Jewish Feminist Leaders

What drove Jewish women into the feminist movement?

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Feminist Awakenings

Jewish women who became feminist leaders generally trace their feminist awakening to two contrasting experiences of Judaism. Many speak of the positive influence: the Jewish tradition of social justice. As Letty Cottin Pogrebin has explained about her own roots: "I grew up in a home where advancing social justice was as integral to Judaism as lighting Shabbat candles… Having learned from [my parents] to stand up for my dignity as a Jew, I suppose it was natural for me to stand up for my dignity as a woman, which, after all, is what feminism is all about." In this association of Jewishness and progressiveness, feminism becomes an expression of Jewish values.

But Pogrebin's feminism also grew out of a negative Jewish experience--that of being excluded from the minyan (prayer quorum, traditionally composed of ten men) at her mother's death. She is not alone. Identifying early moments of exclusion from Jewish practice or community on the basis of sex--not being allowed to say kaddish (mourner's prayer) for a parent or get a Jewish education are just two examples--many women embraced feminism as a reaction against patriarchal Jewish values and as an alternative to a model of community based on traditional gender roles.

The status of American Jewish assimilation in the postwar period also contributed to the role of Jewish women in the resurgence of feminism. While Jews were new enough to America that they still identified as outsiders, assimilation was sufficiently underway that Jewish women were able to identify with others (such as non-Jewish women) beyond the boundaries of their community. By contrast, many African-American women in the 1960s identified predominantly with African-American men and were less willing or able to make common cause with other women across race lines. Generally upwardly-mobile, Jewish women in this period also tended to be well educated and endowed with a sense of entitlement that, alongside their sensitivity to injustice, helped fuel their feminist activism. They believed both in the necessity of social change and in their own ability to bring it about, and through their involvement in other social justice activities (such as the civil rights movement) they gained concrete organizing skills that served them well in building the women's movement.

The shadow of the Holocaust and the long history of anti-Semitic violence often highlighted in Hebrew schools shaped the paths of many feminists coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Heather Booth--founder of the first campus women's movement organization and of the underground abortion service, JANE--and Susan Brownmiller--who fought violence against women. Booth traces her lifetime of activism to a 1963 visit to Yad Vashem, where she took a personal oath: "I promised myself that in the face of injustice I would struggle for justice." Brownmiller, though turned off from Judaism by an early experience of sexism, admits that "I have never stressed my Jewish heritage in my writing. Yet the heritage is still with me, and I can argue that my chosen path--to fight against physical harm, specifically the terror of violence against women--had its origins in what I had learned in Hebrew School about the pogroms and the Holocaust."

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Dr. Judith Rosenbaum

Judith Rosenbaum is the Director of Public History at the Jewish Women's Archive.