The gendered politics of public health: Jewish nurses and the American joint distribution committee in interwar Poland

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This article examines the gendered politics of public health initiatives among Jews in interwar Poland by focusing on the establishment and activity of the Warsaw School of Nursing (Szkoła Pielęgniarstwa przy Szypitalu Starozakonnych w Warszawie). Founded in 1923 and funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the school’s staff believed that they could shape the attitudes and behaviors of Polish Jewish women and use them as a conduit to advance their vision for a Polish state committed to the protection of Jews and their equality before the law. Drawing upon the voices of JDC officials, local Jewish health activists, Polish government officials, and young Jewish women in the Second Polish Republic, the article highlights the multiple and frequently conflicting ways in which gender figured in their political imagination. It also sheds light on the efforts of American Jewish humanitarian activists and Polish Jewish women alike—much like their counterparts throughout Europe and North America—to reframe traditional gendered expectations for women in order to expand their range of professional choices and the roles they could play in public life. The final section of this article recounts the school’s decline and compares its fate to a Jewish nursing school initiative in the city of Vilna. In doing so, it assesses the limits of the Joint Distribution Committee’s interethnic bridge-building initiatives in interwar Poland.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-352
Number of pages34
JournalJewish History
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2018


  • Foreign aid
  • Jews
  • Nursing
  • Poland
  • Women

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