Maud Nathan was an outspoken advocate for better working conditions for women and for the right of women to vote. She is perhaps known best for her leadership and work as the president of the Consumers' League of New York.
She was born on October 20, 1862, in New York City, the first daughter of Annie Augusta and Robert Weeks Nathan. Her parents were descendants from one of the most distinguished Sephardic Jewish families in the United States. She was a first cousin of Emma Lazarus and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Her sister, Annie Nathan Meyer, was an author and the founder of Barnard College.
When Maud was seventeen, she married her first cousin, Frederick Nathan, who was a successful broker in his mid-thirties. They had a daughter, who died when she was eight years old. She became involved in charitable activities. She joined the board of directors of the Hebrew Free School Association, where she taught English to the Jewish immigrants.
Her many activities brought her in contact with Josephine Shaw Lowell, who interested her in helping to improve the working conditions of the New York shop-girls. In 1890 with other women, they formed the Consumers' League of New York. The league's goal was to better the working conditions of women retail clerks.
Nathan investigated the working conditions of women in retail stores and discovered that they worked sixty hours a week for two to three dollars. She was appalled by the filth in the stores, hidden from the customers, and found that there was sexual harassment on the job.
In 1897, she became the league's president, a position that she held for twenty-one years. Under her leadership, the league publicized the deplorable working conditions in the retail stores and factories. They created a "white list" which named the stores and factories that met the league standards for wages and conditions and urged the public to patronize them.
Nathan realized that lobbying in Albany was fruitless as women did not vote and they did not have any clout over the legislatures. She started to devote more time for the right for women to vote. She joined the Equal Suffrage League of New York. Her brothers and sister were against women's suffrage and even her cousin, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, the supreme court justice had second thoughts about it. She was almost sixty when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
She and her husband attended Shearith Israel Synagogue and she was active in the National Council of Jewish Women. She believed in liberal religion and loved Judaism for its universal truths.
In 1897, she was invited by Temple Beth-El to read a paper on "The Heart of Judaism" in place of the sermon. This was the first time that a woman had played such an active role in an American Jewish service of worship.
Maud Nathan was eighty-four when she died on December 15, 1946. She dedicated her life to help women work under decent conditions for a fair wage and to help women obtain the right to vote. Her philanthropy in helping others was in keeping with her character. She has contributed to the legacy and contributions of her American Jewish ancestors.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.