This Day in Jewish History

1929: 'America’s Greatest Mother,' the Childless Sophie Loeb, Dies Young

Impoverished widowed mothers had to put their children in orphanages, a solution Sophie Loeb thought inhumane and inane.

Sophie Irene Loeb, head-and-shoulders portrait
Wikicommons

On January 18, 1929, Sophie Irene Simon Loeb, who devoted her life to persuading American society that it had an obligation to ensure that single mothers had a minimum income, so that they could care for their children at home rather than having to commit them to orphanages, died, at the tragically young age of 52. Though her name may be little known today, Sophie Loeb was extremely influential in her day, not only in her hometown of New York, but across the country and in Europe as well.

Sophie Irene Simon was born on July 4, 1876 – in the town of Rovno, in Volhynia, then part of the Russian empire, today in Ukraine. When she was 6, her family immigrated to the United States, settling in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh.

Her father, Samuel Simon, was a jeweler, and when he died, in 1892, her mother, the former Mary Carey, was left destitute, with six children to provide for.

Nonetheless, Mary insisted that Sophie finish McKeesport High School. Upon graduation, in 1894, she began teaching at the East End Public School.

Noticing the widowed mothers

In 1896, Sophie married Ansel Loeb, a local shopkeeper for whom she had worked part-time while still in school. Freed from her day job (primary school teachers were not permitted to be married in McKeesport), she began to pursue her creative interests, including writing. She began with articles for the local newspaper, but was soon selling pieces about social issues in her hometown to the New York World.

Sophie and Ansel, who had no children, divorced in 1910, and she moved to New York. There, she was hired by the World as a muckraking – that is, investigative -- reporter, with her first series of articles devoted to the situation of single-parent families on the Lower East Side.

This became Sophie Loeb’s issue: the plight of widowed mothers who, lacking sufficient income, had been forced to place their children in orphanages. She became convinced that this solution was bad for families and bad for society, and began advocating for public funding of “widows’ pensions,” to allow families to stay together.

In 1914, Loeb, who by now was a member of a state commission on relief for widowed mothers, toured several states in Europe to see how they dealt with the same issues, and on her return, she wrote up her findings for the state legislature. The following year, New York established a State Board of Child Welfare, of which Loeb served as president for eight years. During her tenure, its appropriations rose from $100,000 to $4.5 million.

Loeb continued writing, both social-advocacy articles and books, and also poetry and fiction, and she made a decent living from her publications. All of her public work was voluntary, and she refused entreaties that she run for political office.

Bitten by the Zionist bug

Among other causes that she took on were penny school lunches, safety and hygiene standards in movie theaters, housing relief for impoverished renters and free maternity care for mothers in need. In 1917, Loeb was called in to mediate a strike of taxi drivers, and brought about an agreement within seven hours, and she fought to have the word “illegitimate” eliminated from all legislation that concerned children born out of wedlock.

In 1925, the New York World sent Loeb to Palestine to visit the new Jewish settlements being created there, and she was bit by the Zionism bug. One byproduct of this was her 1926 book “Palestine Awake: The Rebirth of a Nation.”

Sophie Loeb became an in-demand speaker around the United States (she was largely responsible for the passage of widows’ legislation in 42 states), and also internationally: In 1925, for example, she reported to the League of Nations about blind children in the U.S. When she died, U.S. Senator W.H. Hodges, of Florida, lauded her as “America’s Greatest Mother” – although Loeb never had any children of her own.

Sophie Loeb died of cancer on this date in 1929. Speakers at her funeral, held at the Free Synagogue, in New York, included New York City mayor James Walker, Lt. Gov. Herbert Lehman (the governor, Al Smith, was an honorary pallbearer), and officiating rabbi Stephen Wise.