Jewish Feminist Leaders

What drove Jewish women into the feminist movement?

Print this page Print this page

As a child, I thought all feminists were Jewish women. (I also thought all Jewish women were feminists, but that's another story.) From an early age, I learned from my feminist mother about Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shulamith Firestone, and other Jewish women who put their hutzpah to work for the feminist revolution. From this perspective, I assumed that the historical feminists I learned about from books and at school--women such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Alice Paul--must also be Jewish. After all, they were gutsy, loud, and determined, and they changed the world from their position at its margins.

A Prominent Presence

As a student of women's history in college and graduate school, I came to see the limitations of my childhood perspective, and my own feminist vision was immeasurably broadened by exposure to the work of non-Jewish feminists such as Kate Millet and Audre Lorde. And yet, my youthful assumption that there was something Jewish about feminism seemed to be validated by the disproportionate representation of Jewish women among the pioneers and leaders of the modern American women's movement.

It's almost overwhelming to consider the numerous Jewish women who have shaped every aspect of the women's movement and of American life: from Betty Friedan, who sparked Second Wave feminism (the resurgence of feminist activism beginning in the 1960s) with the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique and the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, to Judy Chicago, who created art centered on women's experiences in The Dinner Party; from Alix Kates Shulman and Anne Roiphe, who published the first novels of the women's liberation movement, to Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller, who protested pornography and violence against women; from Robin Morgan and Shulamith Firestone, who organized women's "consciousness-raising" groups and published early feminist theory, to Barbara Seaman and Alice Wolfson, who protested the dangers of the birth control pill in Senate hearings in 1970; from Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin who founded Ms. magazine, to Carol Gilligan and Phyllis Chesler, who exposed gender bias in psychology; from Bella Abzug, who brought feminist politics to Congress, to Gerda Lerner, who created and institutionalized the field of women's history. The list goes on and on.

How to explain the prominent presence and shaping influence of Jewish women in the feminist movement? As co-curator of the Jewish Women's Archive new online exhibit on "Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution," I had the opportunity to survey the impressive role of Jewish women at the forefront of Second Wave feminism and to speak with many leading feminists about their experiences as Jewish women and as activists in the women's movement. My research for the exhibit and the stories and artifacts contained within it suggested some of the reasons for this powerful connection.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Judith Rosenbaum

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