Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Meta Lilienthal Stern Lilienthal, 1875-1948
By Peter Seidman, independent scholar
Meta Lilienthal was born in New York City in April 1875. Her parents, Frederick and Augusta Lilienthal, were German immigrants active in the socialist movement.
A successful doctor, Frederick was able to provide their daughter with private tutors, travel to Europe, and other advantages. “When I was sixteen,” Meta recalls, “I realized my parents' most cherished ambition for me by passing my college entrance examinations and entering Barnard College, then only the third or fourth year of its existence.”
But within her first year, Meta dropped out.
In 1894, Meta married Emil Stern, who was twelve years her senior. She had three children: Herman (1896), Edward (1897), and Pauline (1899). Thirteen years later they divorced.
Writing in Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920, Mari Jo Buhle recounts how initially, “Meta seemed destined to forsake her political heritage and academic training for mere private life. Yet as the Socialist women's movement in both the German-American and indigenous camps gathered momentum, and once her babies were old enough to thrive without a mother's constant watchfulness, Meta reported that she experienced a great mental awakening. She discovered that she, too, had ‘an individuality...an unquenchable thirst for a broader life than one limited by the four walls of the home.'”
Buhle continues, “Meta had contributed literary sketches and poems to the Socialist press since the turn of the century under the pen-name ‘Hebe.' She nevertheless studied the Socialist classics for one year before she joined a party local. Her appointment as associate editor of the New York Volkszeitung [the leading German Socialist paper in New York] .... combined literary and theoretical tasks into a signal journalistic endeavor lasting more than a decade.”
The Socialist Party had its most serious discussion of what was then called “the woman question” at its National Convention in 1908. One element in the discussions was the decision taken at the Stuttgart Conference the year before, barring socialists from working with the “middle class” suffrage movement.
Numerous prominent leaders of the American SP, including Stern, felt themselves to be at loggerheads with this mandate. She had a nose for the opportunities to work and build the Socialist Party with others that the rising movement for suffrage as well as the increased participation of women in the labor movement were opening.
Against the bar to working with suffrage organizations, she gave the example of how in England, “the foremost country in the woman's movement to-day, the ‘suffragettes' have brought about a strong, united, militant organization of women...and the women of our own country are keenly awakening to the consciousness that they are not citizens of a republic, but subjects to a government of men.”
The convention considered and approved a report whose ambiguous formulations made it possible for people with conflicting political lines to remain within its “all inclusive” umbrella. The convention elected a National Woman's Committee of May Wood Simons, Antoinette Konikow, Marguerite Prevey, Winnie Brandstetter, and Meta Stern to lead the work of implementing its resolution.
But differences emerged right away. In an article written shortly after the convention, Meta Stern made her intentions clear: “We do not care to wait for the realization of Socialism for the abolition of our political dependence...No one would ever dare to put off the urgent demands of men with a similar promise.”
The NWC, however, saw its mandate as being to eradicate independent women's clubs that had been set up by socialist women who believed this would be the best tactic for winning women to the cause.
Instead, locals were instructed to elect women's committees from among their own members, drafting men if women's ranks were too thin, and to initiate special agitational programs to attract women to the regular mixed local.
Meta Stern believed this approach was premature and that separate women's clubs or leagues were still “eminently satisfactory.” She resigned shortly afterwards from the NWC, although she was also elected to the New York State committee of the Socialist Women's Society.
“A mild furor began in 1911” confirming the accuracy of Stern's concerns. Buhle describes how a “letter in the New York Call flatly listed major grievances against the male-dominated branches.” Signed by “A Mere Woman,” the letter described how this adventurer and her three friends visited various locals in greater New York and each time got a chilly reception. With but few exceptions, the locals resembled ‘a cheap class Bowery dancing hall' male culture in extremis.
In any case, big openings outside the world of the SP's internal organizational issues soon attracted the attention of healthy militants.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association launched what it called a “monster petition” campaign that the WNC decided to support, justifying its tactics by claiming time was too short to circulate a separate petition under the name of the SP.
Stern was active in the campaign, speaking along with other socialists at suffrage rallies in Brooklyn and Manhattan. But there was a great deal of opposition in the New York local of the SP to these efforts. The December 20, 1909 New York Sun reported on a meeting that debated whether or not socialists should be cooperating with the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Meta Stern presented the report in favor of cooperation.
The meeting began at 2:30 in the afternoon when there were about 200 people in attendance. By the time it got to be 6:00 pm, “those who had to get their husband's dinners began to leave, and when it came time for voting there were only 29 voters left. All propositions looking to any sort of affiliation were defeated by a vote of 26 to 3.”
In a New York Call article the next day, Meta Stern admonished her colleagues that the Socialist movement was still weak. She warned that to break with the suffrage mainstream would isolate Socialists “as a group of relentless and uncompromising theorists...Whether or not the suffragists as a body recognize the class struggle is of no consequence, for the suffrage movement is not a class question, but a sex question. We iterate and reiterate that class is more important than sex, but in this particular problem all our assertions about class struggle and class-consciousness are meaningless. For it is not a class, but a sex—the entire female sex—that is disfranchised in the United States... Therefore, the struggle for enfranchisement is a distinct and common cause of all women.... Therefore we should welcome every woman who works honestly for the liberation of her sex.”
Despite the vote, Stern continued to find ways to collaborate. Along with notables Kate Trimble Woolsey, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt, she addressed the 1910 NAWSA convention.
A widely reprinted Evening Star article the next day reported Stern's speech, quoting: “There was a time in the early days of the socialist movement when we believed that the woman question would be solved with the social question. We have since learned that we need a political democracy of men and women. That is why socialists stand for woman suffrage.”
The Socialist Party National Convention in 1910 again failed to fully settle how to relate to the broader movement for women's suffrage. Despite objections, the party, for example, joined in the ultimately successful campaign urging the New York Legislature to pass a woman suffrage bill. The legislative bill, passed in 1913, required a statewide popular referendum before suffrage could become law.
The Socialist Party campaigned hard for passage when the referendum was on the ballot in 1915. The national office put out numerous pamphlets, including 50,000 copies each of two four-page leaflets by Stern: “To the Wives of Toilers” and “Votes for Working Women.” The SP also published Stern's English translation of Bebel's classic Women and Socialism. The party reportedly distributed more socialist literature than any previous agitational effort.
In December, 1914, Meta Stern launched a column called “Votes for Women” in the New York Call.
Although the referendum actually passed in those districts where the SP had been most active, suffrage went down to defeat statewide. Despite the fact that the SP's city membership grew by 25% through its efforts, the central committee retreated to its more traditional sectarian channels and recalled its delegates and its financial backing from the suffrage campaign.
Meta Stern married again on April 22, 1915 to Ernest Lilienthal, a German-born immigrant six years her junior. He was a successful executive in the printing industry.
Meta Stern Lilienthal continued her party building activities.
She spoke to an overflow crowd at the 1915 Women's Day program in Harlem. She wrote several newspaper articles opposing the outbreak of the first world war in Europe from a socialist point of view.
In 1916, the Socialist Party's Rand School of Social Science in New York published two books by Stern, From Fireside to Factory and Women of the Future. She also taught regular classes at the Rand School. In January, 1916, Stern authored Motherhood and the “Bloody Five Laws,” a pamphlet opposing war preparations.
By the time of the next suffrage referendum, politics had sharply shifted in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson had declared the U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917. The Socialist Party held an emergency national convention the very next day in St. Louis. Although an anti-war resolution was passed, a large group deserted the party in favor of supporting the victory of “their” government over the “enemy.”
In New York, the Socialist Party enthusiastically joined campaigning for the suffrage referendum held in November 1917. Meta Stern Lilienthal had resumed her “Votes for Women” column in the Call. Following the triumph of suffrage in New York, Meta Stern Lilienthal renamed her column first the “New Citizens” and then “To the Woman Voter.” The shift in language anticipated and paralleled the creation in 1920 of the mainstream League of Women Voters.
But world events soon dictated that the SP would no longer be able to exist in the same way it had over the previous two decades. At its 1919 convention, the party split irrevocably over what attitude to take to the Russian Revolution
There is no record of Meta Stern Lilienthal's participation in these decisive debates.
Her pen went silent until 1947, when she published Dear Remembered World, a warm memoir of her childhood. Nowhere in this detailed and vivid account does Stern Lilienthal mention anything about the two decades she helped to lead the work of the women's suffrage movement and the Socialist Party.
She does explain however that, “late in life, I have found deep, spiritual satisfaction through my affiliation with a liberal Protestant church....”
Further, she makes clear that despite her years of struggling for socialism, the actual result of the first workers and farmers revolution in the Soviet Union horrified her:
“Socialism was the ideal in which my parents and Uncle Lexi and most of their friends ardently believed... Little could they surmise that only one generation after their passing this utopia would be distorted into an absolute denial of individual liberty, a reversion to despotism, a government by terror.”
A year later, an obituary in the New York Times reported her death on March 25.
“PLAINFIELD, N.J.—Mrs. M. L. Lilienthal, Lecturer and Editor. Mrs. Meta L. Lilienthal...former editor of the women's page of Volks Zeitung German-language newspaper, formerly published in New York, and long active in civic, social and charitable work here, died today.... She was the wife of Ernest Lilienthal, former president of the Art Color Printing Company....
“Born in New York, Mrs. Lilienthal had resided here for twenty-five years. She was long active as a lecturer on many topics, was the organizer of the Plainfield Committee for World Friendship and a member of the Friendship Circle of the King's Daughters, All Souls Unitarian Church and the Plainfield League of Women Voters.... She was very active in Red Cross work...”
(1907, December 28). Divorced From Emil Stern. The New York Sun.
Buhle, M. (1983). Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Lilienthal, Meta Stern. (1947). Dear Remembered World; Childhood Memories of an Old New Yorker. New York, NY: Richard R. Smith.
“Hebe” [Meta Stern] (1908, May). “A Word to Our Comrades at the National Convention.” Socialist Woman, 1, 3.
“The National Convention on the Woman Question” (1908, June). Socialist Woman, 2, 3.
“Hebe” [Meta Stern] (1908, July). “The Socialist Party and Women.” Socialist Woman, 2, 8.
(1909, December 20). “No Suffragist-Socialists.” The Sun [New York, NY]
(1910, April 8). “Removal of Barrier.” The Evening Star [Washington, DC],
(1912, July 19). “Report on the Work of the National Executive Committee.” The Commonwealth [Everett, WA]
Harper, Ida H., et al, eds. (1922). History of Woman Suffrage. N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association. [LINK]
Gable, W. (2017, February). Timeline of Events in Securing Woman Suffrage in New York State. https://thehistorycenter.net/sites/default/files/documents/updated_timeline_in_securing_woman_suffrage_in_nys.pdf
Lilienthal, Meta Stern. (1916). From Fireside to Factory. New York, NY: Rand School of Social Science. https://books.google.com/books?id=MeCDl8dP_BAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=inauthor:%22Meta+Lilienthal%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj63Ovw2MLaAhUHOawKHVJyAH8Q6AEIKTAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
Lilienthal, Meta Stern. (1916). Women of the Future. New York, NY: Rand School of Social Science. https://books.google.com/books?id=EFtYAAAAMAAJ
(1907, September 19). “Work of the Rand School.” Montana News.
(1948, March 26). “Mrs. M. L Lilienthal, Lecturer and Editor.” The New York Times.