Critical journey

Critical journey

Perry, Elisabeth Israels

Belle Lindner Moskowitz (1877-1933) was born in Harlem, New York, where her parents, who had emigrated from East Prussia eight years earlier, ran a small jewelry and watch-repair shop. Educated at city schools, Horace Mann High School for Girls, and, for a year, at Teachers’ College, she began her career as a drama coach at the Educational Alliance, a Lower East Side settlement. She later became its director of entertainments and exhibits. In 1903 she left this job to marry Charles Henry Israels, an architect, with whom she had three children. He died of heart disease in 191 1, leaving only a small estate. Belle immediately sought work to support her children and retired parents, who were then living with her in Yonkers.

During her early married years, Belle Israels had worked part-time for the social work journal The Survey and had pursued charity work, primarily through the Council of Jewish Women. Her special area of interest, working girls’ recreation, had led her to campaign for the reform of New York’s dance halls. When she became a widow, she turned this experience into salaried work, becoming a field worker for the Playground and Recreation Association and later grievance clerk and then Labor Department head for the Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association. Politically active among reformminded Republicans, she joined the Progressive party in 1912 and supported woman suffrage and the election of reform Republican or “fusion” candidates both in Yonkers and New York City. In 1914 she married Henry Moskowitz, a former settlement worker and reformer then serving as civil service commissioner under New York’s mayor, John Purroy Mitchel. The Moskowitzes moved to New York City, where Belle continued in labor mediation until the garment manufacturers, unhappy with her prolabor policies, fired her in 1916. In 1918, despite Alfred E. Smith’s Tammany connections, the Moskowitzes supported him for governor because of his legislative record on labor issues. Belle Moskowitz organized the woman’s vote for Smith (New York women voted for the first time that year). After his victory, which occurred a few days before the end of World War I, she proposed that he appoint a “Reconstruction Commission” to plan New York State’s future. The reports of this commission, which she ran, formed the core of Smith’s subsequent legislative program.

When Smith was out of office and promoting the establishment of a bistate “authority” for the Port of New York-New Jersey, Moskowitz devised a public relations program that won popular and legislative support for the idea. After Smith returned to office in 1923, she became director of publicity for the Democratic State Committee, managing not only Smith’s subsequent reelection campaigns but also his nomination for the presidency in 1928. During the 1928 race, as the only woman on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, she directed campaign publicity. After his defeat, Smith became head of the Empire State Building Corporation and tried to retain his leadership of the Democratic party. Moskowitz stayed on as his press agent and led his futile bid for renomination in 1932. In December she fell down the front steps of her house and, while recovering from broken bones, suffered an embolism. She died on January 2 at the age of fifty-five.


Writing the life of Belle Moskowitz took me on a long journey. Because she was my paternal grandmother, learning about her meant learning about a part of my family I never knew, and thus more about myself. Because she was a woman who, in denying her own historical importance, had failed to save many of her papers, writing about her forced me to explore new research techniques. Because I am a historian who happens to be a woman, writing her life led me to confront both her and my own relationship to the women’s movement. That last experience took me into women’s history, permanently changing the personal and professional direction of my life.

I never knew Belle Moskowitz. She died six years before I was born, before my parents, Carlos Lindner Israels and Irma Commanday, had met. They were divorced when I was a baby, and I spent most of my childhood with my mother. Thus I never learned much about my father’s family. Occasionally he took me to Connecticut to see his sister Miriam and an older woman we called Aunt Grace, a retired classics professor whom I later learned was his mother’s best friend. I remember meeting only one of my father’s cousins, Dorothy Lindner Omansky, but I have no memory of my father’s youngest sibling, Josef Israels II, a writer and publicist who had worked closely with his mother and died in the 1950s.

I cannot remember my father ever talking about his mother. My first memory of hearing her name dates from when I was about fifteen, and it was my mother’s, not father’s, family who brought it up. One day my mother’s father, Frank Commanday, said, “When you grow up you have to write a book about your Grandma Belle.” “Who was she?” I asked. He told me to ask my father, which I did the next time we were together. My father explained (I can still hear his exact words), “She was Governor Al Smith’s campaign manager, but you can’t write a book about her. No one can because she wasn’t a `saver.’ She threw away her papers.”

Al Smith had been a governor and thus clearly “important,” but his name meant little to me. I had no idea why being anyone’s campaign manager, much less a woman in that role, should merit a book. Nor did I understand what “papers” were. But, instead of asking my father to explain, I let the matter drop, probably because I was too embarrassed to reveal my ignorance. Years later I learned that during the sixties he had talked about his mother to a few historians – Judith Mara Gutman, who wanted to know why Moskowitz had hired photographer Lewis Hine to record the construction of the Empire State Building, and Robert Caro, who was writing about Robert Moses, a Moskowitz protege. But by then I was on the West Coast working toward a Ph.D. in French history and saw my father even more rarely. When we did visit, the subject of his mother never came up. He died in 1969.

Several years passed, during which I earned the Ph.D. and married a historian, Lewis Perry (in 1970), with whom I had two children. One day late in 1974, Lew was reading the American Historical Review’s obituary of J. Salwyn Schapiro, a Renaissance historian who had been a boyhood friend and settlement work colleague of Henry Moskowitz.”You know what would be a fun project?” He called out to me from another room. “Belle and Henry Moskowitz, your grandparents.” My grandfather Frank’s imperative from almost half my lifetime ago echoed in my brain. I repeated to Lew my father’s warning that Belle had not saved her papers. The project seemed hopeless. There the matter rested until I mentioned it to my mother. Despite her having left my father years before, she had a lively interest in the Moskowitzes. She had loved Henry, who, during the last year of his life (he died in 1936), had lived with her and my father, then newlyweds. She told me about Caro’s new book on Robert Moses, The Power Broker. “Your grandparents are in it,” she said. Indeed, the book contained not only stories about Henry, the Madison House Settlement, and his work as civil service commissioner but an entire chapter on Belle and the early years of her relationship to Al Smith. All of the material was new to me. I thought, If Caro could find all this without even focusing on the Moskowitzes, what might I do? My excitement began to mount.

The project would not take long, I predicted. I would need only a year’s research to prepare a small book on Belle and Henry Moskowitz as Progressive-era social reformers. But my early optimism about speed proved unfounded. I needed time to absorb the American history I was reading. My search for primary sources proved time-consuming and difficult. In addition, I had family and career obligations to meet. In the end, twelve years passed between the decision to write the book and its publication.



As the project took shape, I found my interests focusing more sharply on Belle Moskowitz alone. Henry represented a whole generation of settlement-social workers involved in Progressive-era reform politics, but Belle, as a woman, was the more unusual, and thus intriguing, figure. Also, recent advances in women’s history, such as the appearance of the first three volumes of the biographical encyclopedia Notable American Women (1971), had stimulated my interest in women’s lives and made my task seem less daunting.

I began my research with Oscar Handlin’s sketch of Belle in that encyclopedia, her long obituary in the New York Times, and tributes sent in to newspapers by organizations on whose boards she had served. There was also a small collection of Moskowitz memorabilia at Connecticut College for Women in New London.

That first year of research I followed dozens of leads, some paying off, others not. By chance, looking for one of her early essays in the social work journal The Survey, I came across pieces she had written and references to her that had not been indexed. I then skimmed all Survey volumes published while she was a part-time editor there (1906-9), a time-consuming task that taught me much about influences in Belle Israels’s early career. “Dance halls” in the New York Times index yielded a chronology of her reform work, many of her policy statements, and a full-page Sunday Magazine piece on her from 1912 that had not been indexed under her name. Specialized newspapers and periodicals helped, too. Those from New York’s Jewish community mentioned her activities, published her articles, or commented on events relevant to her. Through Women’s Wear Daily I reconstructed her last year with the Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association. The annual reports and proceedings of social work and women’s organizations provided another rich lode.

Even though one of Smith’s biographers claimed that Belle Moskowitz had enjoyed direct telephone access to the governor, I still hoped she had written to him and that I would find letters from her in Smith’s unpublished papers in Albany. After exhausting the name index, I worked through the topic list of Smith’s files, examining all those on topics I knew would have interested Moskowitz, even if only peripherally. One day I hit a delicious find. I opened a file on water power from Smith’s post-1929 private papers and discovered fifteen letters from Moskowitz to Smith from the mid-1920s, none of which had anything to do with water power!

There were other serendipitous finds as well. During my first year of research I interviewed my Aunt Miriam several times. Most of her recollections were from childhood. Some of Miriam’s childhood memories proved important. She remembered, for example, the moment when her mother realized she would have more influence over Smith if she did not accept a government post from him.


The research experience most crucial to the book’s final shape was my discovery of women’s history. I still remember how that process began. I was in my first year of research. I had gone to visit the New York Council of Jewish Women to look for signs of Belle Israels’s activities in its old minute books, which the council kept in a locked cabinet at its offices. The minutes convinced me that the organization, by identifying social problems and training its members to solve them, had transformed Israels from a settlement worker into a skilled social reformer. To learn more, I began to read the published proceedings of the council’s national meetings, which had started in 1893. Reading the speeches of nineteenth-century Jewish women leaders, I was astounded at the depth and power of their oratory. More important, their oratory advocated reforms I had previously associated exclusively with male politicians.

Who were these women, and why had I never heard of them? No history class or text I knew had covered women’s political activism. Indeed, had I then been asked what women had done of historical importance, I probably would have still said “not much,” with the exception of a handful of royal or aristocratic women and women like Belle Moskowitz. But, as she had apparently conquered the man’s world of politics, I had thought of her as an “honorary man,” not as part of a larger tradition of female activism. My growing acquaintance with the Council of Jewish Women opened up that tradition to me, as did my later work in the records of the Women’s City Club of New York, the group that fostered Moskowitz’s nonpartisan politics in the 1920s. In linking the Council of Jewish Women and Women’s City Club to the nineteenth-century woman’s movement and to women’s history in general, I began to place her accomplishments into a broader, female-centered context.

I had yet another step to take. The woman’s movement had taught Moskowitz how to bring about social and political change; it had also won women the vote, thereby advancing women on to a new level of political power. But knowing this did not help me interpret some enigmas in her behavior. If she were an “honorary man,” why hadn’t she consistently behaved like one? Why had a woman with a reputation for practical politics devoted so much energy to visionary social reform? How could unionists in the 1910s think her bossy, arrogant, and domineering, and politicians in the 1920s praise her for being calm, modest, and motherly? How could she be “Al Smith’s campaign manager,” as my father had described her, and yet never carry that title in any of his campaigns or hold political office? How could she have been a critical figure in Smith’s “kitchen cabinet” and yet spend its meetings, as Robert Moses recalled, sitting against the wall knitting? Answers came only when I stopped trying to understand her from a male perspective. My research had showed me Belle Moskowitz’s strong connections to women. I needed to move to a female-centered analysis.

The female spheres in which Moskowitz had functioned had not only taught her how to work for change but also had provided her with behavior patterns for influencing men. Models came from several sources – the service ideal of Victorian “true women”; the Jewish woman’s commitment to help the less fortunate; the zest for reform of the turn-of-the-century “new woman.” Moskowitz knew that men ran the world. She believed they always would. Ever conscious of this limitation, she was strong when she could be and self-effacing when she needed to be. In fact she was not at all what I originally had thought she was – an “honorary man” who had “conquered” the man’s world of politics. She had accepted the boundaries laid down by her times and had sought only to work effectively within them.

Once I came to this realization, much fell into place. I saw that she could be both bossy or modest, depending on her circumstances. Working in an advocacy position in the 1910s she had to impose her personality upon that of the men across the bargaining table; in the 1920s she had to work amicably with the men who controlled the Democratic party. To her, there was no contradiction in being both politically visionary and practical. Combining the two was, in fact, characteristic of the woman’s movement that had helped form her. Her refusal to accept a position from Smith also made sense. It was not out of “womanly” modesty, as many (mostly men) thought at the time. Her refusal emerged from the belief that informal advising would give her more power than any government post, which, by its bureaucratic nature, limits an official’s sphere of action. When she knit during meetings, she was doing what many women did at their own meetings and what she in particular felt comfortable doing — keeping their hands busy while they did other things. More important, perhaps, the activity enhanced the motherly, unthreatening image she wished to convey.

This is not to say that she “put on” a motherly image for the benefit of men. To her own mind, she was a professional: knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled, with much to offer anyone willing to take her advice. But she accepted motherliness as an integral part of her own sense of what it meant to be a woman. This gender sensibility permeated her activities, including the way she wrote publicity for Smith. Smith’s personality and style appealed to her “mother heart,” so much so that in 1928 she came to believe that a publicity plan that highlighted his warmth and humanity would win over the American electorate.

Understanding Moskowitz as a woman also improved my understanding of her entire generation of female social reformers. Like most of her friends, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, Moskowitz avidly supported women’s causes, especially the entry of more women into the professions and political offices. But, even though these were feminist causes, she seldom if ever called herself a “feminist.” Like most of her friends in social reform, she also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. She went further, in 1926 stating publicly that, while women’s intuitions were superior to men’s, women could never be the intellectual equals of men. In holding such views she was not alone, however. In expressing them in the 1920s, she may even have enhanced her political effectiveness.

In 1976, when I gave my first paper on her at the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, I did not yet have this perspective on Moskowitz. The commentator on the paper took me to task for writing about someone who was not a “feminist” and suggested I would contribute more to the field by writing a collective biography of nonelite women. Later that same day, at a colleague’s suggestion, I asked a historian working on the topic of prostitution if she had ever come across any material on Moskowitz, who had been involved in Progressive-era antiprostitution campaigns. The historian made it clear that she had no interest in my work. I left the conference depressed and angry. When I had first “found” women’s history, I had thought I was joining a united crusade for the rediscovery of women’s past and thus the reinterpretation of the entire human experience. But some feminist scholars were grinding political axes that put others of us on the defensive. In my view, these feminists were doing as much harm to the history of women by leaving certain “politically incorrect” women out as the misogynists had done by leaving women out altogether.

Over the following years, the politics of women’s history and women’s liberation became clearer to me and I was able to place this experience into perspective. By the mid-1970s, Notable American Women had been out for some time. Many historians thought the “compensatory” task of the first stage of women’s history had been finished. In addition, the new social history of the sixties was rising in popularity, making the study of the inarticulate seem more challenging. To make matters worse for biographers of some notable women, the Equal Rights Amendment was failing. This made women who had opposed the amendment in the past or who had defended protective legislation for women ipso facto “nonfeminists.” Despite their many accomplishments on behalf of and with women, antiegalitarians became “the enemy,” at least to some.

Fortunately, the field has changed since then. Many scholars now realize that studying the masses neither invalidates nor makes less necessary a study of “notables.” The biographical job will never be done: hundreds of women have never been studied, or, if they have been, not from a feminist perspective. And we cannot pick only those women with whom we agree or who seem most like us. I date the start of this turnaround from Eleanor Roosevelt’s centennial in 1984, an event that led to a reevaluation of the social reformers of her generation who, out of a commitment to the principle of protective legislation for women, opposed the ERA.


My kinship with Moskowitz created a personal dimension to my subject that not all biographers will share with theirs. Sometimes the kinship was an advantage. For example, it gave me entree to places closed to others. When I visited the Women’s City Club of New York, its president at first refused me access to board minutes because I wasn’t a member. After some thought, she decided that since I was a member’s granddaughter I could read them after all.

But being related to Moskowitz was difficult in part. Some discoveries about family members disturbed me. I fretted over which to use, finally deciding to include only those that reflected or directly explained something in her life. Most difficult was reconciling being both granddaughter and critical scholar. I could not hide the relationship or pretend it was not relevant. Because I was a granddaughter, would I be able to maintain scholarly detachment? To colleagues who worried about this I said that, since I had never known her, I did not “love” her in the way one loves a grandmother. I think now that I may have compensated for my kinship by striving for standards of detachment higher than those an unrelated historian might have sought.

There were other ways in which my family relationship was not always to my advantage. My first grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities elicited the comment that I seemed to be “just writing a book about my grandmother.” When my husband moved to a job at Indiana University, the department newsletter announced that his wife was writing “a history of her family.” Indeed, some people thought I was a genealogist: why else would I be interested in my grandmother? I can smile about those remarks now, but at the time they hurt.

On the whole, the ledger on my kinship to my subject is more positive than negative. I had never felt close to my father or known or understood him well. Learning about the early death of his own father and the frequent absences of his mother helped me to understand him better. This knowledge has given me a certain peace about our troubled relationship. Writing about my grandmother also brought me closer to my daughter. Watching me discover my family relationship to the history of women and of feminism, she began as a teenager to express a transgenerational “bond of womanhood” with me. We have a strong friendship now, a rare phenomenon today between mothers and daughters. Finally, there is no doubt that my personal link to Belle Moskowitz gave me the drive to see the project through, despite its length and difficulty and despite the discouragement I often felt. Somehow I believed I owed her and her generation its completion. As reformers, advocates for women’s rights and protection, and political activists, they deserved to be recognized. But Belle had been my grandmother, too. No future project I undertake will ever provide such a powerful stimulus.

Elisabeth Israels Perry is the author of Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (Oxford, 1987; Routledge, 1992). She has taught most recently at Vanderbilt University and Sarah Lawrence College, and now resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is working with her husband Lewis Perry on a U.S. history textbook for college students.

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Summer 1997

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