This fall, I joined a group of congregants who, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19thAmendment, are trying to discover whether members of Rodeph Shalom played a role in the struggle to win women the right to vote. And, if not RS members what about Jewish women in Philadelphia more broadly? I was initially skeptical that we would find out much. The suffrage movement’s leaders were predominately white and Protestant, and I expected it to be difficult to uncover less well-known, more rank-and-file members of the movement. I was pleasantly surprised to learn I was wrong. There is plenty of evidence that Jewish women were active in the fight. Allow me to introduce one Jewish suffragist: Miss Olga H. Gross.
Olga’s name was on a list of Philadelphians who traveled to Harrisburg in 1911 to lobby legislators on women’s suffrage. I found the list in the papers of Caroline Katzenstein (also Jewish) who was the secretary of the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, the forerunner of the Woman Suffrage Party. Luckily for me, Katzenstein’s list included addresses. With an address, one can use census data. I found “my” Miss Gross in the 1910 census living on N. 32nd Street, in a three-woman household that included her 46-year-old aunt Sophia Lupy, a widowed dressmaker, and a 26-year-old cousin Dora Lupy, also a dressmaker. Twenty-four-year-old Olga’s was bookkeeper in a painter’s office. All three women had immigrated to the US in 1892 or ‘93 (smudges on the census form make it difficult to read) and all are “Russian, Yiddish.” Olga’s aunt Sophia is listed in a city directory in 1895 as a dressmaker on No. 8th Street.
None of the women appears in the 1900 census. Olga is listed in city directory in 1916-1918 as a bookkeeper at “Jno J Donovan & Co.” Her address was on Natrona Ave. By 1920, all the women seem to have disappeared from Philadelphia. Although name changes due to marriage could explain this, I have thus far found no evidence Olga Gross married before 1920.
However, I did find some more information about this young Jewish suffragist Olga. In minutes of a suffrage organization, she is congratulated for raising money for a telephone at the group’s office on Chestnut Street. How did a young, working women raise the funds? She bought 200 pounds of peanuts, made peanut brittle, and sold it. One local paper recounted the story and printed her photo. (Alas, no recipe.) Other newspapers, too, covered her pro-suffrage activities. One included a full-length photo of Gross in a Russian costume. Another (my favorite) ran a photo captioned “Miss Olga H. Gross and Miss Bertha Sapowitz Taking Pot-Luck with Some New Recruits to Suffrage.” In this image, the two young women pose with workers at the Baldwin Locomotive Works whom they addressed on women’s suffrage.
In a 1917 article, Olga Gross urged immigrant women to become naturalized citizens as she had, so they would be eligible to vote when women won the right. The article also adds some biographical detail. Gross came from Sterlinamak, a small town in eastern Russia. She was “among the first women to do open air talking for the cause.” In addition, the paper continued, “She has business ability, which has placed her now among Philadelphia’s business women. She has organized a paint and decorating company, and is now one of the partners in the business at 1208 N. Eighth Street”.
These are sketchy details. I will continue to search for her immigration records, naturalization papers, and, especially, marriage or death certificates. Still, these few facts provide a portrait of an estimable young woman. A Jewish girl (possibly an orphan) immigrates in 1893 at age 7, presumably speaking little English. In 1917, she is a citizen and a partner in a business. Perhaps most remarkable is that while she worked to build her life she made time to work for a social good – women’s rights. For this, she and her colleagues deserve our thanks and remembrance.
Following the January/February Bulletin article on Philadelphia suffragist Olga Gross, I have discovered more information. Earlier research led to a dead-end around 1920. She was no longer listed in the census or in city directories. Maybe she married and changed her name, or even died. I found no evidence of either.
When a helpful relative searched Google Books for Olga Gross, she found a reference to an article by a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine named Olga Gross. At first, I dismissed this as a different Olga Gross, but eventually I decided to rule it out more systematically. To my considerable surprise, an archivist at the A.T. Still University in Missouri confirmed that Dr. Olga Helen Gross from Philadelphia entered the American School of Osteopathy on September 15, 1919. She graduated on May 28, 1923, and took up practice in Pittsfield, Maine. Dr. Olga Gross is our Philadelphia suffragist!
So my idea that she disappeared from sight in Philadelphia because of marriage and a name change was wrong entirely. Perhaps when Pennsylvania ratified the 19th Amendment in the summer of 1919, Olga Gross decided the fight was won and it was time to get on with her life.
Olga Gross lived the rest of her life in Maine. She had a private practice and was affiliated with the Osteopathic Hospital in Waterville, Maine.
She was also active in professional organizations and published articles in osteopathic medical journals. (I was able to find her through these journals).
She was also active in the Democratic Party of Maine. In 1928, she and other Democratic Committee women created a stir when they declined to support the party’s nominee for President, Al Smith, because of Smith’s attitude on prohibition. For this, one politician called them “a small group of weak minded women.” A local paper noted that Dr. Gross had been a suffrage campaigner in Pennsylvania and “is a very able preacher.” The paper wondered if she would campaign for Hoover (I don’t know if she did). In any case, she reconciled with the Democratic Party and was again a committee person in the 1940s.
Dr. Gross died in 1960. Her obituary says she had been born in Russia in July 1890. She was a member of Temple Beth El in Waterville, Maine and is buried in Beth Abraham Cemetery in Lewiston, Maine. The obituary makes no mention of her work on behalf of women’s rights, which is, to my mind, a significant omission. I am left with many questions. Why did she choose to
study osteopathy? Why did she leave Philadelphia to do so? Perhaps local osteopathic institutions did not accept female students? Most especially, I wonder whether she remained in contact with the women she had worked with on the suffrage cause. Alas, I think it highly unlikely I will ever find these answers. Still, one never knows what might turn up.