The Women of the American Jewish Congress

March 14, 2021
by Ruby Johnstone

Establishing a voice for Jewish feminism

The American Jewish Congress (AJC) has benefitted from the leadership of women since its 1918 assembly, when Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold was elected as a deputy of the organization. Women continued to shape the early history of the AJC by exercising their abilities to both campaign and vote with authority equal to that of their male counterparts.  

An official Women’s Division was established in 1933, creating a platform to further amplify the voices of female members and expand the AJC’s rapidly growing agenda. Lead by renowned philanthropist and Hadassah co-founder Louise Waterman Wise, the Women’s Division organized the first US ban on German goods in 1934, and became an invaluable resource for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. The late 1940s saw the AJC shift towards broader national causes, but the Women’s Division remained active in international causes up until its disbandment in the 1970s.

Aided by the legal counsel of Justine Wise Polier (daughter of Louise Waterman Wise) and sitting Vice President of the AJC/future AJC Executive Director Naomi Levine, the Women’s Division contributed to the fight for racial equality and social justice by attending protests, organizing events of their own, agitating for women’s rights, and expanding the focus of their efforts to include gender equality and reproductive freedom.  

Although the Women’s Division was integrated into the main body of the American Jewish Congress in the mid 1970s, their continued work culminated in the 1984 Commission for Women’s Equality. This gave the women of the Congress a space for collaboration with major figures of the feminist movement, such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Ann Lewis, while allowing female AJC members to continue to confront issues faced by Jewish women, and establish a voice for Jewish feminism.