Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When I bought my first new car 30 years ago, it was a momentous day. Beyond the excitement, the experience with the salesman was imprinted in my memory. I had researched Consumer Reports instructions for buying a car at the right price: offer to pay $500 over dealer’s invoice, and just stick to your number.
After selecting a car, I told the salesman what I would pay. He tried to negotiate. I wasn’t interested. He went back and forth from his manager, offering their “best deal” and I held my ground. When I prepared to leave, they grudgingly accepted my offer. After I completed the transaction, he pulled aside my male partner, who had quietly observed the transaction, and he said, “Boy, she’s a ball-buster.” They chuckled.
It wasn’t funny, as it never was in so many situations where it seemed I was expected to play a compliant, good girl role. Nor were professional situations when I knew I was being treated differently than a man. Nor were catcalls or frightening times when it didn’t feel safe to be a woman walking alone. While I’ve had extraordinary opportunities and experiences, I always knew that women before me could not have been so fortunate and were not permitted anything like equality. My generation benefited from the revolutions of the suffragettes and 20th century feminists, and we continue to endure many challenges as we pave the way for my daughter’s generation.
This was forcefully recalled in the recent New York Times essay by Elinor Burkett, “What Makes a Woman?” Burkett captured the discomfort I had felt after the Vanity Fair photo spread and interviews of Caitlyn Jenner. Like Burkett, I winced at “Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman” in “a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.” The sexualized, objectified, stereotyped depiction of women threatens to undermine hard-fought progress in defining what it means to be a woman. The social contract that subordinated women should remain in the dust heap of the past.
I suspect that many progressive women have been hesitant to say this, for fear of being misunderstood. We are among the strongest supporters of LGBTQ acceptance, and we celebrate the sea change in society’s attitudes regarding transgendered people. But, as Burkett notes, we have been living the experience as women, enduring many indignities and taking great personal risks to shift attitudes and open minds about gender equality. This acceptance need not contribute to “undermining women’s identities, and silencing, erasing or renaming our experiences.”
Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer regarding his forthcoming transition that he eagerly awaited being able to “wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off.” I am happy for Caitlyn that she can. I may enjoy makeup and nail polish, but this does not define my identity. I hope that all women, those born female and those embracing their female identities, will continue to courageously struggle against objectified stereotypes of femaleness and women’s place in society.