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Women of Ethical Culture

In 2000, Jean Kotkin, a Leader at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, delivered the following Platform Address on the topic of women in Ethical Culture. Before her death, she gave permission -- more than permission, encouragement -- to post the essay online. We are now including it in this collection of documents on Ethical Culture roots, where it sheds light on a less-known part of Ethical Culture history.

Women in the Ethical Culture Movement
Jean Somerville Kotkin, Leader, New York Society for Ethical Culture
The Ethical Platform - March 12, 2000

© 2000 Jean Somerville Kotkin. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Jean Somerville Kotkin was a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a Humanist Chaplain, a Pastoral Counselor, on the faculty of The Humanist Institute and the International Humanist Ethical Union representative at the United Nations. She served as Vice President of the American Humanist Association.

She was for 15 years the executive director of the Humanist Institute, the executive director of the American Ethical Union for 17 years, and the Leader for National Development of the American Ethical Union. She served on the Board of Trustees of the New York Society for Ethical Culture for over two decades, on the Board of Governors of the Ethical Culture Schools, was a member of the Board of the Encampment for Citizenship, and was a founding member of the Weis Ecology Center.

Mrs. Kotkin was a member of the Women's City Club of New York, the American Society of Association Executives, American Society of Professional and Executive Women, and the West Side Clergy of New York City.

Born in Montreal, she was a graduate of McGill University, the Post-Graduate Center for Mental Health in Pastoral Counseling and she received a degree in religious studies from Fordham University. Jean's three children were educated in the Ethical Culture Schools and the New York Society's Sunday School.

Women in the Ethical Culture Movement
Jean Somerville Kotkin
Sunday Morning Meeting, March 12, 2000

OPENING WORDS: "There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is the want of purpose. It is the narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul. It is the absence of these sublime emotions which, wherever they do arise, do not fail to exalt and consecrate existence. What is to keep our heart from freezing in chill despair, to keep our head high and our step firm, if it be not deep-seated, long and carefully matured conviction -- that man was sent into the world to perform great and unselfish work, independent of his comfort, independent even of his happiness, and that in its performance alone can he find his true solace, his lasting award?" -- Dr. Felix Adler

The purpose of this morning is to celebrate the history, the contributions, the influence, the obstacles and the accomplishments of the womenBboth in the early days and today, of the Ethical Culture Societies. Too much, if not all the written history, has praised and honored the men. I hope today to balance the record and add the ethical women, who have always been the mover, shakers, doers.

Let us look back for a moment to 1876. What was happening in New York City at that time? Tammany Hall was first opposing and then supporting Samuel Tilden for president. James O'Neill, Eugene's father was appearing in a Broadway hit, "The Danicheffs." The National League was organized and the "Metropolitans" became New York's first professional baseball team.

And at Standard Hall, a young professor of Oriental Studies, comparative religion and Hebrew Literature delivered a lecture. That was Dr. Felix Adler at the age of twenty-five. There he stood with his high collar, frock coat and his impressive, though premature, high shiny forehead, urging people to "set forth on a path hitherto untried and likely to lead our lives in a new direction . . . to determine whether the essential elements that make up the happiness of states and individuals are duly provided, and if not, where the need lies and how it can best be provided. Diversity in the creed unanimity in the deed."

The New York Society was founded in 1876, over 124 years ago. However, if you had been in New York in those days, you, the ladies in this group, could not have been members. It was strictly an exclusive male club, with the gentlemen coming to hear Dr. Adler speak dressed in their striped pants, tall hats and cutaway coats. They arrived in their carriages at Standard Hall while their wives stayed home and saw that the servants prepared a hardy Sunday dinner for their husbands. He, in turn, if he were so inclined would share his interpretation of what Dr. Adler had said.

It was in Chicago, when the Society was founded there in 1882, that ladies were first counted as members. It took the New York Society four years, until 1886, ten years after its founding, to start admitting the ladies and it wasn't until 1893, 17 years later, that formal provision was made for admitting women to membership. At the same time, an associate membership for minors was created.

Philadelphia has the honor of having the first woman speaker on the platform. On May 16, 1886, Dr. Francis Emily White addressed the group. Mrs. Percy Waddington was the first woman to speak on the New York platform in 1899. Her topic was "The Moral Issues of the War in Transvaal." The first woman to be elected to the Board of Trustees of the New York Society was in 1901, 25 years after the founding of the Society.

However, behind the scenes the women were working to improve the conditions of the poor. Helen Goldmark Adler, Dr. Adler's wife, was solidly behind the effort to work for women and children. Dr. Adler called the women into his study and they did the work. The District Nursing Department was started and survives today as The Visiting Nurse Service. In 1878 saw the founding of the first free kindergarten east of the Mississippi for the children of the working poor. Again it was the wives of the members of the Society who developed the school under the direction of Dr. Adler. It was named the Workingman's School and grew into the Fieldston Ethical Culture Schools. At first people were afraid to let their children go to school for they feared they would be kidnapped.

By 1879, there were numerous social programs simultaneously emanating from the Society; nursing services, educational programs and schools, housing projects and more. The numerous social programs were consolidated into The United Relief Works in 1879 which was set up as an auxiliary arm of the Society. This was the birth of The Social Service Board which exists today with Vicky Olds as chair.

Even though women were still excluded from membership, they organized themselves into the Ladies Auxiliary, which became the Women's Conference, and had a meeting in 1894 with speakers, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on the subject of women's suffrage and women's rights.

The 1880's and 1890's saw the birth of the Settlement House Movement. The goal was social change; the idea was revolutionary; the result was The Neighborhood Guild founded in 1886, the first settlement house in America. Lillian Wald was involved very deeply in this establishment. It survives today as the University Settlement House.

In 1904, on the recommendation of Dr. Adler, Anna Garlin Spencer was elected Associate Leader of the New York Society. It wasn't until Dr. Adler died in 1933 that the American Ethical Union, the national federation, voted to permit women to become Leaders. In 1884, trained as a Unitarian minister, she had become one of the young rebels who met Dr. Adler at the Free Religious Association. Adler spoke highly of Mrs. Spencer for her work in philanthropy and the ministery and felt that she could do much to organize the "women's work" of the Society. Apparently, he saw her as complementary to Elliott, working primarily with the distaff side of the membership. But she was not comfortable in this specialized role conceived for her, nor was Dr. Adler pleased by Mrs. Spencer's "unwomanly" strength or certain of the causes that she embraced: Women's Suffrage, pacifism and her role as vice president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Sidonie Gruenberg said:

". . . those of my generation were a little alienated . . . by the fact that he (Adler) didn't believe in women's votes and that he stood out for not marrying anybody that had been divorced. . . . He had a very patriarchal attitude toward women. . . .

"Anna Garlin Spencer . . . was a wonderful woman and a very good friend of mine. . . . She didn't feel that she was really in . . . a tiny little person with a very fine voice . . . she cared about people as did Dr. Elliott."

She left in 1913 to become assistant director of the New York School of Philanthropy, now Columbia's School of Social Work.

In 1908, Anna Garlin Spencer was running the Ethical Summer School in Madison, Wisconsin where Jane Addams was on the faculty. Jane Addams became an Associate Leader of the Chicago Society. It was there that, when Mangasarian, the Leader, alienated half the Society with his anti-catholic diatribes, resigned from the Society, started an Independent Religious Society taking half the members with him, Lydia Coonley and Mary Wilmarth held the group together until Dr. Horace Bridges arrived to become the Leader.

Philadelphia had the good fortune to have an active woman member, Jennie Fells. She bought one house on Rittenhouse Square and another behind it. She put the two houses together to become the headquarters of the Philadelphia Society which stands today, a beautiful building in one of the most fashionable areas.

In 1902, Mrs. Henry Ollesheimer started the Manhattan Trade School for Girls which opened on 14th Street. Miriam Sutro Price worked to improve the public schools in New York. Alice K. Pollitzer arranged for information booths to open at the Society for suffrage organizations in 1918. There are many women whose lives cry out to be mentioned. Here are a few outstanding ones:

Alice K. Pollitzer -- our beloved "Nanny" -- who died at the age of 102, a graduate of Barnard College, was a devoted member of the Ethical Movement. She was the wife of Dr. Sigmund Politzer. Her interest in children led her to become Secretary of the Vocational Advisory Service for Youth, and later secretary of the Walden School. She worked also with the Child Study Association and the magazine "Story Parade." From her earliest years she was an activist in spirit. Before World War I she walked in the march for women's votes. In the 1930's she talked in the streets and made speeches in the campaign to re-elect FDR. And in the period of The League of Nations, before World War II, and the United Nations following, she marched for peace. In 1946, at the age of 75, she helped found the Encampment for Citizenship and became chair of its Board of Directors, a position she held for almost 20 years.

Dr. Lucile Kohn, Nanny's sister, was a scholar and a teacher. Although she was over 90 years of age at her death, she was alive to the life around her, concerned about the world and in love with youth to the very last days. As a distinguished scholar and outstanding teacher, she made much of her talents and enriched the life of a large community of students and friends of many generations. Whether she was teaching in the summer schools of the labor movement, among teenagers of Walden School, or as a director of the Fieldston Encampment for Citizenship, she was a stimulating, learned, excited and beloved teacher.

Martha Ellis Fischel, president of the St. Louis Society, became the first woman president of the American Ethical Union in 1926.

Helen Goldmark and Eleanor Adler had organized and taught housekeeping classes at the Children's Guild. They also visited the sick and were responsible for introducing school nurses in public schools. The Guild for aiding crippled children was organized by women of the Society and established a permanent home in Hawthorne, New York. Helen Reichenbach, Nanette Rothschild and May H. Weis were all active members in the New York Society. Mrs. Weis represented the Society at the initial meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1948.

May Hessberg Weis, chair of the American Ethical Union and the International Humanist Ethical Union's NGO Committee at the United Nations and accredited representative to the United States Mission to the U.N., was born into the Ethical Culture Movement. Her father, Max, was one of the founders and her mother joined in 1909. In 1915, she married Walter Weis, whose parents were also founders of the movement, and Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott performed the ceremony. Mrs. Weis devoted most of her time to the U.N. and her interests ran to peace, racism and ecology. She became the president of the New York Women's Conference in 1939 and helped to organize the refugee adjustment program. After the war she helped organize a veteran's program with the cooperation of New York Hospital. In 1974 she and her husband bought the camp that the AEU owned in New Jersey and turned it into the Weis Ecology Center. This was the first ecology camp owned and sponsored by a religious organization.

In 1922, Julie Wurtzberger Neuman founded the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School and became its principal. In the thirties, Mrs. Edna Gellhorn of St. Louis, suggested these themes for discussion at the annual AEU Assembly.

  1. Purpose of the AEU besides publishing The Standard?

  2. Why have an annual Assembly?

  3. Reasons for the stagnation of the Ethical Movement?

  4. Why after 55 years no Societies outside the seven in existence?

  5. Was there any intention to take aggressive measures to recruit new leaders and plant colonies in leading cities?

Many of these questions are pertinent today.

In 1931 Anna Garlin Spencer wrote "that if the movement did not go after large areas of people for individual memberships, it would surely not grow and might die." I think her words have value today.

Felix Adler's belief that women belonged in the home, the old Germanic idea of the three "k's" in German. In English they are the kitchen, the children and the bedroom has prevailed at the New York Society. The first woman president of this Society was and is Dr. Judith Wallach, but it took until 1994. And, although I had been certified in 1983 as an AEU Leader, it took until May, 1999 to be elected to leadership in this Society, the first full woman Leader in the New York Society.

Anna Garlin Spencer was certified as an associate Leader in 1904; Jane Addams as an associate Leader in 1908 of the Chicago Society; Dr. Barbara Raines became the first full Leader of a Society in the 1960's in Los Angeles; Grace Pratt Butler, in the 1960's; Muriel Davies in the 1970's, and then in the 1980's and 90's came the large influx of women Leaders; Judith Espenschied (Philadelphia), Jean S. Kotkin (AEU), Lois Kellerman (Brooklyn), Judy Toth (St. Louis), Susan Bagot (Northern Virginia), Kathi Foy and Joy McConnell (St. Louis), Jone Johnson (Chicago), Lisel Burns (Brooklyn), Pat Hoertdoerfer (UUA Religious Director), Barbara Meyerson (Essex), Sharon Sarles (Texas), Susan Teshu (Boston). Nine of the above are graduates of the Humanist Institute. There are 15 women associate Leaders at various Societies and one woman Leader-in-Training.

In 1926, Martha Fishel became the first woman president of the AEU. It took almost 50 years for another woman, Rose Elbert, to become AEU president followed by Muriel Neufeld, Sophie Meyer, Susan Goldfrank, Annabelle Glasser and Ellen McBride.

In 1968, the Mental Health Association of Westchester alerted the Women's Conference of the Westchester Ethical Society to the need of a half-way house for rehabilitating patients recently released from mental institutions. Three women from the Society, Mrs. Walter B. Neumann, Mrs. John H. Vogel and Mrs. Jesse B. Robinson were determined to meet that need. They visited state mental institutions, consulted with experts and raised enough money to start Futura House for Women, the first facility of its kind in Westchester.

Sylvia Bloom, a member of Westchester Society, organized the first meeting on abortion, April 17, 1964. The room was packed and it grew into the Pro Choice Movement in the County and eventually in the country.

There are so many other women who should be mentioned. Rebecca Goldblum, a member of the New York Society, who spearheaded the founding of the Long Island group. Ruth Fry, also a New York member, helped establish the Planned Parenthood Clinic on the West Side. Lotte Bernard, who represented the IHEU and the AEU at the United Nations. The Amy Shire sewing group made graduation dresses for girls in public schools who could not afford them. Women helped inmates in the House of Detention for Women with a program of training and rehabilitation. The Braille group completed four volumes in Spanish, translated a play into braille for the Vacation Camp for the Blind; 19 volumes were bound for the Jewish Braille Institute and 25 for the New York Public Library.

Florence Klaber, a third generation Ethical Culturist, daughter of charter members of the New York Society, teacher of Ethics and English at the Midtown Ethical Culture School and National Director of Religious Education from 1953 to 1964, died in her ninetieth year in Houston, Texas in 1978. She was one of the earliest graduates of Ethical Culture Schools in 1904. Her grandfather was one of the first followers of Felix Adler and her father Alfred Wolff, was one of Adler's closest friends. A mother and a grandmother, Mrs. Klaber developed many curricular and child guidance material and wrote pamphlets on such subjects as "Answering Children's Questions about God, Death and Belonging." Mrs. Klaber was without peer as an educator who took the educational philosophy and methods of Felix Adler and developed them into the children's educational curriculum for the Movement. The Sunday Schools throughout the Movement grew under her aegis in what proved to be the most creative and expansive period of Sunday School extension.

Maria Fridman, who organized the Homeless Artists and Writers program. Linda Scheuer and Rose Walker who hosted visiting Europeans here in 1961. Rose Walker was president of the Women's Conference and represents them at the United Nations today. Florry Weening and Annabelle Glasser of the Queens Society, Kay Vining from Baltimore, Ellie Gordon and Eleanor Arden of Boston, Sophie Meyer, Dorothy Gunzanhauser from Long Island, Martha Friedlaender, Valerie Farbman, Rhoda Kohn, Florence Klaber from New York, Vera Galanter, Riverdale-Yonkers, Sylvia Bloom of Westchester, Bruni Boyd and Jean Kaufman from Cleveland, and countless other women who worked tirelessly to further the work of their society.

Kay Vining was a founding member of the Baltimore Society. For years she was "the platform committee" corresponding with Leaders and providing hospitality when they came to Baltimore. Her Saturday night dinners for Leaders were famous and she recorded a list of each of her guests and menus. Kay came from sturdy, non-conformist stock. She delighted in having an ancestor who was burned at the stake and others who ran afoul of the Puritan establishment. Her mother was a nurse and a feminist who refused to wear a wedding ring when she was married in 1878 because it was a sign of women's slavery.

Martha Ellis Fischel was the first woman president of the American Ethical Union from 1926 to 1930. She was a member of the St. Louis Society, president of the St. Louis Society from 1923 until 1930. Her accomplishments were numerous.

Today the work of women goes on and one. Here are some of the other things that gave gone on:

  • Shelter for the Homeless, 1982 -- Hilda Zannis
  • Homeless Artists and Writers Workshop, 1983 -- Maria Fridman
  • Supervised Visitation, 1985 -- Judith Wallach
  • ELESAIR, 1985 -- Margaretha Jones.
  • P.S. 133 Partnership, 1988 -- Fran Weisenfeld

The concerns which led Felix Adler and the men and women who came together to form the Society for Ethical Culture in the 1870's still persist today among people of conscience and those seeking to clarify purpose and achieve a faith to live by.

I remember a statement from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made years ago at one of our celebrations. What he said in essence was "that never had such a small group of dedicated people made such a long and lasting contribution to the life of this city."

By their deed so shall ye know them.


One of the misapprehensions about the Movement is that it is aimed at destroying religion. Far from seeking to destroy religion, Ethical Culture aims at revivifying it by making it universal, not sectarian; experimental, not ceremonial; pervasive, not occasional; reasonable, not rationalized; vital, not conventional. It insists that ethics, instead of being one of the consequences of correct religious belief, is independent of any theological creed. Remember Dr. Adler's words, "Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed."

© 2000 Jean Somerville Kotkin. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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