Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Jewish Republican Woman Before Her Time : FLORENCE PRAG KAHN

I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress

- Florence Kahn

By Cleo Brown

Florence Prag Kahn was the first Jewish American Woman to serve as a Congressman in The United States. Born on November 9th, 1866 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Florence Prag was the oldest child of Conrad Prag and Mary Goldsmith.

Conrad Prag, who was a Jewish Merchant from Warsaw, Poland, traveled to California in 1849 to participate in The GoldRush. He settled, for a period of time, in San Francisco where he helped to found The Congregation Sherith Israel in 1851 and met and married Mary Goldsmith. Mary Goldsmith moved to San Francisco with her parents from Poland when she was only five years old. Mary Prag was an educated woman who was raised in San Francisco’s Jewish Community. (Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, “Florence Prag Kahn, p.1) She was a teacher at The Congregation Emanu-El and at a San Francisco High School.(p.1) Eventually, Mary Goldsmith Prag became a Vice-Principal at the high school where she was employed and was elected to The San Francisco Board of Education which she served on from 1921 until the time of her death at age eighty-nine in 1935. (p.1) Having two such role models in the home made quite an impression on young Florence who felt, consequently, compelled to achieve and to succeed. Florence Prag also had one brother named Jessie who died from Polio at the age of ten in 1879. Florence was three years older than Jessie.

Although the Polish-born Prags lived primarily in San Francisco, they did-for a brief period of time-live in Utah where they befriended the Mormon Leader named Brigham Young. (Wikipedia, “Florence Prag Kahn” , p.1) Conrad Prag was quite taken with the philosophy of Brigham Young , especially with his ideas concerning polygamy. For this reason, Mary Prag became unhappy in Utah forcing the couple with their children to return to San Francisco by 1869.

Florence Prag was educated in both the Public and the private-Jewish Schools of San Francisco.She graduated from a San Francisco Girls’ High School in 1883. By 1887 she had received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from The University of California at Berkeley. According to The Jewish Virtual Library, “She became the first Berkeley Graduate to teach in the San Francisco Public School System.” Florence Prag taught High School English and History. According to the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia: “…She graduated as one of only seven women in a class of forty…”(p.1)

Florence Prag married Julius Kahn on March 19th, 1899. Julius Kahn was born in Kuppenheim, Germany on February 28th, 1861. He immigrated to The United States with his parents who settled in San Francisco, California in 1866. Kahn, who had been a stage actor, put himself through law school in San Francisco after which he was both elected to The State Assembly in 1892 and admitted to The California State Bar in 1894. At the time of his marriage to Florence Prag, Julius Kahn was “a freshman Republican Representative from San Francisco.” (Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker, “Florence Kahn,” p. 2) The couple had two children together named Julius JR. born in 1902 and Conrad Prag born in 1906. Florence had also suffered a miscarriage3 and lost an infant to Sudden-Infant-Death Syndrome during her child-bearing years.

Julius Kahn, as a Republican, was elected to The United States’ House of Representatives from March 4th, 1899 to March 3rd, 1903. He was not, however, elected to the 58th Congress having been defeated by Edward J. Livernash. Kahn was re-elected to the 59th and to the nine subsequent Congresses after this. He served from March 4, 1905 until the time of his death in 1924. (Wikipedia, “Julius Kahn”, p.4)

In the United States in 1924 when a politician died in office, his wife assumed his work duties until the next election. Florence Prag Kahn, consequently, who had also served as Julius’ secretary and aide while he was living, was elected as a Republican to the 69th Congress in a special election. The first piece of legislation which Kahn introduced was a Bill which provided Native Americans with financial compensation for lands taken from them in 1851 and 1852. The Bill was defeated.

Florence Kahn, as did her husband, promoted the concept of “Military Preparedness” as a way to maintain peace. She is quoted as having said, “Preparedness has never caused a war, nor has unprepared ness ever prevented one.” (Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker,” p.3) She was a proponent, consequently, for “strong armed forces” and was responsible for the opening of The Alameda Naval Base in California. She also was a strong proponent of family values and advocated on behalf of American citizenship for Chinese Women married to American-Chinese Men. According to Jewish Virtual Library, “She also supported am amendment that passed on citizenship to children of American-born women residing outside the United States….” (p.2) In addition to these accomplishments, two bridges connecting San Francisco to other major areas of California were completed during Florence Kahn’s tenure in office.

According to Congressional Widow to Trailblazing Lawmaker, “Florence Prag Kahn once remarked that “‘there comes a time in most women’s lives when the children are grown and there is a let-down in life’s responsibilities.’ She named this phase “second leisure.’” (p.1) It is truly remarkable, therefore, that upon the death of her husband and with her children adults, at a time when Florence Prag Kahn should have been at liberty to experience this “second leisure” that she spent her “second leisure” working in a manner which expanded women’s role and leadership in Governemnt.

About The Author: Cleo E. Brown has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary African-American History from The University of California at Davis in Davis, California. She also has a B.A. Minor Degree in Political-Science and has completed course work towards a Ph.D. in Education from The University of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. She is a Free Lance Writer and a Senior Editor at HHR

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