|Maud Nathan in 1913|
Born this day in 1862: Maud Nathan (1862–1946), suffragist, cofounder of the National Consumers League
Maud Nathan was born into a prominent Jewish family in New York City in 1862. At age 17 she married her cousin Frederick Nathan and enjoyed the life of a socialite. She was very active in community service. A gifted linguist, she taught English to Jewish immigrants at the Hebrew Free School Association. She also sat on the association’s board of directors.
Nathan became interested in the role consumers could play in improving the working conditions of New York’s retail workers, or shopgirls. She helped found the New York City Consumers League in 1890. In 1897 she became president of the state’s Consumers League. She held the post for 21 years, and the League honored her by naming her honorary president for life. In 1898 a National Consumers League born of the New York league, and Nathan served on its executive board.
The New York league informally investigated working conditions in retail establishments. Shopgirls worked as much as 60 hours per week for as little as two or three dollars and were often sexually harassed. The League published “white lists” of stores that treated their shopgirls fairly and encouraged consumers to patronize those establishments. Nathan worked close to the ground, talking with employers, newspapers, and reform groups on behalf of shopgirls.
Nathan found that directly lobbying politicians was less fruitful, since politicians had no motivation to attend to the needs of citizens who could not vote for them. She therefore turned much of her attention to woman suffrage.
A witty and talented speaker, she traveled the state to drum up support for women’s rights. Her family publicly opposed her views, but her husband was by her side. During her speaking tours he drove her around the state in a car, which was decked out with flags to attract attention. Nathan was the first vice president of the New York Equal Suffrage League and a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. On the national level, she headed a women’s suffrage committee for Teddy Roosevelt’s National Progressive Party. Overseas she addressed international conferences on women’s suffrage and put her linguistic skills to use as translator for German and French speakers.
In her later years Nathan put down her experiences in two works. The Story of an Epoch-Making Movement, published in 1926, chronicles the Consumer League. Her autobiography, Once Upon a Time and To-day, was published in 1933.
Just for fun: Check out this "Live-Blog" of an 1893 hearing on the working conditions at New York City's dry goods stores.