Maud Nathan was born on October 20, 1862 into a distinguished Sephardic Jewish New York City family. Her relatives included cousins Benjamin Cardozo, the U.S. Supreme Court justice, and Emma Lazarus, the poet best known for “The New Colossus,” which adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. She was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 1880, Maud Nathan married her first cousin, Frederick Nathan, and they had one child, Annette Florance Nathan. In 1895, Annette died at age 8, causing her deep grief. Nathan’s friend, Josephine Shaw Lowell, founder of the New York Consumers League, encouraged her to direct her efforts toward improving conditions for working women in New York City, and Nathan’s career as a social reformer and political activist began in earnest. Nathan became president of the league in 1897 and held the position for three decades.
During her time as a lobbyist in Albany, Nathan realized that legislators did not care much about women’s interests, since women did not have the vote. This led her to become a staunch suffragist, seeing the right of women to vote as tied with the rights of women in general, including in the workplace. In 1908, Nathan published a pamphlet titled, “The Wage Earner and the Ballot,” which pointed out that in suffrage states the age of consent was higher, the illiteracy rate was lower, women were paid more for civil service jobs, and there were stronger child labor laws.
Her support for women’s suffrage divided her family: Her brothers opposed it, and so did her sister, Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of Barnard College. Justice Cardozo, however, supported a suffrage amendment, despite personal reservations, and Frederick Nathan was very supportive of his wife and led multiple men’s efforts in favor of women’s suffrage. Some newspaper accounts even referred to him at his wife’s side as “Mr. Maud Nathan.”
Nathan also felt compelled as a Jewish woman to see that women in general be given a voice in government, stating in 1917, the year New York women would receive the vote: “Womanhood has occupied an unique place in Jewish life and we should be among the first to welcome the assumption of those responsibilities of citizenship by womankind which are an inevitable part of the new order of democratic life that lies before us. No one ought to be more sympathetic to the ideal of enfranchisement than Jews, who as a people have long known the hardship and the bitterness of unjust and proscriptive political discrimination.”
In 1897, Nathan was the first woman invited to speak at the Sephardic synagogue Shearith Israel, giving a talk entitled “The Heart of Judaism.” Simon Nathan, Frederick Nathan’s great-grandfather, was president of Shearith Israel at one time, and the Nathan family was an important and powerful influence on the congregation. Maud Nathan called for Jews to abhor “racialism,” to be open-minded, and to work for social justice and reform.
Nathan was almost 58 years old when the 19th Amendment passed, and she would continue to travel the world advocating for working women, equal suffrage in those countries where it had not yet passed, and the education of consumers. She died at home on December 15, 1946, two days before the first night of Hanukkah that year. As the Festival of Lights begins tonight, we honor her legacy on behalf of the voiceless, especially women and children.
Jewish Women’s Archive, “Maud Nathan,” by Anne Kaufman, jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/nathan-maud
“Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940,” by Melissa R. Klapper