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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Feminism on trial

A dedicated reader commented on my recent post about the flap caused by Natalie Portman thanking her fiance at the Oscars ceremony for giving her “the most important role in her life.”  His view of what he calls “modern” feminism in the US appears to be a composite of stereotypes of women who, the story goes, value wealth and career success above family, masculine appearance above femininity, and arrogance above God-fearing modesty.  The stereotypical modern feminist, in the picture painted by my reader, is a short-haired, artificially flat-chested, pro-abortion, plain-faced woman averse to commitment.  I have known and seen many radical feminists in my time, and have never seen one who embodies all of these characteristics. Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist credentials are unparalleled, but her hair has never been short.  The only women I know who make their bustlines smaller are those who undergo surgical reductions, which reduce their chance of breast cancer and chronic back problems.  Abortion is seen as a difficult choice for women, but a choice nonetheless, and one which is permissible in certain circumstances by halacha.  Make-up, too, is a choice.  And nearly every feminist I’ve known or known of has been in a committed relationship (granted, sometimes it’s been with another woman, but that didn’t make the short list of the stereotypical feminist.)  These stereotypes may have sprung from small grains of truth, but they are far from reflecting my experience of feminism in the US.  (I was a full-time American before I made aliyah, went to a women’s college, and took my share of women’s studies classes there.)  I understand that the impression this reader and probably many others have of this brand of feminism is negative, but since one of my little dreams in this blog is to get people to think and question, rather than just say, “Right on, Shimshonit!”, I’d like to spend a little time on this topic.

The way women are supposed to look in the modern world is worth examining in a historical and sociological context.  Anyone who pays any attention to the history of art knows that the image of the ideal woman has changed over time.  In the ancient world, fertility goddesses were  full-figured.  Egyptians created goddess images of lean, long-legged, small-breasted women, but the Greeks filled this image out a little more.  Once Western art caught up to the Greek (we’re skipping the Medieval era here), women filled out again, reaching the Rococo period when beautiful women were positively zaftig.   At the turn of the 20th century, Aubrey Beardsley starved his women back down to pencil-thin, and by the 1920s, the image of the short-haired, flat-chested, boyish-looking woman in low-cut, sleeveless, high-hemmed dresses was shocking at first, but nonetheless became an ideal, if not a norm.  Mae West and later, to a smaller degree, Marilyn Monroe (who was not as plump as some would claim, since sizing standards changed, making numbers smaller for the same size) gave women a slight reprieve, but then Twiggy came on the scene, and that was the end of the normally-proportioned  supermodel.  Whether slender and athletic, like Elle MacPherson or Brooke Shields, or half-starved and sleep-deprived, like Kate Moss, thin became the rule, and has been rigidly enforced by photo-altering software (which was once used to slim down magazine photos of a plump, peachy Kate Winslet, to her outrage).

Shape has undergone changes over the ages, as have other features.  In my college days, women with impeccable feminist cred would often refrain from shaving their legs.  When I traveled to Germany after college on a six-month world tour, this was how I looked, and with my reasonably well-accented German, I passed for native with more than one unsuspecting person.  (I was even told in a youth hostel that I couldn’t possibly be American, since I didn’t have smooth legs, lots of make-up, and big hair.  It turned out the extent of this person’s knowledge of America was from “Dynasty.”)  I heard once that in France at least, the only women who shaved their legs until recent decades were prostitutes.  Now, of course, smooth skin is expected of a well-groomed woman, regardless of profession.  If the women chosen as supermodels are anything to judge the ideal female by, even skin, large eyes, and full, colored lips are the marks of beauty.  So let’s tally it up for a moment; what sort of creature sports soft, smooth, perfect  skin, wide eyes, and bright red lips?  A baby.  (Isn’t that what they call women in rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs?  And ask her, “Who’s your daddy?”)  Take away the fat and add lots of long hair, and you have the ideal woman.  Don’t have those features?  Then Botox, collagen, make-up, plastic surgery, laser hair removal, diets, drugs, and pricey hair treatments await.  Personally, I like to keep people’s expectations of my daily appearance low, so I avoid that stuff and only take out the make-up (some of which is left over from my wedding 11 years ago) for weddings and bar mitzvahs.  I think people should look at a woman with eyes more interested in seeing what’s in her soul than what’s on the surface.

The point of my post, which I hope didn’t get lost in the bit of ranting I did, is that feminism is a good thing, but only when it’s channeled toward healthy choices for each individual.  It’s decidedly NOT good if it’s used to make women feel guilty (either for staying home or for going back to work after having a child) or to condemn their choices.  It’s not a stick to beat women with who either try to make the most of their appearance, or don’t spend excessive amounts of money on cosmetics and time in front of a mirror.  It’s not the sole address of who’s responsible for unwanted pregnancy.  (There was someone else involved, remember, but he doesn’t have to face society’s scorn because it doesn’t show on him and he isn’t the one who has to choose the path his life will take, with or without a baby.)  It’s what’s responsible for relieving women’s honorifics of their tie to marital status (something that has never affected men).  If women hadn’t fought hard for the right to vote, it would never have been offered them willingly by men.  Without feminism, women would still be considered chattel in society.

I was grateful for Rav Averick’s support of women who choose motherhood.  I’ve been viewed as a wastrel and a shiftless layabout by dozens of people since choosing to be the primary caregiver in my children’s lives.  (Apparently, unless one is being paid to care for children, it doesn’t carry the same merit.)  But I also thought his criticism of Wildman’s piece was harsh in its condemnation of the inevitable questions that come up when women see other women hold up motherhood as the ideal state.  That hearkens back painfully to the 1950s (and later) when motherhood was considered by society to be the fulfillment of womanhood, and the only desired result of a woman’s higher education, marriage, and (temporary) career.  It’s inevitable that comments like Portman’s will provoke a response from feminists.  But I found the substance of the feminist buzz and reactions to Portman’s comments to be full of willful misunderstandings and overreactions to her words.  The whole thing, on both sides, was in bad taste, as is so much of what passes for news and commentary.

Feminism took women out of the private sphere and gave them the opportunity to become actors in the public sphere.  It gave them the vote, the chance to hold office, to influence policy, to own property and enjoy full rights as citizens.  One of the things women have attempted to do is to secure the right to keep others out of their personal decision-making.  When a public furor erupts over a woman’s stated preference for a public, professional life (as happened to Sarah Palin) or for motherhood, the public reaction seems to be the same, to excoriate the woman for doing what she’s doing, and not doing what she’s not.  When people finally look at a woman — as they would look at any man — and judge her based on the quality of what she’s doing rather than on what they think she supposed to be doing, then feminism will finally have succeeded.

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I pay little attention to Natalie Portman on the average day.  Her all-out neurotic performance in “Black Swan” left my stomach churning, and I had to put the window down in the car on the way home to battle the nausea.  I guess that means she did a good job.

It was after seeing the movie that I discovered she was pregnant, the father being the choreographer from the film.  I have no strong feelings about this; it’s someone else’s life, and I have no comment on her intended intermarriage (they are reportedly affianced) or premarital parenthood, except to my own children.

However, I recently saw an article in the online Jewish newspaper, the Algemeiner, by an Orthodox rabbi who was reacting to some media turbulence caused by Portman’s thanking of her fiance for giving her “the most important role in her life,” i.e. that of impending motherhood.  My tendency would be to hear that speech with an “Awww, isn’t that sweet?” and move on.  But not surprisingly, there are others who can’t let something like that pass without debating it down to the last letter.

Rabbi Moshe Averick’s piece, entitled “The Natalie Portman ‘Motherhood-gate’ scandal; should we laugh or cry?”, takes to task the author of an article critical of Portman, Sarah Wildman (whose  “A Woman’s Greatest Role?” appears in the online Forward).   A career writer, Wildman shares her struggle to work through her pregnancy, through her labor even, and resume writing post-partum as soon as possible to prove to her sexist twit of a boss that women can do everything men can, AND have babies.  The reactions to Portman’s comment quoted in Wildman’s article descend into the feline, with one writer suggesting her garbage man would also have made a suitable stud for Ms. Portman’s greatest role, and another asking, “But is motherhood really a greater role than being secretary of state or a justice on the Supreme Court? Is reproduction automatically the greatest thing Natalie Portman will do with her life?”

Rabbi Averick objects to Waldman’s “wearisome (albeit sincerely written) example of what has become a cliché in feminist literature: agonizing, hand-wringing, and occasional breast-beating regarding the motherhood vs. career conflict.”  Hokey though it sounds to some people, parenthood does take over one’s life, for good and ill, and because women’s biology often forces them to choose (at least temporarily) between motherhood and career, I think the debate about those choices is inevitable and, much of the time, consciousness-raising.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I think far too much attention is paid to the private lives of entertainers and athletes.  Their wealth, fame, and the scrutiny they’re under by the press make their lives anything but normal, and such people should not be held up as examples of anything to anyone, except wealth, fame, and subjection to press scrutiny.  It is also worth noting what Rabbi Averick says, that “While some dramatic presentations may very well contain meaningful messages, films and plays essentially convey distracting and entertaining illusions. Pregnancy, motherhood, and child-rearing are not entertaining illusions. They are as real as it gets.”

I fear what has happened in the wake of Portman’s speech is the same thing that happened when my alma mater (a women’s college) asked alumnae for stories about full-time mothering for a feature in the college’s alumnae magazine.  There, too, a storm broke out between women who had chosen career over family, who had continued to work and put their children in day care, and women who had chosen to shelve their careers in favor of full-time motherhood.  Never mind that those at-home moms had had their experiences and stories ignored by the magazine for decades in favor of features about career, awards, travel, and public service.  At the same time that my college’s magazine tries to stay in step with prestigious co-ed colleges (where mention of family probably makes the editor grumble, “We’re an alumni magazine, not Good Housekeeping!”), it does bother me a little that making a women’s college magazine so much like that of a co-ed’s implies that family life is un-feminist, that women don’t care any more about talking about their families or hearing about others’ families than men do (although it may be true), and that staying home and having children is dull and a shameful squandering of professional opportunities opened up by the women’s movement.  It all comes down to what we choose and how we feel about it.  My mother chose to stay home rather than pursue a career in nursing and never looked back.  Now when she and my father meet a dual-physician couple, these ignorant young women turn to my mother, assume she’s also a physician (not realizing how rare it was to find a woman in medical school back then), and ask her what her specialty is.  (I tell her to say rug-braiding, book-mending, and grandmothering, which really ARE her specialties.)  On the other hand, my mother-in-law continued to practice medicine and hired nannies to take care of the Cap’n and his brother.  (That was the right decision for all concerned, by the way.)  Thanks to the more strident elements in the anti-feminist movement, she is still haunted by her guilt for having worked outside the home all those years.

One of the most telling parts of Wildman’s article is where she asks, “If motherhood is the most important role, have we negated everything else we do? Does a woman who does not become a mother never reach an apex? What if motherhood isn’t happening — because a woman has decided to skip it or because she can’t have children? What then? Is there no important role?”  The answers, of course, are no, no, other things, up to her, and of course there is, dummy.  Done.  If Natalie Portman thinks motherhood is the most important role she’ll ever play, it is, so live with it.  She wasn’t talking about anyone else when she was up making her speech; she was talking about herself.  (I’m sometimes tempted to create an ad campaign aimed at catty chatterers, cranky feminists and other disgruntled people: It’s not always about YOU.)

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child, and will be one until the day I die.  But my feminism is about having choices, about doing as much as we can (though not always at the same time), and about confining our criticism to those who would keep us down, not to women who make different choices, or have more luck or talent or opportunity.  Women, unlike men, have been given (by God, not by men) the biology and the brains to have both children and a career.  Those who choose one or the other, or both, are to be commended, not criticized.  By the end of Wildman’s article, her words and tone seem to be more that of a woman who has already embarked on motherhood saying, “Just wait; she’ll see what it’s really like.”  Why, yes, she will, as mothers always do.  It’s exhausting and exhilarating, difficult and profoundly life-changing.  The best of luck to her.

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One of the many Yahoo groups to which I belong is the Digital Eve group.  A chat list for women professionals in Israel, it usually has job listings for positions I am unqualified for, and requests for advice I cannot give.  But today someone (probably a Yale alumna) posted a link to this very interesting article from the online Yale Alumni Magazine.  Written by Fred R. Shapiro, the magazine’s (male) quotations columnist and editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it addresses the misattribution of many quotations by women to more famous men, as well as crediting other famous quotations to the women who penned them, whose names are either naturally in the background (such as screenwriters), were once famous but are no more, or never appeared on the page in the first place.

Shapiro amends the record of attribution to several quotations, including the following: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire); “Now I know why nobody ever comes here; it’s too crowded” (Suzanne Ridgeway, not Yogi Berra); and “If you make it here, you make it anywhere” (Julie Newmar, not Fred Ebb, author of the lyrics to the song, “New York, New York”).  He also provides the names of the authoresses of quotations such as “No time like the present” (Mary de la Riviere Manley), “Twinkle, twinkle little star” (English sisters Ann and Jane Taylor), “Laugh and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone” (Ella Wheeler Wilcox), “Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast” (screenwriter Ruth Rose), and “E.T. phone home” (screenwriter Melissa Mathison).

The book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations gets a thorough historical review, which turns up what Shapiro calls a “shadowy editorial provenance.”  In other words, most of the content was lifted from a British book entitled Handbook of Familiar Quotations From English Authors (which helps explain why only 5% of the books quotations are of American origin), and the compiler of the Handbook from which John Bartlett borrowed so heavily was one Isabella Rushton Preston, a 43-year-old Londoner.

The Oxford Book of Quotations, too, originally had a female editor, Alice Mary Smyth, whose name was left off the title page of the first edition (1941).  (Though it has been widely believed that Bernard Darwin edited the first edition, his contribution has been shown to have been limited to the introduction to the volume.)

Shapiro points out that while three of his senior research editors were women, as a male editor of a book of quotations, he remains a novelty—a man.

(Hat tip: Caroline T.)

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I know this week has been the “something borrowed” week here at Shimshonit.  Once the dust has settled in my life, I vow to get back to some original content.  In the meantime, however, I have found lots of cool stuff I’m eager to share, including the following.

A friend posted this YouTube video of an original song by Reina Del Cid on Facebook.  After listening to some of her other songs, I think it’s typical of her thoughtful lyrics and edgy guitar chords, but sweeter and more vulnerable, better balanced (voice/guitar-wise) than most others, as well as being a more appealing video.  She’s honest, fresh-faced, brainy, and geek-lovely.  What a find.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

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A few months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale conferred rabbinical ordination on Sara Hurwitz.  It created something of a furor at the time, which has since seemed to die down (at least in the Orthodox circles I inhabit).  I gave the matter some thought at the time, and wrote a post about it.

I knew Hurwitz was not the first woman to apply herself to the same rigorous study as men do everyday with the goal of smicha in mind.  I’ve had a copy (signed, it turns out—it seems the  Cap’n and I met her years ago) of Haviva Ner-David’s Life On the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination on my shelf for at least a decade now, and never seemed in the mood to read it.

Then Yom Kippur came around.  The Cap’n buys me a seat in shul every year, but for years I have lacked the sitzfleish for anything more than shofar blowing or neilah.  The rest of the time I’m home, dispensing snacks and drinks, making sure the kids don’t put each other’s eyes out, and alternately davening alone or reading a book of Jewish interest.  Scanning the shelves for a book I hadn’t read yet, and still in a feminist reading mode after Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), I took down Ner-David’s book at last.

Boy, have I missed out all these years.  It is an honest, learned, deeply thoughtful exploration of one woman’s attempt to navigate her feminism and commitment to traditional Judaism simultaneously.  From her decision to wear a tallit katan and pray with a tallit gadol, to laying tefillin, to deciding to pursue her studies toward smicha, Ner-David feels much of the same incongruity between her sense of her worth as a woman in the secular world and her second-class status in the Orthodox world that I do.

Now before anyone’s blood pressure goes through the roof at my calling women “second-class,” understand me first.  That does not mean that women are not valued, or that their contributions to the preservation of Jewish tradition are not important, or that they all should feel oppressed every single day.  But to be honest, many of the customs that limit women’s participation in prayer, in donning ritual objects, and in pursuing ordination, are socially and culturally constructed rather than rooted in Jewish law.  And there is incontrovertible evidence that women are not counted as fully human, as fully endowed with the rights that men enjoy.  Where a man says a blessing every morning for not making him a woman, a woman’s comparable blessing is to thank God for making her according to God’s will.  Women cannot serve as witnesses in the majority of legal cases in Jewish law.  Women are legally “acquired” in a kinyan, or exchange, in marriage.  And a woman cannot divorce a man without his consent.  (It works in the reverse as well, but many more women are refused a divorce than men, leaving them unable to remarry and often subjected to blackmail, extortion, and long term emotional abuse.)  There are apologetics for each of these situations, and I’ve heard most of them.  Some women don’t buy them and leave, heading for the more liberal Jewish movements that have rewritten them or done away with them altogether.  And some like me stay, but don’t like them much and hope for a way to be found to soften, reframe, or solve them altogether within the boundaries of Jewish law.

Ner-David describes her life as a child growing up in an household typical of those headed by Orthodox Jews who came of age in the 1950s, where kashrut in the home was a given, but where most women did not cover their hair, families often ate out at non-kosher restaurants (ordering fish or other permitted species of food), and mixed dancing at simchas was not the cue for the rabbis to walk out of a wedding reception (something I witnessed in the 1990s).  Her parents expected to pass on their tradition to their children, but Ner-David could not escape the irony that while she relished the time spent studying Talmud with her father, she could never be a rabbi, while her elder brother—to whom the doors of the rabbinate were wide open—had no interest in learning.  She shares her doubts about God and religion as a teen, gives an account of her bout with anorexia (which she connected to her struggles with her parents over religion), her own gradual return to traditional Judaism, and the choices she makes for herself and her children as an adult and parent.  (Her strong desire for her gan-aged daughter to wear a tallit katan, while it is halachically acceptable, seems to me to border on pressure rather than an invitation.  This is one of my few reservations about this book.)

A feeling of homelessness seems to permeate her journey, where she moves from a feeling of alienation as a teen to outright rejection of Judaism as a young adult, to a new discovery of the beauty and awe of tradition (in concert with her husband, whom she met in college), to a struggle to find a place that is right for her where the form that her faith and devotion takes is often received with confusion and even hostility by other traditional Jews.  Yeshiva University’s ignoring her application to their rabbinical seminary, the refusal of the women studying at Drisha Institute in New York to study in hevruta with her, and her rejection a few years later when she applied to a program that trains women to answer questions about taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity)—all because she had the audacity to dedicate herself to Torah study on a level usually reserved for men—are some of the examples of reactions she gets to her views of Judaism.

What is in question throughout the book is Ner-David’s intentions.  What is she trying to achieve?  Or, more accurately in the minds of her critics, what is she trying to prove?  Is she on a power trip?  Does she seek glory and titles for their own sake?  Is she the one who is actually hostile to Jewish law, culture, and society?  Ner-David, well-versed in the sources, gives the reader thorough discussions of the texts and poskim relevant to each of her topics (e.g. mitzvot, halachah, chuppah, tumah and taharah, and Torah learning).  She explains why she has made the choices she has, and accepts that other women make other choices according to their and their communities’ interpretations of the laws and customs.  (I read with interest her discussion of why she covers her hair, and while her decision is informed by many of the issues that lead other women to cover their hair, it still doesn’t persuade me to cover mine.)  It is clear to me that her pursuit of Jewish learning is both for its own sake and with a goal in mind: to put that learning to its full potential use.  This is not scorned when a man (even a mediocre man, or a power-hungry man, or a man with limited interpersonal skills) does it, but Jewish learning for women, while it has improved immeasurably in quality and access in recent years, still seems to be viewed as accessory to wifehood, motherhood, and livelihood.

After reviewing the sources regarding women’s Torah study, she relates an incident in which she was serving on a panel in Israel discussing feminism and Orthodoxy.  On the panel with her is Rabbi Seth Farber, a young Orthodox rabbi who describes himself as a feminist.  (It’s 1997; Farber later goes on to found the organization ITIM which helps would-be converts to Judaism and others in Israel navigate the swamp of the Israeli rabbinate.)  After describing her vision of where Orthodoxy might go to allow greater participation by women, she asks Rabbi Farber directly, “Why, if there is no halakhic barrier to women becoming rabbis, are Orthodox rabbis today denying women the right to become rabbis?  Why are you against giving s’micha to women who study the same texts as male rabbinical candidates?”  Rabbi Farber answers that authority, not a piece of paper, makes someone a leader, and that women must first gain that authority and respect.  He tells Ner-David that she is doing a disservice to the Orthodox feminist movement by seeking smicha now, and that in doing so she deflects attention away from the really important issues and giving the opposition easy ammunition to discount the cause.

I’m sure many people would agree with Rabbi Farber, and it gives Ner-David pause as well.  But on considering this point, I must say I am still not convinced.  Does he suggest that women are not currently deserving of respect and authority?  My Orthodox shul in Newton had many well-respected female teachers of Torah, women were invited to give divrei Torah to the whole congregation on Shabbat (at the conclusion of the morning service), and two very competent women served as shul president during my time there.  What is left for women to do?  And to say that Ner-David has not chosen her timing well is hard to support.  Would he have told Alice Paul or Susan B. Anthony that they were doing women a disservice by lobbying for women’s suffrage before men were ready for it?  I would venture to guess that as difficult as it is for men to let go of power, women would still be sitting around waiting for an invitation to vote if they hadn’t advocated for themselves back then.  As for deflecting attention away from “the really important issues,” I fail to see how that is so.  Some of the really important issues of the day include finding a solution to women trapped by their husbands in failed marriages, spousal and family abuse in the Orthodox world, rabbinical intransigence in conversion, and the increasing estrangement of many rabbis in the Israeli rabbinate from the needs of the society they’re supposed to serve—none of which would be hampered by consideration of women’s merit to become rabbinical leaders.  (In fact, I think that by making women rabbis, some of these problems could well be solved more efficiently than by leaving them up to the men currently in charge who seem unable to come up with any solutions.)

Despite the many walls and glass ceilings Ner-David encounters, her doggedness in pursing what she believes is a natural, gradual, rational evolution in Orthodoxy toward greater opportunities for women is inspiring.  In a world where one so often reads about rabbis who shun any public life for women at all, who persecute those who disagree with them (or worse, write them off as non-Jews), and who view as seditious any challenge to their own practices which they are convinced are pure Torah miSinai, Ner-David’s portrait of her teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, is of a man firmly rooted in Torah, whose goal is to make the Torah available to everyone, including those in liberal institutions (Reform and Conservative), religious and secular, men and women.  Regarding the latter, Rabbi Strikovsky quotes Rabbeinu Tam who points to Devorah, a judge who ruled during the period of the Judges in Israel.  He asks, “What was Devorah’s position?  First, she was a leader of the people.  Second, she adjudicated matters of law: Torah law, Jewish law, halakhah.  If a woman can reach this level of learning and leadership ability, of course she can receive s’micha.”  Rabbi Strikovsky is not a political man.  “His agenda,” Ner-David writes, “is driven purely by the pursuit and dissemination of Torah knowledge and values as he understands them, and he will not be limited by other people’s sociological baggage.”  This, of course, points to the question one could just as easily ask those who oppose women’s ordination: “If Jewish history and Jewish sources point to women’s proven ability to be leaders in the Jewish world, isn’t refusing them that opportunity politically motivated?”

My parents-in-law belong to a Reconstructionist synagogue.  It’s always jarring to my mother-in-law to visit us and attend our shul, where she and I sit on the women’s side of the mechitza and the action—the davening, Torah reading, all the speaking parts—happens on the other side.  I can still remember how it felt when I attended my first Orthodox services.  When she whispers to me, “This is a big boys’ club,” I know how she feels.  But I still can’t feel comfortable with the choices liberal Judaism has made in response, dispensing with serious engagement with Jewish texts, paring down the Hebrew service to a few memorized utterances whose meaning no one understands, and devaluing core Jewish practices like dietary laws and Shabbat observance.  There has to be a way for a feminist Orthodox Jew to live her life without denying either her feminism or her Orthodoxy.  I owe women like Ner-David, Blu Greenberg, and the many learned women who support and organize the JOFA and Kolech conferences in America and Israel, women much more learned and dedicated than I am right now, my admiration and gratitude.

This book was published in 2000.  It’s now ten years later.  Where is Ner-David now?  She and her family relocated from Jerusalem to Kibbutz Hannaton the Galilee, where she is instrumental in reviving the kibbutz and inviting progressively-minded Jews to move there and create an open, observant Jewish community.  She teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva and is the founder of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage.  She writes articles for publication, which can be accessed at the ZEEK website.

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A couple of months ago, the Cap’n and I went to an event at the new, beautiful AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) offices in Talpiot.  Besides offices, event and conference rooms, and a small radio studio, the AACI has a very good English library.  They receive donations from patrons, and duplicates or books they don’t want end up on a 5 shekel shelf outside the library.  After attending our event, we browsed the shelf and among the books I selected was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Published in 1978, The Women’s Room seems to be in the same class of feminist literature that gave rise to The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique.  French’s book is a novel, but full of lengthy musings and speeches about feminist theory and the power struggles and relationships (sometimes indistinguishable from one another) between men and women.  It begins with the bum rap women have when they enjoy themselves in public in the company of men, giving them a “reputation.”  It then moves on to the bum rap women get when they marry and become housewives, supporting their husbands in their careers, cooking and cleaning, and rearing children without any help.  (This IS the early 1960s, after all.)  Then it’s about suburban life where couples host parties, everyone drinks too much, dances in a skanky way with other people’s spouses, and watches each other’s marriages crumble.  The principal character in the novel, Mira, is at the center of all of this feminine travail and disappointment, and the second half of the novel follows her into her post-divorce life as a graduate student at Harvard.  Introducing her circle of women friends (with a few occasional male hangers-on), French charts Mira’s loneliness, eventual discovery of a wonderful man, his proposal that she put her career on hold, follow him to Africa (for HIS career), and have his baby, and return to loneliness when she refuses.  Meanwhile, her friends’ marriages (if they’re straight) and relationships (if they’re lesbian) crumble again, not because they’re bored, isolated housewives this time, but because they’re busy graduate students with close friendships outside their marriages and potentially budding careers which could further challenge their partners’ hegemony in the traditional marriages they’re in, or further unsettle their fragile relationships.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the overwhelmingly unsatisfied need of these women to be regarded as equals in their relationships, and feel loved and fulfilled.  And while the cover of the book paraphrases a comment by critic Fay Weldon, that “this novel changes lives,” I’m not sure the women’s lives change so very much.  They enter marriage with high hopes of happiness, but leave them emptier than they were to begin.  Instead of feeling loved, honored, and cherished, they emerge after divorce poor, battered (sometimes physically), saddled with children they don’t always want and certainly cannot afford, and emotionally devastated.

I found it fascinating to read about this era in women’s history, and appreciated that one of French’s characters points out that the notion of a woman who stays at home, jobless, to take care of house and children began fairly recently in human history (in the Victorian era.  As an experiment, it clearly failed to give women the sense of contentment or fulfillment it was expected to.  It was also extremely depressing to see that no visible progress was made over the two decades or so covered in the novel between men and women in the novel.  There were a few good men, lots of mediocre, pathetic, or bad ones, and dozens of women who seemed deluded enough to depend on them for their own self esteem.  When the men loved them, they loved themselves; when the men became angry with them or lost interest, the women felt worthless.  French doesn’t directly present this as the point of her novel, but it’s the one I walk away with.

This is a radical feminist work.  That means that the women in it find themselves hoping to change the society around them, failing, and resolving to reject it or isolate themselves from it entirely.  Liberal feminism, which I find more palatable, works more slowly to change the system within its boundaries rather than advocating tearing the system down and starting over again—which is as impossible as it is dramatic.  (Feminists in Orthodox Judaism works in much the same way as liberal feminists, hoping for slow change that will endure over time.)  French’s characters see the world we live in as a man’s world, and watching how they constantly give power to men in their lives, and feel too numb, nervous, or helpless to resist that power, one can see how it got to be that way.  Men in their world are the source of support, justice (or injustice), order (or disorder), love (or apathy or hostility).  Of what are the women the source?  Not much.  They are the domestics, the brood mares, the not-quite-human beings who make it possible for men to go through their days completely focused on work, money, possessions, sports, and the fellowship of the ruling class, i.e. other men.  It’s a dance between women and men that never comes to an end, at least with the end of the novel.  Mira refuses to have more children, so her soulmate (who was never really her soulmate after all) goes to Africa without her, marries his secretary, and has a family.  She accepts a small-time teaching position in Maine, walks on the beach alone, and believes everyone else thinks she’s crazy.

Happily, at the end, not all of the women end up dead or in mental institutions (though a couple do).  Most find interesting jobs doing what they love, what they’re good at, and what they believe will help change the world for the better.  What is less obvious is whether they have learned to love themselves for who they are, or whether their jobs have just replaced their men (or women) as a source of love and regard for themselves.  Because it became clear to me that the love they got from others was the love they should have felt for themselves all along.

Despite the fact that the emotions and many of the events in the novel are true to life, I think the conclusions of most of the women are not true.  (This is where my liberal feminism clashes with their radical feminism.)  This world is NOT a man’s world, no matter how much it may feel like it.  As long as women allow it to be, it will operate as one, but it is women’s responsibility NOT to cede power to men that they do not earn or deserve.  Women must assert themselves in this world, entering whatever professions they choose, fighting back against male aggression, expecting and insisting on equality and fairness from bosses, partners, and children, and living as they think women should live to set an example and give inspiration to their own daughters and other women.  Fortunately, life in the 2000s looks different for women.  Women are better represented in government, business, academia, and other professions.  One corporate wife in the late 1990s actually sued her husband for the equivalent of “back wages” as part of their high-profile divorce settlement, walking away with tens of millions of dollars (something Mira in the novel tried, but was laughed at for attempting).  A young woman sued the Citadel for excluding qualified women, successfully challenging a federally funded institution for its sex discrimination.  Women’s basketball and soccer, while not given the air time men’s get, exist and attract increasingly interested fans, thanks to Title IX.  Rape is a crime, even when carried out against wives, prostitutes, and women the rapist knows.  Men in this generation cook, clean, do laundry, and care for children much more than they did in the past.  Women still do the bulk of the housework and delay or retard their careers to rear children, while men still make more money for similar work than women.  But women continue to push back and move forward, and slowly we are moving toward an era worthy of the best men and women, where everyone can show their quality and feel their worth.

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My mother recently forwarded an email she’d received from a friend of hers.  It reviews some of the incidents that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote.  Since this year is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, I think it’s worth looking at that momentous occasion again (with my text rather than the rather sparse explanations that accompanied the photos in the email forward).

The United States was founded on the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  Yet despite this, women were not seen as “the governed,” and therefore their consent was not required.  Many western territories, upon becoming states, included women’s suffrage in their constitutions (including Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado).  But in the rest of the country, women’s suffrage was virtually nonexistent.

In 1850 was convened the first National Women’s Rights Convention.  Attendees were faced with the task of finding answers to the following questions: Should the movement include or exclude men? Who was to blame for women’s inequality? What remedies should they seek? How could women best convince others of their need for equality?

Many of the women who worked for women’s suffrage were also active in the anti-slavery movement.  After the Civil War, the desire for black men to vote both joined and competed with the movement for women’s suffrage.  Frederick Douglass believed that black male suffrage should be fought for first and supported the Fifteenth Amendment granting all men the right to vote regardless of race.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it were revised to include women.

There were also differences of opinion within the women’s suffrage movement on how to push for the granting of the right to vote.  One organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Stanton and Anthony), lobbied individual states to grant women suffrage.  Another, the National Woman’s Party (led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns), pushed for a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote on a national basis.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared that World War I was a war for democracy, women challenged him to make America a true democracy by enfranchising women.  He eventually made pro-suffrage speeches, and his support for the cause was followed shortly by passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women through America the right to vote.  But not without a fight.

The photos below illustrate some of the scenes and people involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage.  The year 1917 saw some of the darkest hours of the women’s struggle.  According to Snopes (which asserts that the email circulating the Web is true), the NWP’s picketing demonstrations in front of the White House were met with increasingly severe measures by the government.  Beginning with arrests and fines of $25 for obstructing traffic, the police began rounding up the women and imprisoning them overnight, and later for up to three days.  When the women refused to pay the fines and were obviously undeterred by the night in jail, the government resorted to stiffer punishments.  On July 14, six women were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where “conditions were abysmal.  Prison cells were small and dark, with fetid air, and the food was infested [with mealworms].  Moreover, [the cells] were infested with a variety of animal life.  Alice Paul recalled that among the women imprisoned with her ‘was one whose shrieks nightly filled the jail as the rats entered her cell.’”

November 14, known as the “Night of Terror,” saw the arrival of a new crop of arrested suffragists at Occoquan.  While the women waited in a holding room for processing, the superintendent burst in with a posse of guards and proceeded to order the women to their cells.  Here is the account given on Snopes of the treatment of the women by the guards:

The scene was one of bedlam, intentionally disorienting.  Suffragists feared for their lives and the lives of their compatriots.  May Nolan, a seventy-three-year-old Floridian with a lame leg that she had to take pains to treat gingerly, was literally dragged off between burly guards, each of whom held an arm, despite her assurances that she would go willingly and despite the pleas of other suffragists to refrain from injuring her leg.  Dorothy Day had her arm twisted behind her back and was purposefully slammed down twice over the back of an iron bench.  Dora Lewis was thrown into a cell with such force that she was knocked unconscious.  For several frantic minutes her companions believed that she was dead.  Alice M. Cosu of New Orleans was also thrown forcefully into her cell.  Cosu suffered a heart attack and repeated and persistent requests for medical attention for the obviously stricken woman went unanswered by the authorities throughout the long night.  Lucy Burns, who had been arrested once again on November 10, shortly after completing her previous sixty-day sentence, was identified by [Superintendent] Whittaker as the ringleader for the group.  She was manacled to her cell bars, hands above her head, and remained that way until morning.  Later, her clothing was removed and she was left with only a blanket.

The purpose of the email is to remind women of the efforts and sacrifices made for us by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  Without their courage and conviction, it’s unlikely that American men would have thought of granting women’s suffrage on their own initiative.  A review of history—including the “rule of thumb” law, women’s legal status as chattel, droit du seigneur, and the notion even today that women have smaller brains and are less intelligent than men—should persuade even the most apathetic woman that the gift of suffrage is not one to be squandered.

There is a facetious (or not-so-facetious) expression: “I don’t vote for politicians; it only encourages them.”  On the other hand, what does NOT voting do?  In the 2005 Iranian elections, a large proportion of the Iranian population stayed home.  They were fed up with the current system and decided to protest by not participating in the election.  Now look who they got.

I encourage everyone to view the photos below and take inspiration from these brave souls.  And VOTE!  (Early and often…)

Dora Lewis, knocked unconscious when a prison guard flung her into her cell


Lucy Burns, manacled to her cell bars on the “Night of Terror”

Alice Paul.  When she embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair and force fed her until she vomited. This went on for weeks until word of her treatment was smuggled out to the press.  Prison officials transferred Paul to a sanitarium in the hope of having her declared insane (and thus removing her from the helm of the suffrage movement).

Pauline Adams, sporting the prison garb she wore while serving a 60 day sentence.

Edith Ainge, of Jamestown, New York

Berthe Arnold, CSU graduate

Helena Hill Weed, Norwalk , Conn., serving 3 day sentence in D.C. prison for carrying banner, ‘Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

Conferring over ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at National Woman’s Party headquarters, Jackson Place, Washington, D.C.  Left to right: Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, Anita Pollitzer,  Alice Paul, Florence Boeckel,  Mabel Vernon (standing, right).

Those interested in videos on the subject might be interested in the documentary “Not For Ourselves Alone” about the partnership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  The 2004 HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels” about the NWP’s battle for suffrage, starring Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor, also looks good.  I love what the sanitarium doctor evaluating Alice Paul for insanity tells the prison officials who have brought her there:

“Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

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