Lady Doctor, Woman Rabbi, Female CEO... President
Just a few months ago, I received an e-mail from someone who expressed appreciation for JWA but took issue with the phrase “women rabbis,” a phrase that often appears in Jewish Women’s Archive features including This Week in History and Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution. Her point was this: for a feminist organization that does empowering work, there is something unseemly and demeaning about modifying rabbi with woman when we wouldn’t dare do the same thing with man. I’ve thought about the phrase “women rabbis” and about some of the other phrases that have comfortably settled into Jewesses With Attitude: “Harvard’s First Woman President,” “a Jewish woman politician in the 21st century,” “women comedians,” and “Gender Wars and the (Woman) CEO.” For the same reason identified by the author of this e-mail, I’ve hesitated to use the woman modifier and have tried to minimize the use of female which functions as a reductive biological category; a box for a checkmark, rather than a dignified identity. But in truth, I don’t cringe when I hear people refer to Nancy Pelosi as the first woman Speaker of the House, or talk about Hillary Clinton as potentially the first female president. Why? Because they are.
William Safire’s article “Woman vs. Female” in this past weekend’s NY Times magazine addresses the ways in which ‘woman’ and ‘female’ are used as modifiers for particular professions or public identities. Echoing the sentiment of the woman who wrote me the e-mail, the article cites many women who consider the use of ‘woman’ and ‘female’ modifiers especially antiquated, suggesting that it is “unnatural” for a woman to assume certain roles, much like it was “unnatural” for Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American “Lady Doctor,” to work in hospitals in the mid-1800s or Elizabeth Cohen, the first praciticing female physician in Louisiana.
But in reading Safire’s article, it occurred to me that there is only a small degree of separation between asking the question: “why refer to Nancy Pelosi as the first woman Speaker of the House?” and “why do we need Jewish women’s organizations? Working at the Jewish Women’s Archive makes me realize that Safire’s musings about “woman” vs. “female” vs. no modifier at all, are not about language alone. To me, attaching ‘woman’ to a profession is about positioning women in history, and about sharpening historical memory (or keeping it in check) to remind us that no, women haven’t always been presidents or CEOs, and in today’s world, access to these roles isn’t enough. True, some roles such as professors, doctors, and lawyers have become more normalized for women, and modifiers may no longer be necessary. But “women rabbis” and “women presidents” convey that women’s experiences in these particular roles of leadership are qualitatively different than those of their male counterparts whose gender has always been an inherent part of their defined profession – male has always been the default understanding of a term like rabbi. Wouldn’t it be nice if the obstacles women face in being accepted into these roles could disappear as quickly as we can eliminate a gender-specific adjective? It would.
Hopefully, when old men with beards and black hats no longer conjure up the dominant image of Jewish religious leaders, and when blue suits and red ties no longer represent U.S. presidents, women rabbis can just be rabbis, and women presidents can just be presidents. But I think this will take time.