Biographical Sketch of Josephine Hirsch

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Josephine Hirsch, 1855-1924

By Patricia A. Schechter, Professor of History, Portland State University

 

Member, NAWSA; Founding President, Portland Equal Suffrage League (1912)

Josephine Hirsch (née Mayer) was born in 1855 in New Orleans, the daughter of German immigrants Jacob L. Mayer and Mary Auerbach. After a short stint in San Francisco, the Mayer family arrived in Portland, Oregon in 1858. Jacob established a very successful dry goods business called Fleischner, Mayer & Co. Josephine was educated at St. Mary's Academy and in 1870, married Solomon Hirsch, the son of one of her father's business partners. Josephine and Solomon had five children together, four of whom survived into adulthood. They built a luxurious home in the King's Hill neighborhood and were affiliated with Temple Beth Israel, a socially engaged reform congregation. Solomon died in 1902; Josephine not until 1924. Both were buried in the Beth Israel cemetery.

The menfolk in Josephine's family were active Masons, firm Republicans and politically attentive. After a term in the Oregon state legislature in the 1880s, her husband Solomon was appointed minister to Turkey under Benjamin Harrison and the family lived abroad for a few years. In 1896, Josephine became the first president of the National Council of Jewish Women's Portland section, whose founding membership was rooted in congregation Beth Israel. The section's main project was the construction of Neighborhood House, a social settlement and community center located in the Lair Hill neighborhood. Social engagement for Jewish women was strongly encouraged by Beth Israel's Rabbi Jonah Wise (1907-1926).

Jewish women's traditions of social action likely strengthened Josephine's hand as suffrage activism spiked up in Portland 1910-12. The city's elite women scorned both suffrage and street activism which grabbed news headlines in these years. Josephine knew many of these women from her family's affiliation with the Portland Library Association, the Republican Party, and the local Chamber of Commerce. As the 1912 referendum campaign heated up, Josephine conscripted scores of upper class women to a new organization, the Portland Equal Suffrage League. She did so by hosting a visiting English stage actor, John Forbes Robertson, at a posh reception in her home, to which she invited well-to-do suffragists like Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy and Sarah Evans, leading club woman and library supporter. Famous for his Hamlet, Robertson was knighted in 1913 and his warm address at Hirsch's elegant event in favor of votes for women, reported widely in local newspapers, cast an unflattering light on Oregonians in opposition.

The content of Josephine's suffrage thought is hard to gauge from the public record of the successful 1912 referendum. Taxation without representation was a theme in some of the talks sponsored by the Portland Equal Suffrage League, a perspective which may have resonated for women from moneyed families. The League's appeal for a balancing, feminine presence in politics could flatter upper class women who had little stake in making major changes to the social order. One pro-suffrage newspaper ad that was printed over Josephine's name asked rhetorically if the (presumed male) reader's "wife or mother [was] competent" and "sufficiently intelligent" enough to make good decisions about public life through voting. These appeals turned women's electoral participation into commonsensical, nonthreatening politics. High status women like Josephine Hirsch also made women's suffrage stylish, and the media remembered her as a "fashionable suffragette" at the 50th anniversary of her death.

SOURCES:

Clippings file on the Hirsch family at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, http://www.ojmche.org/. See especially The Oregonian, 12 January 1912 and the Oregon Journal, 26 October 1976.

Wakely, Renata. "Report on the Jacob Mayer Masonic Lodge, No. 108." Salem: Oregon State Historical Preservation Office, 2011. http://www.ci.dayton.or.us/upload/page/0130/SHPO_Report_Jan_2012.pdf. Accessed 9/28/2017.

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