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Birth of feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin

June 9, 1939
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Feminist seders have provided an important context for developing women’s spirituality. In 1975, a group of Israeli and American women decided to create their own Passover seder based on their experiences as Jewish women. Now an annual event held in Manhattan, it has been attended by Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Bella Abzug, Grace Paley and several other "Seder Sisters" who have played important roles in the development of Jewish feminism. Shown here are Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler and Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the Women's Seder in 1991.

Photographer: Joan Roth


Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who has become one of the most well-known figures in both the Jewish and secular feminist movements, was born on June 9, 1939. Raised in an observant Conservative household in Queens, New York, she turned her back on Judaism when she was barred from the kaddish minyan at her mother's death in 1955. Although she rejected the rituals she saw as patriarchal and exclusive, she maintained a connection to Jewish home life and holidays. However, she would not rejoin organized Judaism for almost two decades.

In the meantime, after earning a B.A. at Brandeis University (1959), Pogrebin became active in the American feminist movement. In 1971, she was one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, where she worked for seventeen years, and where her name continues to appear on the masthead. She was a consultant on Free To Be You And Me, the 1975 album of non-sexist children's stories and songs, published How to Make It in a Man's World (1970), and edited Stories for Free Children (1982). She also co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus.

A turning point for Pogrebin came in 1975, when the United Nations International Women's Decade Conference in Mexico City passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. That declaration, Pogrebin later wrote, "was the initial 'click' that started me on my life as a Jewish-feminist." Realizing that she needed to combat anti-Semitism within the women's movement just as she fought sexism within Judaism, Pogrebin embarked on a lifelong journey to integrate both parts of her identity and, in turn, push both Jews and feminists toward greater inclusivity and sensitivity. Her 1991 memoir, Deborah, Golda, and Me, tells the story of both her alienation from Judaism and her efforts to reclaim it as a feminist.

Over the last three decades, Pogrebin has been a fixture in feminist, Jewish, and Jewish-feminist causes, as well as an outspoken political activist. She has been influential in founding or shaping MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Jewish Funds for Justice, the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish Congress Commission on Women's Equality. She is also a past president of Americans for Peace Now, and spent five years in a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue project. She has also been active in Black-Jewish dialogue efforts.

In addition, Pogrebin is a prolific author. She has addressed topics ranging from friendship (Among Friends: Who We Like, Why We Like Them, and What We Do With Them, 1986) to parenthood (Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the 80s, 1980), and from the job market (Getting Yours: How to Make the System Work for the Working Woman, 1975) to personal politics (Family Politics: Love and Power on an Intimate Frontier, 1983). Getting Over Getting Older (1996) deals candidly with the trials and joys of aging. Pogrebin's first novel, Three Daughters, loosely based on her own family, was published in 2003. She continues to be active in progressive and feminist politics, and lectures frequently. She is also a regular contributor to Moment magazine.

In 2012, JWA honored Letty Cottin Pogrebin with the Making Trouble/Making History Award at the organization's annual luncheon held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Gloria Steinem presented the awards to Pogrebin, Elizabeth A. Sackler, and Rebecca Traister. "Twenty years ago," she recalled, "Letty Cottin Pogrebin helped the Jewish Women’s Archive articulate its mission. 'For a people whose ethos, whose very identity, is founded in remembering,' she wrote in Deborah, Golda, and Me, 'we have forgotten too much about Jewish women. For a community that calls itself the ‘people of the book,’ we have left too many pages blank. The Jewish educational establishment has left us ignorant of Jewish women’s past.'" (Read Steinem's and Pogrebin's full remarks here.)

To learn more about Letty Cottin Pogrebin, visit Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution and Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, and JWA's blog Jewesses with Attitude.

See also: This Week in History for November 27, 1972, The release of "Free to be You and Me"; JWA Annual Luncheon 2012 Honorees; Making Trouble/Making History.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1087-1089; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America (New York, 1991); Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism/?id=JWA102.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Birth of feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin." (Viewed on April 16, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/09/1939/letty-cottin-pogrebin>.