The Inspiring Pauline Perlmutter Steinem
By Lisa Wood, Audiovisual Curator
Steinem, that name sounds familiar. Is she by any chance related to Gloria Steinem? Yes, she is. Before Gloria Steinem fought for the Equal Rights Amendment or founded Ms. Magazine or gave her famous Living the Revolution speech, her grandmother Pauline was working to transform the city of Toledo and the state of Ohio into a better place for women, for children and for everyone.
Pauline Perlmutter was born in part of Poland governed by Russia and educated in Germany. She married Joseph Steinem in 1884 and returned with him to Toledo, Ohio, in 1887. By 1900 the family consisted of Pauline, Joseph and four sons: Edgar, Jesse, Clarence and Leo. Joseph Steinem succeeded in business and Pauline became a community leader who worked for social change. As a Jewish woman, the first community group she joined was the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society. In 1893 she went to a large meeting of Jewish women from all over the United States held in Chicago, Illinois, during the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Her trip to the Chicago meeting led her to become more involved in women’s organizations. In 1899 Pauline became the first president of the Toledo District, Council of Jewish Women. Then in 1901 she became president of the Toledo Federation of Women’s Clubs. Joining these groups was important because it introduced her to women who wanted to help people and gave her leadership experience. She got to know Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, the famous mayor of Toledo who wanted to apply the “Golden Rule” – to treat others the way you want to be treated – to government programs and everyday life. Steinem was a member of the Golden Rule Mother’s Club where she was encouraged to get involved in politics.
Mrs. Steinem believed the purpose of education was not to teach children that being successful meant making money, but to support children’s “emotional, mental and spiritual development.” She led a group from different women’s organizations to form Toledo’s first summer school program in 1903. Then in 1904 Mrs. Steinem ran for a seat on the Toledo School Board. Women had been allowed to run for school board and vote in school board elections in Ohio since 1894. However, few women ran and voter turnout was usually low for school board elections.
One reason women hesitated to vote in school board elections is that men often harassed them when they went to register. To help women, Mrs. Steinem and her supporters organized women to go in groups to register. Voting places were also in places like bars, that many women did not often go. In response to this, Mrs. Steinem said:
“If the polls are places too terrible for women to venture into, then it’s up to men to
clean them up.”
When Steinem’s campaign organization received reports that there were men preventing their wives from registering to vote they reportedly recorded names and addresses, and considered pressing legal charges against men for voter intimidation, a crime punishable with monetary fines and prison time.
Because of the number of women who participated, she was the first woman elected to the Toledo School Board. Mrs. Steinem received over 16,000 votes, the most votes of any school board candidate on the ballot for that election. According to the Manual of the Board of Education of the City of Toledo for 1904-1905 she began her term as an elected board member on January 2, 1905. One of her first acts as a school board member was to declare that she would be publicly available every day to hear any complaints about the schools. Her term lasted until 1909. Mrs. Steinem did not run for a second term, but in 1910 became a member of the board of trustees for the Toledo Public Library. Library boards were one of the other civic positions open to women at this time.
Another position Pauline held was president of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association (OWSA) from 1908-1911. While she was president OWSA advocated for other issues related to equality for women. During a 1909 suffrage meeting in Warren she appointed a committee to lobby the Ohio legislature for parents to have co-guardianship of children. Her suffrage work did not end when she was no longer president. Mrs. Steinem continued to speak out and write in favor of women’s voting rights.
In the summer and fall of 1914 Ohio suffragists campaigned statewide to pass a women’s suffrage amendment to the Ohio Constitution. On October 29, just days before voters went to the polls to vote yes or no for the amendment, she published an article in the Toledo Blade newspaper titled “Why I am a Suffragist.” Mrs. Steinem said in this article that since men and women are all human beings, they should share the same responsibilities. In response to the argument that there are things women are not meant to do, she asked “How do we know what women can do, when we have never yet allowed them to try?” Unfortunately, the 1914 women’s suffrage amendment did not pass in Ohio.
In her positions as a representative of various civic organizations, the president of the OWSA and member of the Board of State Charities Steinem traveled extensively in Ohio to give speeches and attend events. Her activities were frequently written about in Ohio newspapers. In 1906 she spoke about “The Advancement of Women” at the high school graduation ceremony in Pemberville, Ohio. The three graduates were all female students and the Perrysburg Journal newspaper noted, “The affair was unprecedented, in as much as the entire programme was filled by women.”
While Mrs. Steinem was part of groups that were comprised of and lead by women, her career also put her in positions where she was one of few women or the only woman. When the citizens of Toledo organized the Samuel M. Jones Memorial Association to plan for a memorial to honor their late mayor, she was the only woman on the organizational committee. In 1909, when she was on the Toledo School Board, she was a delegate to the Ohio State Association of School Board Members. The Ohio State Journal ran her picture in the newspaper and noted that she “… attracted attention, not so much because of her being the only woman with the right to speak and vote, as by reason of the pungent criticisms she directed against certain motions proposed.” The paper also noted that “… many of the advanced educational methods in vogue there (Toledo) are due to her efforts.”
This caption alludes to the fact that as an activist and politician Steinem’s work occasionally courted controversy. When Steinem went to a meeting of the Ohio State Teacher’s Association on July 1, 1910 to discuss women’s suffrage she was denied the opportunity to speak. The newspaper described a public scene in which Steinem argued with the president of the Teacher’s Association. The next day an article ran in which she insisted there was no such argument and the Teacher’s Association simply did not have time at the meeting for her presentation.
When she visited Columbus to give speeches and attend meetings it was often reported in newspapers like the Columbus Dispatch. Sometimes the serious subjects of educational reform and votes for women were reported with other political news, but just as often the Dispatch placed reports about Mrs. Steinem on the “Woman’s Fashion and Household Magazine Page.” In 1905 news of Mrs. Steinem advocating for the appointment of female truant officer and speaking at the annual convention of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association shared space on the page with “The Dispatch’s Daily Fashion Hint.”
Mrs. Steinem served on the Ohio Board of State Charities from 1913 to 1921 and then retired from civic work. Her husband died in 1929 and she was able to live securely on the money that he left her. In the 1930s when Jewish people were being persecuted in Nazi Germany Mrs. Steinem used her money to help Jewish people escape. Pauline died on January 5, 1940 at age 75. She is buried with her husband and sons in Toledo’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Grand-daughter Gloria, who was just 5 years old when she died, knew her as “Mama Einie.” She cherished stories of her grandmother organizing women to work together to fight harassment to register and vote in the Toledo school board election and rescuing family members in Germany. Clearly, though, Pauline Steinem was not just an inspiration to her grand-daughter, but too many.
“Active in Educational Work, Mrs. Pauline Steinem,” Ohio State Journal, March 27, 1909.
“After Husbands Who Prevent Wives Voting, Criminal Proceedings May be Brought, Names of Intimidated Wives are in Hands of the Committee,” Columbus Dispatch, November 1, 1904.
Anderson, Elaine S. Women in Ohio History, A Conference to Commemorate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. “Pauline Steinem, Dynamic Immigrant.” Ohio Historical Society, 1976, pages 13-18.
Booth, Stephanie Elise. Buckeye Women. Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 2001.
Noel, David M. A History of the Toledo Jewish Community, 1895-2006, A Rich Tapestry of Historical Information. Toledo Jewish Historical Society of Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo.
Manual of the Board of Education of the City of Toledo, 1904-1905.
Marcello, Patricia Cronin. Gloria Steinem, A Biography. Greenwood Press, Westford, Connecticut, 2004.
Marcus, Jacob Rader. The American Jewish Woman, A Documentary History. Ktav Publishing House, New York, New York and American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1981.
“Mrs. Pauline Steinem Elected for 4 Years to Board of Education, She Will Listen to Every Complaint About the Schools,” Columbus Dispatch, November 13, 1904.
“Noted Clubwoman Dies,” Columbus Dispatch, January 7, 1940.
The Ohio Bulletin of Charities and Correction, Children’s Welfare Department and Other Activities of Ohio Board of State Charities. Ohio Board of State Charities. H.H. Shirer, Editor, Columbus, Ohio, February 1919.
Ohio Obituaries and Biographical Sketches, Volume 7.
“Pemberville Commencement,” Perrysburg Journal, May 25, 1906.
“There Was No Dispute, Such is Declaration of the President of Suffrage Association in Denial of Reports,” Columbus Dispatch, July 2, 1910.
Steinem, Gloria. “Pauline Perlmutter Steinem,” The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Accessed online: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/steinem-pauline-perlmutter.
Steinem, Pauline. “Why I am a Suffragist?” Toledo Blade, Wednesday, October 28, 1914.
“Woman’s Fashion and Household Magazine Page.” Columbus Dispatch, September 13, 1905.
“Woman Suffragists Select Committee Will Agitate Coguardianship of Parents for Children,” Columbus Dispatch, January 19, 1909.
“Wouldn’t Permit Woman to Address Teachers of Ohio,” Columbus Dispatch, July 1, 1910.