Shirley Adelson Siegel Is My Intersectional Feminist Role Model
It often feels like people see my religion as a handicap, something that holds me back from being a good feminist and a good activist. How can I be either one when I belong to a religion that says some pretty questionable things about women, the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities? It’s not easy, but it’s possible; Shirley Adelson Siegel is a perfect example.
Shirley Adelson Siegel is proof that Judaism isn’t something that has to hold me back from being a good feminist or activist. On the contrary, Judaism can be the force that propels me forward and pushes me to be a better person. Judaism has taught me to love my neighbor as I love myself, to not speak ill of others, and to take care of people who need help, all of which are things that make me a better person and a better feminist.
Part of being a better feminist means understanding the importance of intersectionality. To me, intersectional feminism is feminism that knows no boundaries—the goal being to ensure that anyone who identifies as female is treated with the same respect, given the same opportunities, and treated equitably overall. It takes a lot of hard work and elbow grease, but when it’s at its best, intersectionality allows all women to reap the benefits of feminism.
Many people think that Judaism and activism can’t go hand-in-hand, but I think that they do. As Jews, we are taught that everyone is created in God’s image, B’tzelem Elohim. When I think about that, I realize that intersectionality is truly a necessity, and that I need to help achieve equality for all.
Siegel is a woman who knows hard work. She graduated as the valedictorian of her high school in 1933 and went on to study at Barnard at a time when there was an unspoken quota for Jewish students. As a junior at Barnard, Siegel landed a job with the not-for-profit New York Legislative Service and became interested in property law and affordable housing, which she later studied in Law School. She was the sole woman in the Yale Law School class of 1941.
After she graduated, Siegel interviewed with over forty law firms before she was offered a job. She had to overcome what she described as the “double handicap” of being a woman and Jewish. Eventually she became the first woman ever hired at Proskauer, an international law firm. During her time at Proskauer, Siegel would spend her lunch hour at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which inspired her to write pro bono legal briefs challenging the Japanese internment camps during WWII before she had even passed the bar. Once she passed the bar, she continued to write briefs and she eventually argued in front of the Supreme Court.
In 1959, Siegel was hired by New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz to run the newly founded Civil Rights Bureau. In this office, Siegel was able to enforce fair hiring practices in trade unions and airlines for women and minorities. Her early career was marked by her determination to fight for African Americans to be able to purchase homes, since at the time, African Americans and other minorities were often banned from buying or even renting property.
Siegel was New York’s Solicitor General from 1979 to 1982. After she retired as an attorney, she continued to take on foreclosure cases pro bono through the City Bar Justice Center. Throughout her career Shirley Adelson Siegel represented people who no one else wanted to represent. She fought for people to have homes and jobs so they could provide for their families.
Shirley Adelson Siegel inspires me to look beyond my own life experiences, and lift up people who don’t benefit from the same privileges I have. It’s easy to be intimidated by her accomplishments, to look at what she’s done and think: I could never do that. When asked about the source of her passion for social justice, Siegel responded “I think a lot of Jews are like that.” When someone as accomplished as Siegel says that the source of her passion is her Judaism, I know I can do the same.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.