Jewish women immigrants

David Rosenberg, Facebook post
6th February 2018


How shall we benefit if instead of electing our master to govern us – as we do today – we elect his wife to govern us?” These were the words of Rose Witkop, a Jewish immigrant who became an anarchist in London’s East End in the period when the suffragette struggle was growing in strength. Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of a major step forwards for women when the number of women who could vote in Britain went from zero to 8.4m (the total number of men who could vote, after another 40% were enfranchised that day, was more than 12m – it would take another 10 years for full equality).

There were of course Jewish women both in the East End and West End who joined the suffragette struggle, not least Minnie Glassman (later Minnie Lansbury), born just off Brick Lane, who became a teacher at an East End school but gave up her teaching job to become a full-time assistant to Sylvia Pankhurst – a key figure in the East London/Federation of Suffragettes. (Minnie died in 1921 at the age of 32 – she is memorialised for her suffragette and other struggles with a lovely memorial in Bow). But people like Rose Witkop were more engaged with women’s struggles for equality and working class struggles in the sweatshops and factories where they worked.

It is an interesting question as to how many immigrant Jewish women would have been enfranchised on this day, 100 years ago. Many immigrants had difficulty raising the money for naturalisation – and without that people were not full citizens with voting rights. My grandfather’s sister, Hetty, a tailoring worker, who came as a young teenager in 1909 was not naturalised until the late 1950s. Also the housing crisis the immigrants found on arrival combined with discrimination by private landlords meant lots of people getting housing through the sub-letting system and as a result many of their names may not have got on to the electoral register.

A couple of years ago I was looking on the electoral register, late 1920s, at the street off Brick Lane where my immigrant grandmother (cap-maker, cigarette-maker, felling hand, shopworker) had lived with her brother, sister and parents. I know there were eight families (more than 40 people) living in that house – probably a number of them would have been too young to vote, but there were still lots of adults. Only 3 people in that house were on the electoral register!

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See David Rosenberg’s  blog (5th February) about some of the wider issues: The Suffragettes who fought for equality within their own movement