Jewish Women Politicians: Progressively Passionate?
Self-confident. Loud. Hard-working. Feisty. These are the words that come to mind when describing Jewish women. So perhaps it’s no wonder that we’ve taken great strides in shaping and transforming politics. In the 1920s, Rose Schneiderman was a key organizer for the National American Women Suffrage Association. And in 1976, Bella Abzug became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress on an explicitly feminist platform, a demonstration of her unshakable convictions as an anti-war activist and as a fighter for social and economic justice for all Americans.
Jewish women politicians have often sought inspiration from their heritage. In 1985, when Madeleine Kunin, a Jewish immigrant from Switzerland, took the oath of office as the first female governor of Vermont she rested her left hand on a stack of old prayer books that had belonged to her mother, grandparents, and great grandfather. It was a physical expression of the weight of Jewish history and a way for Kunin to quietly but publicly honor past generations of Jewish men and women who might have had opportunities for political leadership had those doors been open to them. Later in her career, when Kunin served as the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland (1996-99), she facilitated the return of Swiss bank account funds to Holocaust survivors.
Since the time of Abzug and Kunin, the political climate has changed. And so I’m left wondering: would the passionate politics and strong-willed charisma of Bella Abzug help elect a Jewish woman -- or any woman -- today? Will Jewish politicians of the 21st century rest their hands on Hebrew prayer books as they’re sworn in to office? Maybe not.
At a time when political candidates are under inescapable scrutiny for just about everything, today’s Jewish women politicians might need to curb their charisma and be a bit more mindful of the dangers of identity-politics than their predecessors. If women are perceived as “too strong” or too forthright in their self-expression, they might be considered “unfeminine” and/or “threatening.” If they aren’t strong enough, they’re often thought to be unfit for politics. It’s a difficult balance to achieve... and unfortunately, it’s often a no-win situation.
And yet, there is still much to acknowledge. In 1992, Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) were both simultaneously elected as senators of California and continue to hold office. Quite remarkable to have two Jewish woman senators representing the same state at the same time! And despite changes in the tone and tenor of U.S. politics in 2006, many of today’s Jewish women politicians including Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Jane Harman (D-CA), and Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) do maintain a public Jewish identity and a commitment to Jewish issues. Six months ago, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) proposed and championed resolutions through the House and the Senate that led to the official designation of the month of May as “Jewish American Heritage Month” joining “Black History Month” in February and “Hispanic Heritage Month” in October. For Wasserman-Schultz, honoring the American Jewish experience is clearly part of her public political identity.
What aspects of your Jewishness make you political? Which aspects of your politics reflect your Jewishness? How might it be easier or more challenging to be a Jewish woman politician in the 21st century?
You can learn more about the key roles Jewish women have had in U.S. politics by checking out JWA’s Jewish Women In Politics online exhibit.