Fighting for Abortion Rights with My Jewish Feminist Heroes

Collage by Judy Goldstein, created using an image of Gloria Steinem speaking at Wright State University, circa 1972 (courtesy of the Wright State University Libraries' Special Collections and Archives); an image of Rebecca Gratz (courtesy of American Jewish Archives); an image of Betty Friedan, circa 1978 (courtesy of Joan Roth); and an image of Emma Goldman, circa 1937 (courtesy of the Emma Goldman Papers). 

After the overturning of Roe v. Wade late last June, it became clear that the 2022 midterm elections would be vital to the legality of reproductive health. The constant removal of autonomy from women and others in need of abortions isn’t just a fight of the 21st century, however; historical feminists such as Emma Goldman, Rebecca Gratz, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and so many more have been fighting for the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term forever. Abortion is healthcare, and is a vital part of reproductive rights. Having the right to choose when and how to have a child should be accessible to all.

In Texas and over 10 other states, trigger laws, laws that immediately went into effect come the overturning of Roe v Wade, have caused the instantaneous ban of abortions in these states. Since I live in Texas, where abortion is now illegal, it’s important to understand the urgency and importance of this past election. With the main two gubernatorial candidates, Beto O’ Rourke and Greg Abbott, it was clear who would provide a safe space for those in need of abortions, as well as fight for equality, and who wouldn’t.

Sadly, Greg Abbott, who won his third term as the governor of Texas, has called for the total ban of abortion, regardless of the situation. He also made it a state felony for people to perform or play a part in the procedure itself. Banning abortion won’t stop abortion, however: it just stops those seeking one the ability to get it safely.

In a country that constitutionally provides a separation of church and state, it feels hypocritical to legally enforce a certain belief about the definition of when life begins. Judaism, for instance, doesn’t believe life begins until the first breath but these laws, in Texas and elsewhere, directly impact all citizens regardless of religious beliefs and philosophies. So how and why is it that we as a country are moving back in time, and continuously removing the right to bodily autonomy?

In an interview with NPR prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Gloria Steinem spoke on her opinions on the removal of the right to an abortion. She explained that, “controlling reproduction has always been the first step in any hierarchical or authoritarian government.” Unfortunately, we’ve seen this repeat itself over time.         

Education about this topic is a common theme many historical activists used to advocate. Emma Goldman, a Jewish feminist writer of the early 1900s, constantly advocated for freedom of expression, birth control, racial education and so much more. We live in a time where misinformation about the need for abortions and other reproductive health procedures is common. Emma Goldman was known as an educator who became an important figure regarding freedom of speech. Especially in a world where we are moving backwards regarding individual rights, I believe Emma would tell us that it’s important to stand together and educate others. Information is power.

Almost one hundred years before Emma lived, Rebecca Gratz was also active in advocacy work. Born in the eighteenth century, we know that she dedicated her whole adult life to helping Philadelphia’s underprivileged women, and that she secured “religious, moral, and material sustenance” for Jewish people living in poverty in Philadelphia. Rebecca Gratz is an example of early representation for providing reproductive healthcare to underprivileged communities in need. In the midst of the banning of abortions and other aspects of reproductive care, organizations like Planned Parenthood have been affected, limiting people’s safe access to family planning education and contraceptives. Planned Parenthood works to provide reproductive healthcare and safe-sex education for all in need—and especially to those who are uninsured or underinsured. Today, we need to highlight voices like Rebecca’s that are primary sources for healthcare open to all people.

A final historical Jewish feminist we can learn from is Betty Friedan. Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a groundbreaking book for the feminist resistance. She also co-founded NOW, the National Organization for Women. NOW sought to fight against the tradition of marriage vs. motherhood, job discrimination, and advocated for paid maternity leave, as well as the legalization of abortion. In 1969, she founded the National Abortion Rights Action League, or, NARAL. Today, almost 54 years after its establishment, NARAL still continues to fight, educate, and provide information about abortions to those in need. Friedan teaches us that we can be vocal in many ways, whether using writing, attending protests, or even starting an organization or club. There are many ways we can each become forces for change.

Reproductive freedom is one of the major steps that needs to be taken in order for total equality. In a different interview from last spring, Gloria Steinem reiterated her point: Taking away reproductive healthcare is one of the ways our country’s division of power is maintained. She expands on the importance of understanding that, although this is an issue for all of us, it’s also an issue that impacts people differently. Regardless of differences in economic status, race, ethnicity, and location, it's vital to consider the immense impact this has on certain people. So, as a citizen following in the footsteps of Jewish feminists before us, I think educating others to stop the spread of misinformation, accentuating voices that need to be heard, and acknowledging your own privilege is deeply necessary in this fight for equality. This unfortunately is an ongoing fight, and its urgency should not be forgotten.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Nuri, Leila. "Fighting for Abortion Rights with My Jewish Feminist Heroes." 13 January 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/fighting-abortion-rights-my-jewish-feminist-heroes>.

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