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My Grandma's Fight for Equitable Education

Rising Voices Fellow 2019-20 Ilana Drake as a child with her grandmother, Rebecca Lubetkin. Via Ilana Drake.

My grandmother is one of the most powerful women I know. I’m not just saying that because she’s my grandma, even though she’s one of my favorite people in the world. My grandmother’s name is Rebecca Lubetkin, and she’s an important American Jewish feminist. As a professor at Rutgers University, she was a key leader in the second-wave feminism movement starting in the 1970s, bringing the principles of feminism into the field of education.

When I look at my life, I realize that I sometimes take things for granted because I was not present for the change that occurred. I had one of these moments when I learned from my grandmother that, until the feminist movement that she was part of, women were not admitted to many selective colleges like those in the Ivy League. Girls were trained mostly for low-paying, low-skilled jobs.

In the vocational high schools, even in New York City, students were limited to certain studies based on how technical the skills in that area were. I learned from my grandmother that home economics and shop were offered based on gender, and that there was little crossing of that gender boundary. It’s odd for me to think about it now; yet, as I do think about it, I realize that I’ve encountered similar issues in my own life.

When I was a second grader at a well-known day camp, there was one activity that only boys’ bunks were assigned; they made cars out of wood. This made me furious: I wanted to have the same opportunities as my male peers and my younger brother. I raised this issue at the age of eight, but it seemed as though I was the only person who actually cared.

Even while I was just a kid in love with Polly Pockets and Calico Critters, I was able to recognize inequality when I saw it. The strides that activists like my grandmother made in their work toward equality are made clear in so many parts of my life; yet, there still remain indicators of the system they were fighting, including a camp activity with restrictions: “boys only.”

Before I sat down with my grandmother, I watched her video on Veteran Feminists of America. I was surprised to learn that she did not get involved with feminism until she read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin in 1970. The book changed her life: she realized that sexism, like racism, is not just personal. It’s also social, cultural and political, beyond one’s individual circumstances. This book helped her stand up and recognize the sexism that was apparent in America.

My grandma attended Barnard College and graduated in 1960. At Barnard, she was able to pursue any major and did not have to think twice about specific fields being appropriate for a woman. After college, she completed graduate work in political science, and she started her first job as an instructor in political science at Rutgers. She left employment after marriage to raise her two children, as was very common in the 1960s.

While she was a full-time stay-at-home mom, she joined a consciousness-raising group with members from diverse backgrounds. She joined the National Organization for Women in 1971 and became aware of how much sexism there was all around her. She saw sexism in her daughters’ preschool, in their future elementary school activities, in both academics and recreational activities. She wanted to make sure that her children’s future education would be fair and equitable.

With that purpose in mind, Rebecca Lubetkin developed workshops for educators focused on making the improvements that were needed, both in hiring and promotion and in school and classroom practices. At the same time, she helped to draft and advocated for a new law, Equality in Educational Programs, that became part of New Jersey Title 6. The New Jersey State Department of Education knew of her work and hired her to develop training for all educators in the state, which was required by the new law.

Rebecca Lubetkin, an individual activist, was able to influence her whole state. Almost immediately, all courses became open to all students, tests and texts were changed, and the state saw an enormous increase in the number of sports teams available to girls. When her children were seven and eight years old, Rutgers University sought her out, hired her as a professor, and, for the next 25 years, she directed its Consortium for Educational Equity, conducting such programs for the entire country.

Talking to my grandmother dramatically changed my view of the past. It was shocking to me to learn that women were traditionally prepared for homemaking and low-paying jobs and men for leadership and high-paying careers. My grandmother has genuinely transformed society, giving young people opportunities that have revolutionized education and, as a result, the workplace.

In January 2018, my grandma, my mom, and I attended the Women’s March in New York City, where I live. While discussing President Trump, my grandma remarked that the gains of feminism are now at risk. This administration regards feminist achievements of the last 50 years as a threat: reproductive rights, equality in the workplace, protection from sexual harassment. Attending the march and hearing my grandmother’s thoughts made me think more about how I can lead my community and continue to recognize the inequalities that are faced today by marginalized groups. In order to learn as Rebecca Lubetkin did, we need to each recognize our individual background and join together, despite our perceived differences.

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

2 Comments
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That was a lovely and warranted tribute.

Beautiful article Ilana. I know your grandma. She really is someone special. Not only is she feminist and powerful but she always used her strength where it was needed most. It’s wonderful to see that you’re as proud of her as she is of you.

How to cite this page

Drake, Ilana. "My Grandma's Fight for Equitable Education." 6 March 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/my-grandmas-fight-equitable-education>.

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