American Jewish Feminism: Beginnings

Contemporary Jewish feminism has made its impact on all of the major denominations of Jewish life.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Jewish Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Jewish Feminism as a Daughter of American Feminism

The movement toward gender equality in the American Jewish community in the past generation ­was spurred on by a grassroots movement of Jewish feminism. Well‑educated and liberal in their political and cultural orientation, many Jewish women participated in what has been called the second wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s. Most did not link their feminism to their religious or ethnic identification.

jewish feministBut some women, whose Jewishness was central to their self‑definition, naturally applied their newly acquired feminist insights to their condition as American Jews. Looking at the all-male bimah ­[platform] in the synagogue, they experienced the feminist "click"--the epiphany that things could be different‑--in a Jewish context.

Two articles pioneered in the feminist analysis of the status of Jewish women. In the fall of 1970, Trude Weiss‑Rosmarin criticized the liabilities of women in Jewish law in her "The Unfreedom of Jewish Women," which appeared in the Jewish Spectator, the journal she edited. Several months later, ­Rachel Adler, then an Orthodox Jew, published a blis­tering indictment of the status of women in Jewish tradition in Davka, a countercultural journal. Adler’s piece was particularly influential for young women active in the Jewish counterculture of the time.

Jewish Feminism Finds its Voice

In the early 1970s, Jewish feminism moved beyond the small, private consciousness‑raising discussion groups that characterized the American women' s movement to become a public phenomenon. Calling themselves Ezrat Nashim [using the term for the women’s section in the ancient Temple, and also translatable as “Women’s Help”], a small study group of young feminists associated with the New York Havurah, a countercultural fellowship designed to create an intimate community for study, prayer, and social action took the issue of equality of women to the 1972 convention of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. Founding members of Ezrat Nashim represented highly educated elite of primarily Conservative Jewish youth.

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).