Frontier Jewish Women: Eluding Convention

Historical Essay

by Kate Shvetsky


Poster calling for people to emigrate to California.

Finding their new homelands receptive to women of talent and ambition, a number of Jewish pioneer women gloried in western life. Occasionally boldly and rebelliously, more often shyly, slowly, nearly accidentally, these early Jewish women eluded the conventional "separate spheres" and developed strong identities independent of their husbands. The relative fluidity of western society meant many Jewish women found they were freer to do as they pleased in their nascent settlements where everyone was a newcomer and no rigid social structure had yet taken hold.

Sometimes independence meant opening a store. To others, like Hannah Marks Solomons, new found freedom meant breaking the engagement to man her family had chosen and vowing to choose her own mate according to her own standards. A child of Polish parents, Hannah's family emigrated to America 1835 to New Bedford, MA. Orphaned, she grew up in the home of an Orthodox uncle in Philadelphia. As soon as she was able, she found work in a store and made plans to leave. When a lonely western suitor sent her passage money to California in 1853, she hastily accepted. However, after meeting the betrothed, she refused to go through with marriage. Her family back East was outraged. Only her brother came to her defense, saying "that cattle matching project is not exactly consistent with spirit of American education in the 1850s." Her mind made up, she went to work as a schoolteacher, and later found her own man.

Jewishsf$frontier-jewish-women$solomon itm$hannah-m-solomon.jpg

Second generation Jewish women in the West received from their pioneering mothers a legacy of confidence, self-reliance, independence, and pride in achievement. Lacking trails to blaze or towns to build, some of these women became ground breakers in new roles and occupations from which women had traditionally been barred. Adele Solomons Jaffa, Hannah Solomons's daughter, became a psychiatrist. Hannah Solomon's other daughter, Selina, was a writer, practicing astrologer, and an ardent campaigner for women's suffrage. Selina's childhood friend Jessica Peixotto, daughter of prominent San Francisco Sephardic family received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1900--the second woman to do so--and four years later became a teacher of social economics there. By WWI Jewish daughters of the frontier were moving from home and hearth into radically untraditional realms.

Source: Harriet and Fred Rochlin "Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West" c. 1984 Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

Prev. Document Next Document