Only in America–Where are the Women?

There has been a good amount of talk in the blogosphere about the new National Museum of American Jewish History and their quest to find 18 exemplary American Jews. Here’s what the good folks at the Jewish Women’s Archive have to say:

Our friends at the National Museum of American Jewish History have recently announced a new project for which they are seeking public input. Their new museum, scheduled to open in November 2010, will include a gallery called “Only in America,” that will — in their words — “examine the choices, challenges, and opportunities faced by a remarkable group of a token 18 American Jews on their paths to accomplishment.”

In our early years, JWA did a similar kind of project with our Women of Valor posters, which feature 18 trailblazing Jewish women, each of who — in our words — “overcame social, cultural and religious barriers to create a more just and equitable world.” We also developed online, multimedia exhibits on 16 of them.

We were glad to see several of “our” 18 women — such as Bella Abzug, Molly Picon, Rebecca Gratz, and Lillian Wald — included in the museum’s poll. Unfortunately, the inclusion of women overall is disappointing — only 47 out of 218. Some categories, such as “Performance” and “Politics, Law, and Activism,” have a good balance, while others, such as “Arts and Entertainment” and “Religion and Thought” are fairly appalling. Only one woman in “Religion and Thought”? Seriously? Given the impact of feminism on Judaism, it’s hard to imagine how one could leave out women such as theologians Judith Plaskow and Rachel Adler and Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg.

Of course, the nature of this kind of project, which highlights people who are already well-known, skews towards men, who have had more opportunities to achieve and to be recognized for those achievements. Which also makes me wonder about the need for an “only in America” kind of gallery in the 21st century. Haven’t we moved past this kind of American exceptionalism, or has the age of Obama brought us back to a misty-eyed celebration of the opportunities offered (to some) by this so-called “goldene medine” (golden land)? It will be interesting to see how the museum ultimately negotiates the issues of diversity and tokenism in selecting the 18 people to be featured, and how they handle the tone, which sounds like it will be celebratory. Will there be acknowledgment of how opportunities for some have come at the expense of others?

Posted on July 27, 2009

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