Two Centuries of Women’s Equality in the FamilyPosted: February 3, 2014
I am descended from a long line of women for whom nontraditional roles were a tradition. My mother was a PhD economist. My grandmother was a physician an biochemical research scientist. My great grandmother was a portrait artist of more than usual accomplishment, and apparently so was my great-great grandmother. The earliest proponent of of women’s equality I have found so far in my family, however, is my great-great-great-grandmother, Sophie Gumpel (died 1846).
Sophie Gumpel (née Meyer) was the wife of the Hamburg businessman, banker and philanthropist Lazarus Gumpel (1770-1843). Although the records are incomplete, Sophie and Lazarus had at least five children, three daughters and two sons. Lazarus was himself a progressive and charitable man, devoting a good portion of his fortune to building a large apartment house in Hamburg to provide subsidized housing for poor families in the city. He was also one of the founders of the first Reformed Jewish congregation in Hamburg, significantly leading in modernizing Jewish religious practice, including greater participation for women in the liturgy. When Lazarus died, he was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf. A modern gravestone replaces the original .
After Lazaruz died in 1843, Sophie prepared a new will to dispose of the considerable fortune she inherited from Lazarus. A legal transcription of the will appears at the top of this post. Sophie included one paragraph that was most unusual for the time:
Since the rules of Jewish law, which give preferred status to sons over daughters, are not acceptable to me, who always loved all of my children equally, I declare herewith, as I am legally authorized to do, that I constitute all of my children my heirs, and in the case that one should have predeceased me then his or her marital offspring shall take his or her place per stirpes. To all these my heirs I leave my entire estate in equal parts without exception, including furniture, household inventory, linen, gold and silver.
Interestingly, Sophie anticipated that not all of her heirs or their children would agree with her egalitarian approach to the disposition of her estate, and included the following additional paragraph:
Should any of my designated heirs, for whatever reason, not recognize this will or contest its validity, he shall be totally excluded from any right in my estate, and the share left to him shall go to the other heirs who will honor and recognize my will.
The value of the estate, by the way, came to some 52,000 Taler, the equivalent of an estate of millions of dollars today, providing plenty for everyone.