Most of the women who appeared before the Women’s Night Court’s magistrates were charged with prostitution – and according to court records from the time, the vast majority of them were Jewish. Some of the women were forced into prostitution due to hunger; wages in a brothel were often better than those of a sweatshop. But many others were tricked into it by unscrupulous Jewish pimps who took advantage of the new immigrants’ naivety. For Davis Menken it mattered less how a girl got into trouble than how to get her out of it. She arranged for a member of the Sisterhood committee to be present during the court’s proceedings and, if the young woman was released on probation, Davis Menken took charge of her. Sometimes, when the young woman had nowhere else to go, Davis Menken would take her into her own home.
Davis Menken also helped found the Jewish Big Sister Association and was appointed to several official city positions, including the Board of Managers of the New York State Reformatory for Women and the Bureau of Social Service of the New York State Board of Parole. During the nearly three decades that she worked as a social welfare activist she developed her own ideas on the subject of delinquent girls and women, stressing that prevention was a much better way to deal with the problem than incarceration. She therefore emphasized the need for aiding the women with their basic needs, such as food and shelter, providing them with an education, giving them job training, and helping them find a job.
While Davis Menken was enough of a realist to admit that not everyone could be rehabilitated, she proudly admitted that she was someone with “a too strongly developed sense of optimism” –
an optimism that she retained throughout her life. And even though the social problems she hoped to solve are still with us, several of the things she advocated for, such as the need for separate facilities for female prisoners, have been adopted by the United States penal system.
After her death in 1936, she was eulogized by Rabbi David de Sola Pool, who commented upon Davis Menken’s devotion to both her religion and social activism: “Her religion was not limited to the forms of the ritual which she loved, but was an outward example to those who may doubt the value of religion.”