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Jewesses with Attitude

Redefining Women’s Work

I love my job.

About half a year ago, I was hired as the new web content editor for the Jewish Women’s Archive, helping to rework our content for the new website. A huge part of that has been writing short biographies for the thousands of women featured on the site, from pioneers of the feminist movement to literal pioneers of the Wild West.  The goal is to give you a small taste of what makes each of these women extraordinary and link to other places on jwa.org and the web where you can find out more; the difficulty is trying to tell the stories of these women’s rich and varied lives in fewer than 200 words.

Every story is its own challenge. I’ve found myself recounting the stories of celebrities, of personal heroes of mine, and in one slightly surreal and lovely experience, my own mother. (For the longest time, just to keep from staring at a blank page, I simply wrote, “She’s my mom and she’s awesome.”) I’ve also tried to do my homework for each of these stories to make sure I get them right: I’ve looked at the paintings and sculptures of each artist and studied a little about the work of each scientist to make sure I can describe them well.  If a woman was featured ten years ago, I look to see what she’s been doing lately—a high school student we honored for her activism has continued her work in the Jewish community by becoming a rabbi.

Two things have struck me over and over, though, as I research and retell these women’s stories. The first is the sheer range of what they’ve done with their lives. One day’s bounty included a madam, an astronaut, two Supreme Court justices, a comedian, and a member of the French Resistance who went on to form a cooking school.  That night I joked to my friend Jason, “My notions of ‘women’s work’ have been completely exploded.”

But it’s not just about the diversity of what these women have done with their lives; it’s the range within each individual life. Part of my job is to list each woman’s professions, and on the rare occasions when I list only one job, I get nervous and start rechecking for what I’ve missed. Why? Because I keep seeing lives with many different chapters. Women who thought they were going down one path in girlhood that was totally derailed by a war or a great cause. Artists and performers who used their fame and the confidence they learned from their craft to change the world by creating foundations for domestic violence prevention or the environment. Women who only began their careers as writers or politicians in middle age, after their children were grown. None of these women are just one thing. None of these lives are static or streamlined.

At a time when we’re arguing about what a woman’s career path should look like, about leaning in and opting out and being mommy-tracked, I’m finding something powerful in stepping back from the pundits’ generalizations and theories and looking instead at how women have actually lived and worked for the last few centuries. I’m discovering stories of sexism and heartbreak and disappointment, but also incredible accounts of innovation and resilience, of women who persisted and of women who started over, of women whose position as the first in their field meant that they could rewrite all kinds of rules that had nothing to do with gender.

Let me show you what I’ve found.

JWA Blogger Desk Perspective
Full image
Perspective from "the very special seat, at a very significant desk" at the JWA offices. Photo by G. Orcha

How to cite this page

Feld, Lisa. "Redefining Women’s Work." 18 June 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/redefining-women-s-work>.

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