Thoughts on Election Eve: Oedipus, Shmpedipus, As Long As He Loves His Mother

Hanging chads, butterfly ballots, broken machines, and outright voter fraud–the list of voting irregularities is almost as long as the election day lines many of us have to maneuver. When I think of how many things go wrong, I wonder … Read More

By / November 3, 2008

Hanging chads, butterfly ballots, broken machines, and outright voter fraud–the list of voting irregularities is almost as long as the election day lines many of us have to maneuver. When I think of how many things go wrong, I wonder how it is that most of us do manage to cast our vote without a problem. But even when our trip to the voting booths is gloriously ordinary, voting can be a deeply meaningful event. I remember the first time I could vote in a national election, and that feeling of wonder and even awe has stayed with me.

Every time I vote I think of the potential of the process to express and protect the interests of minorities, and I remember how long it took both African-Americans and women in the U.S. to achieve that privilege. For women, it was 72 years, to be exact, counting from the first women’s right convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. Jews can be proud of the role they played in the fight for woman suffrage. One of the earliest activists on behalf of equal opportunity for women was Ernestine Rose, a rabbi’s daughter born in a Polish shtetl, who defied her father, and his expectations that she would marry there, young and conventionally. Rose emigrated to England and then to the U.S., where she became an early leader in the effort to give women the vote. Suffrage notable Susan B. Anthony named Rose as one of the most important women’s rights leaders in history.

In the next generation, there was Maud Nathan, an Orthodox Jewish woman who had been a leader in the consumer’s movement and who became known as “the society woman” in politics. One of the movement’s most original tacticians, she invented open-air automobile campaigns, "24-hour" speeches given from cars, and throwing out suffrage literature wrapped around coins. Because suffragists were associated with "masculine" women, Nathan dressed in her finest gowns when she spoke at mass meetings. “When I hear a woman speak so well in the public interest,” Woodrow Wilson remarked after hearing her, “it almost makes me believe in woman suffrage." When the president belatedly became a suffrage supporter–a shift important to its final victory– Maud happily took the credit.

But it was not only elite Jewish women who fought for the right of women to vote. The passage of a suffrage amendment in New York State, which served as a major catalyst to the 1920 federal amendment, was largely attributed to the Jewish vote—78 of the 100 pro-suffrage election districts were immigrant Jewish neighborhoods.

For Jewish mothers who had been active in the suffrage fight, it was fitting that the final victory happened because a widowed mother, far away in Tennessee, spoke out. By mid-August, 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the suffrage amendment. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment, the long battle would be lost.

With a virtual tie predicted, the climactic moment fell to Harry Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature, who had previously voted with the anti-suffrage forces. But in the end, the 24-year-old listened to his mother, who sent a telegram pleading with her son to be a “good boy” and stand up for women’s rights. With Burn’s vote, Tennessee became the deciding state to ratify. Eight days later, on August 26, 1920, the amendment became law.

We thank Mrs. Burn for intervening in her son’s life, as we do all those women who worked to ensure the victory of this legislative milestone. Mothers have often gotten a bum rap for just such “nagging,” but without them, our political lives would be that much poorer.

* * * * * *

Can you think of a time when your mother’s “nagging” likewise did some particular good– for you, and others?


Ernestine Rose

Seneca Falls


Jokes from the Borscht Belt:


Q. What did the Jewish mother bank teller say to her customer?

A. You never write, you never call, you only come to see me when you need money.

Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. Never mind, I’ll just sit here in the dark.

Q. What did the waiter ask the group of dining Jewish mothers?

A. "Is anything all right?"

A woman takes her son to the doctor. At the end of the appointments the doctor calls the mother into his office and says, "Mrs. Goldstein, I’m afraid that your son Barry has an Oedipus complex." To which Mrs. Goldstein replies, "Oedipus, Shmedipus, just as long as he loves his mother."

Reprinted from You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother by Joyce Antler published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © Joyce Antler, 2007

Joyce Antler author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother, will be guest blogging on Jewcy this week. Stay Tuned.

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