions to improve conditions for poor families. In 1957, she visited tax-supported day-care facilities in Copenhagen, Denmark. Impressed, after her return home she called together representatives from 23 local organizations and began the fight for federally funded day-care facilities in Washington, D.C. In 1962, her dramatic testimony before Robert Byrd's Senate District Appropriations Subcommittee won federal funding for a day-care center in the Arthur Capper Public Housing Unit. Responding to criticism of federally funded day care, Ottenberg said, "If mothers are expected to work and be independent and self-supporting, we've got to provide day care for children. The alternatives are to keep the family on relief, or let them go to work and then pick up the tab for the cost of delinquency." In 1963, the D.C. Board of Commissioners appointed her to the Public Welfare Advocacy Committee on Day Care, and she helped establish the Office of Economic Opportunity's National Capital Area Day Care Association.

When the OEO was abolished, the National Child Day Care Association began running day-care centers across the city. In 1971, Ottenberg discovered a rarely used clause in the Medicaid Bill which provided comprehensive medical treatment for poor children. As a board member of the National Child Day Care Association, she helped win a foundation grant to study the use of the city's day-care centers for screening children. That success led, in 1973, to a three-year grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to implement Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment programs for poor children.

Ottenberg's activities resulted in numerous articles, commendations and awards. On the occasion of her 90th birthday, she received letters from vice-president Walter Mondale, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Caspar Weinberger and others. D.C. mayor Walter Washington wrote, "Your lifetime work as a volunteer lobbyist for a wide range of social welfare legislation has been an invaluable contribution to our community and has made you one of Washington's most remarkable and valued citizens." Nettie Ottenberg died in Washington, D.C., in 1982, at age 95.


Dickson, Harold D., Sandra Balfour, and James Ballard. The National Child Day Care Association EPSDT Demonstration Project, October 1, 1973 through June 30, 1977. San Antonio, TX: Health Services Research Institute, 1978.

Jenkins, Sara, ed. "Nettie Ottenberg interviewed by Rebecca Wardell," in Past Present: Recording Life Stories of Older People. Washington, DC: St. Alban's Parish, 1978.

Kernan, Michael. "The Mother of Day Care: Granny Patrols at 90," in The Washington Post. August 10, 1977, p. B1.

Meringolo, Denise D. Interviews with Louis Ottenberg, Jr. 1995–1996.

Sadler, Christine. "League President Also Interested in Obtaining Autonomy School Board Once Enjoyed," in The Washington Post. July 8, 1938.

suggested reading:

Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America. NY: Dial Press, 1976.

Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1995.


The League of Women Voters Collection, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Women's Joint Congressional Committee Collection, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Denise D. D. , Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Washington, D.C.

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Ottenberg, Nettie Podell (1887–1982)

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