Ten in the Twentieth: Baltimore Jews and Social Justice 1920s

Posted on February 13th, 2017 by

Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

The Baltimore Jewish community has produced many leaders who have worked to make the world a better place. The range of issues they have addressed is impressive: from women’s suffrage to civil rights, labor relations to helping the elderly, refugee resettlement to eliminating poverty, and much more.

This chronology traces the careers of ten Baltimoreans who stood up for social change, with each person’s entry revolving around a turning point—one for each decade of the twentieth century. This is by no means a “Ten Best” list. The people included here are remarkable for what they accomplished, but others, equally remarkable, could have been chosen as well. These profiles should be seen as representative of a larger group of Baltimore Jews who have made major contributions to their communities and to the broader society in myriad ways.

The 1920s: Dr. Bessie Moses

Click here to start from the beginning.

1927: After meeting with national reproductive rights leader Margaret Sanger, Dr. Bessie Moses (1893-1965) opens the first birth control clinic in Baltimore, the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice, at 1028 North Broadway. Though many of the Bureau’s activities were illegal at that time, Dr. Moses and her staff “managed to subvert the federal Comstock laws” banning the interstate traffic of contraceptives by “performing research on the efficacy of birth control methods,” mainly diaphragms and condoms, according to a Planned Parenthood profile (in the 1940s the clinic became  Planned Parenthood of Maryland). Moses served as the clinic’s medical director until her retirement in 1956.

Dr. Bessie Moses. JMM 1980.29.31b

Dr. Bessie Moses. JMM 1980.29.31b

Committed from an early age to women’s health, Moses had been the first female obstetrical intern at Johns Hopkins. She became a prominent figure, mentoring students and speaking before groups. A compassionate physician as well as a rigorous scientist, she spoke out against restrictive birth control laws, testifying with Sanger at Congressional hearings. Her clinic served blacks as well as whites (although on segregated days, as local custom demanded). In 1938 she established the Northwest Maternal Health Center to serve black patients, the first in the nation staffed by African American physicians.  In 1950, Moses and Sanger were the first women honored with Planned Parenthood’s Lasker Award.

Continue to The 1930s: Lee Dopkin

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Dr. Ruth Finkelstein: a Pioneer in Women’s Health

Posted on July 9th, 2013 by

Clare RobbinsA blog post from Collections Intern Clare Robbins. Clare works with senior collections manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Clare and other JMM interns, click here.

This summer I’ve had a wonderful time working with Jobi in the Collections Department at the JMM.  I’ve worked on a variety of projects including processing the 2012-2013 collections, creating a condition report notebook for the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit, and even writing the catalogue numbers on surface of several objects.

After practicing writing 1984.16.1 for thirty minutes, I finally wrote it on the bottle.

After practicing writing 1984.16.1 for thirty minutes, I finally wrote it on the bottle.

Last week, I started transcribing an oral history with Dr. Ruth Finkelstein that will be used in the upcoming “Jews, Health and Healing” exhibit.  Dr. Finkelstein was a Baltimorean obstetrician and gynecologist beginning in the late 1930s through the 1980s who worked for better health care and family planning for women.   Listening to Dr. Finkelstein discuss her experiences has definitely been one of the highlights from my summer.  While I haven’t finished the interview, I thought I would share what I have found so far.

I’m busy transcribing Dr. Ruth Finkelstein’s interview.

I’m busy transcribing Dr. Ruth Finkelstein’s interview.

Dr. Finkelstein grew up in New York City with her parents and four siblings. Her father decided early in her life that she would become a doctor.  When she was twelve years old, Finkelstein’s father wrote to the Johns Hopkins Medical School for a catalogue that outlined how to get into medical school and she planned her life accordingly.  After finishing high school, she attended Johns Hopkins for both undergraduate and medical school.

In medical school, Finkelstein worked and lived at the first birth control clinic in Baltimore, officially called the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice because, as Finkelstein recalls, “birth control was a dirty word.”  Dr. Bessie Moses, a Baltimorean gynecologist, (you can read more about Dr. Moses here and here) opened this clinic on Broadway after she was denied space in the hospital.  Moses used the first floor as a birth control clinic and rented the upstairs to medical students.  While it was not illegal to open a privately funded birth control clinic at this time, Finkelstein recounted  the difficulties that early gynecologist like herself and Dr. Moses faced.  The Comstock law deemed birth control to be pornographic, thus making it illegal to import diaphragms (the only form of birth control at the time) from Europe.  Margaret Sanger, an early birth control activist and nurse, smuggled the diaphragms into the United States and distributed them to Moses.  Further, the only way a woman could go to the clinic was if she was referred by her physicians.  Women, however, were only referred if they had a heart, lung, or kidney disease.

Finkelstein also discussed the difficulties female doctors experienced in the early twentieth century.  Not only was Finkelstein the only Jewish woman at Johns Hopkins Medical School, she was also the only woman from her undergraduate class to pursue medicine.  As a doctor, she found that her opinion was not respected by her male colleagues.  The male doctors, she described, were “belittling” and overall dismissive of her opinions and diagnoses.  Because of these attitudes, Finkelstein could only work with a small group of physicians.

Despite the many hardships Finkelstein faced, she worked in the largely male-dominated medical field as an obstetrician and gynecologist in order to help women.  The best way that I can conclude this post is with a short quotations from Dr. Ruth Finkelstein describing her basic philosophy.  “I’m a champion of the underdog. I’m a softy. My philosophy is to help people, I guess.”

 

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