By Jackie Brettschneider, Research Intern, Center for Jewish History
Alice Davis Menken was a social worker for the courts and correctional institutions of New York state and city. She worked to rehabilitate delinquent girls within the penal system. This makes her an interesting Jewish woman because of her desire to help girls with no one else to turn to. Seeing these girls as people, instead of prisoners, also makes Menken a remarkable woman.
Menken was born to a wealthy family on August 4, 1870 in New York City. Her father was Michael Marks and her mother was Miriam Peixotto Davis. Her mother was a descendant of the Mendez-Seixas and Maduro-Peixotto families, who were active in the American Revolution. Menken was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her mother’s descendants. Menken is also great granddaughter of Hazzan Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto, the cantor of New York’s Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel. Menken also married a wealthy attorney named Mortimer Morange Menken on October 17, 1893. They had one son names Harold Davis Menken in 1895. As a woman with status at the turn of the century, she was denied a career, the right to own property, and the right to vote. But instead of living the life of a typical wealthy woman of her time, she wanted to help women less fortunate than her.
Menken’s overwhelming support for delinquent women was shown through her dedication to the social work that could help them. In 1907, Menken was one of the major founders of the Jewish Board of Guardians. This group watched over and protected young girls dealing with the penal system and on parole. In 1908, Menken created a sisterhood committee that worked with the New York City Probation Department in the Women’s Night Court. Eleven years later, Night Court closed and the committee dissolved–however, her work shouldn’t be forgotten. Women are often mistreated by the justice system. This sort of injustice toward women is still seen today, made more visible by the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black. Menken’s work was important to the women she helped, and it should be recognized as such. Menken also served as the chair of the Department of Court, Probation, and Parole in the women’s division. She worked with paroled women, and she was the chair of the National Council of Jewish Women, which worked with young women right out of prison, and which continues to carry on her work through today. In 1911, Menken helped to establish the Jewish Big Sister movement to help delinquent women who were recently put on parole.
Menken saw young girls in need of help, when most people just disregarded those girls as criminals. She also provided aid to single mothers, sex workers, and any women with nowhere else to turn. According to A Social Aspect of the Unmarried Mother, Menken wrote about the unmarried woman with children, “We shall approach her as an individual entitled to physical, moral and spiritual betterment so far as society can bestow it.“ She wanted to end the judgment of unmarried women with children as immoral women unworthy of assistance. Her concern did not end there, as she states in The Law and Sex Offenders, Bulletin of the Massachusetts Society for Social Hygiene incorporated Affiliated with the American Social Hygiene Association, "We hear the cry of those who are afraid justice is not for the woman arrested for prostitution, that her reputation is sworn away and she is held guilty while the man goes free!” She wanted to find a way for prostitutes to reenter society without judgment for their arrest. She also didn’t overlook the men who got away with the crime of hiring prostitutes; instead, she demanded an equal application of the law and an end to this type of injustice.
Menken was so involved with all these women that she would often take many of them into her home. She tried to rehabilitate these young girls and women through good home conditions, the Jewish religion, employment, and healthy recreation. She also helped the penal system recognize the need for separate and different types of facilities for women prisoners. She saw these helpless women unlike others did. She looked past the flaws and saw the real women who needed help–and she was determined to supply that help through her social work. Menken deserves to be remembered for her gracious work and the impact she made on these women’s lives and the penal system.
For more on Alice Davis Menken see:
The Jewish Women’s Archive at http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/menken-alice-davis
The archives at the Center for Jewish History – held by our partner the American Jewish Historical Society – Alice Davis Menken papers, 1870-1936, P-23, Boxes 1-3 Finding aid: http://digital.cjh.org:1801/webclient/DeliveryManager?pid=109181