Jewish Pioneer Women

Blazing the wagon trail.

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Within five years of the start of the Gold Rush in 1848, more than 5,000 Jews migrated to California in search of opportunity, joining members of other religious and ethnic groups. After 1858, with most of the California mining sites appropriated, gold seekers migrated to new strikes in Colorado, Nevada, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. 

Civilizing the West

Jews also fanned out across other nearby states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Washington, and by 1920 numbered about 300, 000 in the West. Jewish women were central to the region's economic, political, social and cultural development.

Some of these women were the wives, daughters, and sisters of the Jewish merchant elite, with the means and leisure time available for prominent involvement in civil life and social welfare issues. Many more, however, performed daily work within their households, contributing to family income as well as taking part in the foundation of philanthropic institutions, synagogues, schools, and libraries. Together, these women helped civilize the raw West and construct communities where social order and Jewish family life could flourish.

Particularly in early western boom towns--where growth was often rapid and chaotic and the number of females small--mutual assistance was critical, and western women often enjoyed more equal status than women in other regions. Domestic skills, for example, commanded top dollar. Many women became seamstresses and food purveyors, or pursued hotel and boarding house ventures.

This path was successfully followed by western Jewish women like Mary Ann Cohen Magnin in California, a talented fine embroiderer who became the guiding hand behind the famous upscale women's clothing store,  I. Magnin and Company; Anna Freudenthal Solomon in Arizona, who first ran a general store and later a successful hotel for nearly twenty-five years, while raising a large family; Jeanette Hirsch Meier of Portland, Oregon, who after her husband's death presided over the largest department store in the far West; and Regina Moch of Eureka, Nevada, who operated a thriving restaurant that supported her after the death of her husband in a local fire.

A Golden Era

As time passed, the innovative environment of the West offered western Jewish women the possibility of greater access to higher education, professional positions, and entry into formal politics. Fledgling Jewish female journalist Alice G. Friedlander of Oregon proclaimed in a speech before the Portland Press Club in 1893: "This is women's golden era…The time is near when women will hold office, and the law, medicine, education--every walk of life requiring intellectual rather than manual force is wide open to the women of America." While some women may have found Alice's words overly optimistic, her sentiments do convey the sense of promise that was felt by many western women at the time.

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Jeanne E Abrams

Jeanne E. Abrams is a professor at Penrose Library at the University of Denver and the longtime director of the Beck Archives and the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, part of the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Penrose Library.