Jewish Feminism and Feminist Jews: More Questions than Answers
By now it's both a truth and a truism that the personal is political. One of Second Wave feminism's great contributions was the insight that experiences often taken to be particular to our own biographies are actually shaped by larger systems and trends. Over the past two days, I experienced the power of the personal when fused with the political as a participant in a conference on "Women's Liberation and Jewish Identity." Organized by JWA Board member Joyce Antler, sponsored by NYU, and co-sponsored by JWA and The Spencer Foundation's Initiative for Civic Learning and Civic Action, the conference brought together Jewish women who had been active in radical feminism or in Jewish feminism, and explored the role Jewish identity played in the feminist activism of women in both of these groups.
It was a particularly energizing experience for me, not only because of the joyful atmosphere of reunion and my own excitement at meeting women whose writing I have admired for years, but also because it brought to life the goal we pursued in JWA's online exhibit, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution: to integrate the narratives of Jewish feminists and "feminists who happened to be Jews." In a room full of powerhouse Jewish women, we discussed our similarities and differences and engaged in passionate conversation about Jewish identity, feminism, history, religion, secularism, antisemitism, Israel, and universalism, among other things. I was also honored to participate in a panel of daughters of women's liberation reflecting on the future of Jewish feminism.
A range of panels featured feminist "celebrities" like Susan Brownmiller, Alix Kates Shulman, Gloria Feldt, Blu Greenberg, and Susannah Heschel, as well as lesser-known but equally compelling activists like Vivian Rothstein, Vicki Gabriner, Arlene Agus, and Tamara Cohen. The women began with their own biographies, exploring the roots of their Jewish experience and their feminist activism. The diversity of experiences was extraordinary, as was the respect and eager attention with which people listened to one another.
I'm still coming down from the high of the conference, but here are some general themes, observations, and questions that emerge from my initial reflections:
1. Location matters, be it geographic, class, historical, or political. This should not be news, but we still have a tendency to assume all Jews are white, Ashkenazi, middle class, Left-leaning, and Northeastern. New Yorkers had a different experience of Jewishness than Midwesterners. Working-class roots provided one context for activism, and a middle-class background another. Some came to feminism from refugee, dissident families, and others from Republican, suburban homes.
2. Language matters. Take, for example, the language we use to talk about Jews and feminism. One panelist asked if using the word "disproportionate" in talking about the representation of Jews in the women's movement might not imply "too much."
3. Though there is a strong history of secular Jewish culture, it is an ongoing challenge to construct a Jewish identity not dependent on religious practice, Israel, or the Holocaust. The women of the conference represent many different ways of being Jewish, yet certain shared experiences of Jewishness emerged, including the propensity to challenge authority, a commitment to inquiry, a love of talking, a legacy of strong women, a sense of marginality and vulnerability, and, perhaps by way of compensation, a feeling of intellectual superiority.
4. Much has been written about the implosion of some feminist groups due to tensions over leadership and power. At the conference, some wondered whether these attacks on leadership were in part an antisemitic response to "the Jewish style" of the leaders (articulate, talkative, argumentative).
5. Experiences in socialist Zionist youth movements, such as Hashomer Hatzair or Habonim, provided a training ground for the later radical activism of several conference participants. (Bella Abzug, too, shared that background.) I wonder, what (if any) Jewish movements provide that training ground today?
6. Books and reading played a key role in the feminism and survival of many Jewish women. Declarations like "Reading saved my life" or "I lived through it all by reading" echoed throughout the conference. (A great question for my fantasy follow-up conference or oral history project would be "Which books/authors/characters did you identify with?")
7. Many women came to feminism from other liberation movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement. Their own sense of otherness as Jews and/or radicals may have drawn them to this activism, but in some cases joining a community of other people on the margins also served to normalize them and make them feel "more American."
8. One of the major questions for feminists working in specifically Jewish contexts (and one of my own struggles as a Jewish feminist) is how to resist the pull toward insularity and maintain ties with the wider feminist world and other forms of anti-oppression work.
9. A central theme of the "next generation" panel was the struggle for white Jews to come to terms with white privilege and also continue to identify with the specificity and "otherness" of Jewish experience.
10. Finally, I was struck by the power of asking questions. Many of the women at the conference had never considered the connection between their Jewish identity and their feminism until Joyce Antler asked them this question. But just because you haven't considered something doesn't mean it's irrelevant to your experience. This conference reminded me that asking questions can transform how people see the world and themselves.
The conference sparked as many new questions as it answered, and for me it stoked the fire beneath a pair of questions I've carried with me for as long as I can remember: What role will Jewish women play in the future of feminism, and what role will feminism play in the future of the Jewish community?