Celebrating Women's History Month: Jewish Women and Social Activism
"Become daring enough to demand your rights."
Survey the lives of American Jewish women, and chances are you will hear countless stories of their activism in social justice movements. American Jewish women–from the immigrant generation to generation "Web 2.0,"–have invested their time, energy, and skills in righting the world's wrongs in the fight for social equality.
The oral history collection of the Jewish Women's Archive contains rich stories of Jewish women's impact on key social movements of the past century–among them, suffrage, trade unionism, contemporary women's rights, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, disability rights, the environment, and international peace.
Despite these women's myriad achievements, their paths to activism were often not easy. Many women encountered or witnessed discrimination based on gender, race, or religious/ethnic identity. So, what compelled them to take a stand?
The following women reflect on experiences that catalyzed their activism and taught them about their own agency to bring about change.
Bernice Stern: A native of Seattle, born in 1916, Bernice Stern was the youngest officer of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) elected to a national position, and the first woman elected to the King County Council in the state of Washington. In 1961, as a young mother, she served on President Kennedy's Women's Conference on Civil Rights, and later on the Washington State Women's Civil Rights Committee. Stern was well known as someone who could be counted on to stand up for the rights of others. Listen to Stern recall a moment of personal truth when she decided to speak out against racist attitudes and practices against African-American soldiers serving in World War II.
Anita Weinstein: The founding director of a collaborative program of the Jewish Federation in Chicago to meet the needs of families living below the poverty level, Anita Weinstein has worked throughout her life for a variety of social justice causes, from women's rights to hunger and homelessness. Born and raised in Chicago during the baby boom, Weinstein recalls her first forays into activism as an undergraduate at Indiana State University. As a young, female student, she found life in the dorms stifling. Women were required to wear skirts, be home by curfew, and were forbidden from entertaining men in their rooms. Realizing that similar rules did not exist for male students, Weinstein took action. Listen to Weinstein recall her outspoken advocacy for women on campus.
Lynn Amowitz: A physician and tireless activist for human rights around the world, Lynn Amowitz was raised on stories of her grandparents' experiences of severe discrimination as Jews in Eastern Europe. Growing up in the 1960s, Amowitz confronted anti-Semitism and discrimination at her Southern state university. As the only Jewish student in an overwhelmingly Christian school, she recalls feeling extremely uncomfortable with public displays of religiosity. Her experiences have since compelled her to become an outspoken advocate for minority communities. Listen to Amowitz remember a time of overt discrimination during her graduation from medical school.
Idit Klein: A passionate advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet, a national non-profit organization dedicated to creating a fully inclusive Jewish community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. Under her leadership, Keshet has expanded from its original grassroots, all-volunteer efforts in the Boston area to offer resources, training, and technical assistance for creating change in Jewish communities nationwide. As a recognized and eloquent spokesperson for GLBT rights, Klein has often reflected on the experiences that shaped her own path to activism. Listen to Klein recall the transformative moment when, as a four-year-old, she asked her great-aunt about the blue numbers on her arm.
We welcome your comments, stories, and links about these women and other Jewish women social activists. Please share them below.