THE photograph here of members of the religious suffrage leagues dates from about 1913-14. No comparable image can be found from the suffrage campaigns of any other country — and certainly it was only Britain that had a Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage. This assembly of equals is truly remarkable, and, in tracing the steps by which such groupings came into existence, I have found that the part played by British women in constructing interfaith relations is a hitherto unrecorded story.
From about 1870, Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe increased the Jewish population in the UK to about 300,000, bringing about one of the earliest chapters in the multicultural history of Britain. Most Jews were extremely poor and lacking in education; they settled in the East End of London, and in similar districts in Manchester.
The new influx aroused anxieties and antagonisms that led to the first legislation, in 1905, controlling entry to Britain in peacetime. Established Jewish families, concerned by increasing anti-Semitism, were galvanised into creating institutions to Anglicise the newcomers, and to prevent their becoming a resented burden on society. They were also spurred on to build stronger bridges with their host community, particularly within voluntary associations and charitable activities.
AS MUCH recent research has shown, this was one arena where middle- and upper-class women could take on a range of initiatives, and enjoy something like equality of opportunity with their male kin. It also provided the opportunity for some Jewish and Christian women to meet on almost equal terms.
An important bridge-builder was Constance Rothschild, afterwards Mrs Cyril Flower, afterwards Lady Battersea. Although she married out, her Rothschild status permitted her to maintain her Jewish identity while participating in the main national women’s organisations of her day. She was particularly preoccupied with the problem of prostitution, or “the social evil”, as it was called: an issue that prompted many Victorian women to organise the protection and rescue of others of their sex.
Allegedly, in 1885, two prostitutes entered a Christian mission in London, and refused to eat non-kosher food or listen to sermons: the organisers referred them to Constance Flower, who, in turn, inspired her Jewish friends to form their own “preventive and rescue” society. As they began work for their “fallen” or endangered sisters, the Jewish society referred constantly to their more experienced Christian colleagues for advice and practical help.
The relationship was not all one way: for example, in that same year, several Protestant societies established, under the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), an umbrella organisation, the Travellers’ Aid Society, which sought to help women who had left home in search of work. On discovering that the Jewish women already employed a male agent to meet Jewish girls arriving at the London docks from the Continent, the two groups agreed to pay an equal share of the agent’s salary so that he could also chaperone Christian girls making the same journey. The Travellers’ Aid Society also welcomed a permanent Jewish representative on to its committee.
It is interesting to note that only after five years did the committee suggest inviting a Roman Catholic, and none had been co-opted by 1892. Clearly, the success of this collaborative work depended on the need to work effectively together for practical reasons, and not on the specific purpose of interfaith activity.
Indeed, the lesson from history seems to be that interfaith activity acquired greatest intensity when directed towards a particular social goal, and to have been less successful when pursued for its own sake.
THE history of women in Manchester offers a similar example. The Ladies Branch of the Manchester and Salford Sanitary Association undertook home visiting, but also reported on the bad housing, water supply, and drainage that poor families could not remedy. It had many supporters among the “cousinhoods” — long-established and prosperous families — of Manchester Jewry, who worked alongside their Christian colleagues.
By the early 1880s, when there was an influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe into Manchester, the committee sought advice from its Jewish members, and created the Jewish Ladies Visiting Association in 1884: a specialist initiative, but never a separatist one.
These networks came to the fore in 1899, when the country was in uproar over the Dreyfus Affair. Thousands of British women wrote to Madame Lucie Dreyfus, the wife of the Jewish army officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted in France on a fictitious charge of treason.
On 14 September, The Manchester Guardian printed an appeal from Sarah Anne Gamble, a committee member of the Ladies Branch, which gathered 1776 signatures of Jewish and non-Jewish women in a shared act of compassion and call for justice. The addresses range from the well to-do residences of committee ladies to the poorest streets of those the society cared for.
BY 1899, Christian and Jewish women collaborated extensively, and were unembarrassed about exchanging information about the social problems of their respective communities. Relationships forged in the practical sphere of female philanthropy could begin to take a more political turn: the suffrage campaign was about to provide a more highly charged vehicle for this change.
Religious suffrage leagues formed between 1909 and 1912 were late arrivals to the campaign. They were non-militant, and admitted men. Each demanded greater equality within its own religious congregations, as well as at the ballot box, but stopped short of calling for female ordained ministry.
After a mass protest against the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, in July 1913, there was a combined protest by all the religious leagues against forcible feeding. An interfaith suffrage meeting took place at Hampstead Town Hall in October, where the Bishop of Lincoln introduced the only non-Christian speaker as “part of the rock from whom we are all hewn”. Every league signed up to “A manifesto and call to prayer” about “the woman question”, and a National Week of Prayer was held in the same year.
The warmth expressed by the Christian campaigners towards their Jewish comrades is striking, particularly within the Nonconformist leagues. The Free Church Suffrage Times asserted: “The Puritans founded their theocracy on the Old Testament, so affinities exist between Jews and Nonconformists which do not exist between other religious bodies. The Jewish intention ‘to serve our country with our spiritual heritage, as well as with our material and intellectual endowments’ reminds us of our genius for civic righteousness.”
It is noteworthy that the first ever national interfaith organisation, the Society of Christians and Jews — the precursor to the current Council of Christians and Jews — was founded between the wars by a woman, Lily Montagu, who was a leading light of Liberal Judaism. She had experienced the suffragist collaboration, and also built on her contacts within social work and the peace movement. It was unfortunate, however, that in these early days the project was shunned by Orthodox Jewry, and attracted a number of Christians intent on converting Jews.
New tensions arose after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933. While large numbers of churchmen and -women denounced Nazism, some Christian pacifists were influenced by the anti-war agitation, and spoke of the bellicose campaign of “world Jewry”.
The Society’s membership, however, continued to rise as war drew nearer. Thanks to the strenuous lobbying of a committee member, the Revd James Parkes, all Jewish and Christian denominations eventually made a commitment, in 1942, to an even stronger and more equal form of interfaith partnership in the Council of Christians and Jews.
It could also be argued that, in this same period between the two world wars, all the large and small ways in which Christian and Jewish women met and worked together contributed to the reception of Jewish refugees from Nazism — the 1000 Jewish children a month who entered this country from 1938 to 1939, and were cared for overwhelmingly by women on a largely voluntary basis.
Historians find much to deplore in the interwar period, but research suggests that the interfaith efforts of women go some way to redeeming it. The historical record also shows that, where women have no official standing in religious hierarchies, their influence must be limited, and yet this has never stopped women from forging links within local communities in pursuit of the common good.
Anne Summers is the author of Christian and Jewish Women in Britain, 1880-1940: Living with difference (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).