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Women's Rights

Israel Defense Forces

Israel is the only country where military service is obligatory for both men and women. Women constitute approximately a third of the conscripts and close to twenty percent of the standing professional army. In 2003, the military conscripted some seventy-seven percent of the cohort of eighteen-year-old Jewish men and fifty-nine percent of the cohort of eighteen-year-old Jewish women.

International Ladies Garment Workers Union

The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was founded in 1900. The eleven Jewish men who founded the union represented seven local unions from East Coast cities with heavy Jewish immigrant populations. This all-male convention was made up exclusively of cloak makers and one skirt maker, highly skilled Old World tailors who had been trying to organize in a well-established industry for a couple of decades. White goods workers, including skilled corset makers, were not invited to the first meeting. Nor were they or the largely young immigrant Jewish workers in the newly developing shirtwaist industry recruited for the union in the early years of its existence. But these women workers still tried to organize.

International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR)

An [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:291]agunah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (plural: agunot) is a woman “chained” to a husband either unwilling or unable to grant her a Jewish divorce. Because [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:317]halakhah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (Jewish law) requires that the get (the divorce document) be granted by the husband, an agunah cannot remarry, and any subsequent children she bears are considered mamzerim (illegitimate children) who can never marry legitimate Jews. Legal loopholes exist to allow non-divorced husbands to remarry; none exist to help wives. The plight of agunot has become an increasing problem in contemporary times, with Jewish communities unable to pressure recalcitrant husbands into granting divorces to their wives. In addition, in the State of Israel, both marriage and divorce fall within the realm of religious law; there is no civil alternative.

Beba Idelson

Beba Trachtenberg was born on October 14, 1895 in Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire. Her parental home was poor and unattractive and the family lived in hardship, primarily because her father, Yitzhak, had no regular means of income. The Trachtenbergs provide a good example of the changes undergone by East European Jewry at the time. Beba’s mother, Rivka, was a pupil at the progymnasia, a kind of state junior high school. Her father, who was religiously observant, studied [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:416]Talmud[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] but was also well-versed in the customs and practices of modern life. He sent his sons to heder and hired a private tutor for his daughters.

Histadrut Nashim Ivriot (Hebrew Women's Organization)

Though the Hebrew Women’s Organization was founded in Palestine only in 1920, a great deal of women’s activism preceded it by several years, both on [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:342]kibbutzim[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] and in cities and settlements. The years after World War I and the Balfour Declaration, which followed the British takeover of Palestine from the Turks, were the beginning of a new era in the building up of Palestine. The Zionists felt in their bones that two thousand years of exile were coming to an end, and in this thrilling atmosphere set to work to build the national homeland.

Jenny Hirsch

No lucky star reigned over Jenny Hirsch’s youth. Born in Zerbst, Anhalt on November 25, 1829, she was the daughter of a poor Jewish peddler. Her mother died when Jenny was only eight years old. Together with her two siblings she grew up in her father’s household, whose basic needs were cared for by her aged grandmother. At the ducal girls’ school in her home town she received an excellent education from the ages of seven to fifteen. This served as the basis for continued self-education in later years. But as a Jew she had to endure antisemitic hostility. In time she overcame these difficulties, only to encounter family opposition to her love of books and her early literary efforts, which they rejected as an inappropriate luxury.

Higher Education in Central Europe

Many more Jewish men than Jewish women received a higher education in Central Europe before the Nazi era, but once Swiss, and later Austrian and German, universities began admitting women, the proportion of Jewish women among the female student population remained at least twice as high as the proportion of Jewish men among male students.

Esther Herrman

Esther Herrman was born on August 7, 1823, in Utrecht, the Netherlands, to Sophia (Van Ysen) and Emanuel Mendels. She had three sisters, Gamma (b. 1821), Jette (b. 1821), and Adelaide (b. 1825), and came to the United States as a child following her mother’s death in 1827. In 1843, she married Henry Herrman, a native of Baden who was born October 13, 1822. By 1847, Esther and Henry had moved from New York City to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he started a business supplying sailing vessels. Their first children were born there: Sophia (1847) and Henrietta (1848). They moved to Boston, where Henry operated a clothing business and their son Abraham was born (1850).

Frieda Barkin Hennock

Frieda Barkin Hennock was the first woman to serve on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where she became the champion of noncommercial educational television. As a Jewish female of foreign birth, she endured a lifetime of undeserved—largely sexist—attacks for everything from excessive aggressiveness to innuendoes of immoral personal conduct. At the same time, she did not hesitate to take advantage of her sparkling feminine charm, sense of high fashion, and occasional flood of tears to manipulate a male-dominated society. As a committed Jew, Hennock also used her contacts with the Jewish community for professional advancement. She said daily prayers and was fluent in Yiddish. She was a devoted and supportive member of her extended family.

Haskalah Attitudes Toward Women

For the men of intellect who burst upon Ashkenazic Jewish society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, starting a cultural revolution of [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:325]Haskalah[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] (enlightenment), the question of women’s status was the touchstone for the validity and consolidation of their innovative worldview. One of the outstanding proponents of the Haskalah was Judah Leib Gordon (1831–1892), who expressed the ambiguity of [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:352]maskilim[/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] toward the “woman question.” Beginning in the 1870s, women Hebrew readers in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and women students in various cities in Europe considered him one of the few people who showed special sensitivity and empathy with regard to the difficult lives of Jewish women.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women's Rights." (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/topics/womens-rights>.

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