Adults may scoff, and my friends may hypocritically mock me, but I can never deny that I would want to stand out in a crowd. Whether a college application, a creative thesis for school, or even the food that I bring for lunch, I want to discover a personal uniqueness that I carry so I can have some special pride in my stride. Luckily for me, I can already claim an artistic and spiritual individuality that I bring to the table as a female Jew.
Every year, college campuses and feminist institutions set aside one month to celebrate the trials and achievements of women throughout history. Many of these women are virtually unknown to the public due to their absence from most history books. To combat this issue, Women’s History Month was established to shed light on these unsung heroes.
My first Women's History Month Event took place in the spring of 1985. I was a college student in Syracuse, New York and yet I was unaware of the importance of Seneca Falls, just down the highway. Lucretia Mott was the name of a woman I heard on School House Rock.
Way back in 2012 when Lena Dunham’s Girls first aired, I admired Dunham’s sincere portrayal of broke young women with artistic ambitions. I could barely watch the show without cringing at its painful accuracies. Since then—since the show’s quick rise in popularity, the magazine photo shoots and Adam Driver’s Gap advertisement, Dunham’s perspective seem more stylized than real. Film and television portrayals of the lives of struggling twenty-somethings feel increasingly less unique and my experiences as a woman of the Girls generation—going to Brooklyn bars in a crop top etc.—feel aspirational and contrived.
I remember in my second grade classroom where the “History” bulletin board sat. It was in the far left corner, front of the room, right in my eye line. And I have a very clear memory of being infuriated as the “Black History Month” board was taken down and then replaced by “Women’s History Month.” My early feminist and anti-racist indignation was not kept silent—I often asked my teacher why we had only one month for African American history or women’s history…my question, as many have asked before and since, was:
Shouldn’t it all be the same? Shouldn’t we be learning everyone’s history?
In traditional society, men are seen as the risk takers, while women are supposed to be docile homemakers. When women step up to the plate, it stands out. To me, the women who bravely put aside their fears and take matters into their own hands are the ones who make the difference and are role models for all people.
In the Torah, there is a story of two women, Shifra and Puah, and the risks they took to save the lives of some children in Egypt. These midwives worked for the Israelites and took orders from Pharaoh, who knew the two of them and specifically told them to kill any male children born to Hebrew mothers, but they chose to not listen to him. It’s not clear if these two women were part of the Jewish people or if they were Egyptians. Still, their story takes place for a reason, not just to explain how Moses survived, but also to bring a lesson to future Jews about courage and the impact of the risks they take.
The idea of Women’s History Month is relatively new. National Women’s History Week only became an official event in 1980 and was expanded to Women’s History Month in 1987. But here’s the surprising thing: unlike Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, which come every year, Women’s History Month is renewed year after year by a presidential declaration. It’s not automatic that we set aside time every year to think about women’s history and women’s roles in society; it’s an ongoing, conscious process.
This Women’s History Month, we invite you to think about women and change. Has Women’s History Month made a difference? Have you noticed a difference in how you live your life or perceive the world? Differences between your outlook on the world and the way your mom, your aunt, your daughter view things? Do we still need Women’s History Month?
The New York Times had an interesting article today on how female politicians are leveraging offensive and sexist remarks by Republicans to mobilize their base and help with fundraising campaigns. It’s an empowering and deeply satisfying act of political judo, using your opponent’s attacks against them so their smear campaigns only leave them covered in muck themselves.
The feminist movement is a de facto community. Feminists tend to work in groups, be they virtual or physical, as we unify around our shared convictions. As people committed to ostensibly similar goals, we concern ourselves with the statements made by others who claim the same title. Any time a major article is published by a prominent feminist writer on a feminist site or in a mainstream publication, it immediately draws criticism. Much of this criticism is from those who don’t identify as feminists; these critiques tend to be mixed, some offering interesting new ideas while others simply express sexism. Feminists, however, also engage in a substantial amount of internal self-criticism.
The new Reform version of Mi Chamocha specifically mentions the prophet Miriam alongside her brother Moses. It’s one of several changes in recent years to help make the traditional prayers more balanced in gender. This one stands out, however, because Miriam has without a doubt become the star of the Mi Chamocha. At my temple, we often segue from that prayer right into “And the women, dancing with their timbrels...” We joyously praise God and women at the same time, and it is all thanks to Miriam.
Over the past few decades, Miriam has become the most prominent symbol of feminism in Judaism, and I am proud to say that I share her name.