Jewish Feminist Leaders

What drove Jewish women into the feminist movement?

Print this page Print this page

The otherness that many Jewish women felt as Jews in postwar America dovetailed with their experiences of otherness as women. Though often painful, the parallelism of these experiences bolstered their determination to fight for inclusion and equality. Poet Adrienne Rich explores these parallels in her 1985 essay "If Not with Others, How?":

"We have been 'the Jewish question' or 'the woman question' at the margins of Leftist politics, while Right Wing repressions have always zeroed in on us. We have--women and Jews--been the targets of biological determinism and persistent physical violence. We have been stereotyped both viciously and sentimentally by others and have often taken these stereotypes into ourselves...We exist everywhere under laws we did not make; speaking a multitude of languages; excluded by law and custom from certain spaces, functions, resources associated with power; often accused of wielding too much power, of wielding dark and devious powers."

Rich argues that these parallels of otherness and discrimination should serve as a basis for empathy and for political coalition, and for many Jewish women they have.

Jewish women did not only experience otherness in negative terms. The resurgence of ethnic pride in the wake of Black Power gave many a sense of satisfaction in their distinctiveness as Jews. Ethnic pride could also combine with and reinforce feminist pride. When Jewish women rejected the postwar definition of beauty and femininity limited to non-Jewish looks, for example, they challenged both ethnic and gender norms and fused Jewish and feminist consciousness.

Whether Judaism served as a positive or negative encouragement to feminism--and for many, undoubtedly, it was both--the Second Wave feminist organizing methods and understanding of politics brought family and community experiences under close scrutiny. The central feminist tool was "consciousness-raising," a method of conversation and self-examination based on the ideology that "the personal is political"--that our personal experiences and choices are not merely individual but influenced by larger social structures and institutions that are powerful but often invisible. The first and central act of feminist activism, then, was to identify these structures and institutions so that the workings of power within and through them could be challenged and transformed. This required personal examination of family dynamics and communal expectations, and in the process, the ethnic particularities of family and community became essential to feminist development.

What legacy do we inherit from these Jewish feminist pioneers? A changed world, to be sure, and continuing battles to be fought. But we also learn about the complex intersection of otherness and integration, suffering and entitlement, social justice and patriarchy in the Jewish experience, and its power to make us effective agents of social change.

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.