On August 18, 1920, women were granted the right to vote in the USA when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
This was a time of great political upheaval, and the idea of women's suffrage was being discussed and soon being granted among most European countries. However, "no country in the Mediterranean Basin (Spain, France, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece), Asia (except Russia), Africa or the Middle East recognized women’s suffrage."
The issue began being discussed in Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Many turned to Rav Abraham Ha-Kohen Kook — the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Jerusalem — for his decision. "To the shock of many", he announced his unequivocal opposition to women's suffrage. And this opposition was - he claimed - "the unanimous voice of all Jewish culture and halakhah." To Kook, the idea of suffrage was not only a betrayal of Jewish ideals, but also represented a trend towards accepting European culture which he claimed was defunct in both morality and purity of virtue. Kook supported a boycott by religious Jews in the 1920 elections unless women were barred from the electoral process.
Rav BenZion Meir Uziel - the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jaffa - composed a responsum in 1920, strongly supported for women’s suffrage for religious, moral and political grounds. "Out of respect for Rav Kook, he never identified his intellectual adversary, but it is clear that much of his teshuvah is a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments Rav Kook had raised in the two letters."
R. Kook's first letter can be summed up with this quote:
Regarding the law, I have nothing to add to the words of the rabbis who came before me. In the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Writings, in the halakhah and in the aggadah, we hear a single voice: that the duty of fixed public service falls upon men, for “It is a man’s manner to dominate and not a woman’s manner to dominate” (Yevamot 65b), and that roles of office, of judgment, and of testimony are not for her, for “all her honor is within” (Ps. 45:14).His second letter is even more of a blockbuster and I really have to excerpt a lengthy section of it.
We believe our outlook on the life of society is more delicate and pure than that of the other civilized nations in general. Our family is sacred to us in a much deeper way than it is to all the modern world, and this is the basis of the happiness and dignity of the Woman of Israel. In other nations, the family is not the foundation of the nation, nor is it as stable and deep as it is amidst us. For this reason, they are not so taken aback by the cracks in family life, and the consequences of those breaks will not cause such harm to their national life. The psychological basis for calling for public participation in elections by the name of “women’s rights” arises fundamentally from the unhappy position of the mass of women amidst these nations. If their family situation had been as peaceful and dignified as it is generally in Israel, the women themselves, as well as men of science, morality and high ideals, would not demand what they call “rights” of suffrage for women, in the common fashion, a step that might spoil domestic tranquility (shalom bayit) and ultimately lead to a great deterioration of political and national life in general.The complete content of R. Kook’s two letters and R. Uziel’s formal responsum are presented here, from which all quotes in this post were taken.
But out of their desperation and bitterness, the result of male coarseness that spoils family life, the women of other nations thought to receive, through some public empowerment, help in ameliorating their wretched situation at home, without regard to the further breaches made thereby, since those breaches are so numerous. We have not descended, and shall not descend, to such a state, and will not want to see our sisters in such a low state. The home for us remains a dwelling place of holiness, and we dare not obliterate the splendor of our sisters’ lives, and embitter them through exposure to the din of opinions and disputation that are characteristic of electoral matters and political questions.
The Israelite woman bases her rights on the refined content of her unique spiritual value, not on measured and limited laws, formed in a mechanical cast, which are for her iron horns, which do not suit at all her psychic refinement and which she is generally, according to her natural character, not strong enough to utilize. They lack the power to repair and are more able to spoil the fundamentals of spiritual relations. These laws govern every arena of life.
The family is for us the foundation of the nation. The house of Jacob (beit Ya`aqov—an allusion to women—ed.) will build the people of Israel. We prepare the building of the nation in a manner consistent with the nature of our psyche. We are always prepared to declare the moral obligation of listening to women’s opinions throughout the house of Israel, including those with reference to general social and political questions. But the accepted opinion must come specifically from the home, from the family in its wholeness; and the one whose duty it is to bring it into the public domain is the man, the father of the family, on whom is placed the obligation of making known the family opinion.
When we demand of the woman that she go out into the political public domain, and become entangled in expressing her opinion on electoral and political questions in general, then one of two things will result: either she will learn through this flattery to flatter the man and to cast her vote according to his, not according to her conscience, thereby spoiling her morality and inner freedom; or raging differences of opinion will destroy domestic tranquility (shalom bayit), and the rifts in the family will fracture the nation. At the same time, we lower our collective dignity in the eyes of the nations by showing the world that we have no original political system stemming from the content of our own spirit, which is revealed through our teachings and holy traditions. These are for us not only symbolic matters, but embody real life values. Instead, we act, at the beginning of our first step toward political life, as lesser disciples of contemporary civilized people who themselves still stand very confused concerning their difficult life issues, especially with regard to their spiritual and moral values in general and with respect to this difficult problem of home and state in particular.