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Historical Silence Breakers

For us (and hopefully for you!) every month is Women’s History Month, because women’s contributions to history should be celebrated year-round.

This past year, the bravery women have demonstrated in coming forward and sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault has challenged our culture and the established power structures that have long silenced women and devalued their experiences. Time Magazine recognized the momentous power of the #MeToo movement by naming the “Silence Breakers” as their 2017 “Person of the Year.” This decision was meant to herald the beginning of a new era, in which women’s lived experiences are taken seriously and our voices are amplified.

In that spirit, we’re honoring Jewish women throughout history who spoke out and broke long-held silences about social issues and women’s disenfranchisement. Their stories (some of which we’re sharing here) remind us that change happens when women use their voices, loudly and together.

Labor reformers Clara Lemlich Shavelson and Rose Schneiderman were early foremothers of the fight against workplace sexual harassment; they spoke out against the inhumane working conditions of women factory workers and led the historic Uprising of 20,000 in 1909 as a large-scale response to “long days, low wages, manipulations of pay, and the denial of work in the absence of sexual favors.” These were distinctive aspects of the garment trade, and much like the “casting couch” trope of show business, it was widely accepted that this was simply the way things were.

By speaking out, Shavelson and Schneiderman used their collective power to improve labor conditions for women; by articulating their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, they began to drive change. Their voices have reached across a century and echo in Tarana Burke’s decade-long fight for survivors of sexual assault, and all of the women who have bravely stepped forward this past year to say “#MeToo.”

Decades later, Betty Friedan gave voice to the boredom and discontent that American women were afraid to admit to when she wrote, “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women ... Each suburban wife ... was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question––"Is this all?" Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) cracked open the isolation and silence of women’s lives in mid-century America; she galvanized the women’s movement, ushering in second-wave feminism in America.

It was during this (complicated, messy, sometimes groundbreaking, sometimes exclusionary) wave of feminism that Barbara Seaman published her groundbreaking book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, in 1969. At a time when feminists were heralding the Pill for its family planning potential, the other effects of this new medicine were going largely undiscussed.

In her book, Seaman alerted women to the dangers of the high-dose contraception pill, sharing her extensive research into its effects. Her bravery and meticulous analysis led to congressional hearings about the dangers of this new medication. Seaman’s work resulted in warning labels being added to the Pill’s packaging, empowering women to take control of their reproductive health with more information This was the first warning label to be added to any prescription drug, ever.

During this same era of social change, Betty Berzon was working to undo the prejudicial classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. In 1971, she became the first openly gay psychoanalyst in America when she came out at a UCLA conference on “The Homosexual in America.” In coming out, Berzon fearlessly owned her right to love whomever she chose and articulated the need to de-stigmatize homosexuality in the mental health community.

Berzon used her voice and her professional experience to establish support networks for the gay and lesbian communities in California. As other mental health professionals followed Berzon’s example, their vocal calls for change led to the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from the DSM of Mental Disorders in 1973.

In 1974, Rose Kushner blew the whistle on a barbaric medical practice when she began to speak out against “the standard one-step biopsy and mastectomy,” the predominant treatment for breast cancer at the time. Doctors would perform an investigative biopsy, and if that biopsy was positive, they would then perform a mastectomy while the patient was under anesthesia without the patient’s consent. Kushner, who received this treatment, was horrified that women were not being given any authority over their own bodies and wrote a bestselling memoir and investigative report about her experience, originally called Breast Cancer: A Personal History and Investigative Report. In this book, she wrote, “We women should be free, knowledgeable, and completely conscious when the time comes for a decision, so that we can make it for ourselves. Our lives are at stake.” By telling her story, Kushner brought an end to this medical practice.

In this momentous past year, we have seen a flood of brave women using their voices to speak out for the need for change. Aly Raisman used her visibility to draw attention to the sexual abuse she and over 150 other gymnasts suffered at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar. Writer Rebecca Traister has applied her keen feminist eye to trace the nuances of the #MeToo conversation, speaking out for the need for thoughtful and deliberative change. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman and Jill Soloway have become key leaders in the Times Up initiative, which is focused on ensuring that victims of workplace sexual harassment and assault across the socioeconomic spectrum have access to legal funding and resources. And lawyers like Carrie Goldberg are making sure that the law protects people who have been victimized by harassers and assaulters.

As we survey this new landscape, in which women’s voices are amplified and are demanding change, it’s comforting to know that we are not alone, that this moment––though historic––is not unprecedented. In fact, women have been breaking the silence and fighting for change throughout history. Their stories have led to labor reform and shifts in how we understand sexuality and women’s health. In women’s voices lie the keys to social revolutions.

These stories remind us that when we break our silences and raise our voices, we are creating the next generation of stories to be celebrated and learned from, not just during Women’s History Month, but all year long.

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Silence Breakers Throughout History Composite (Color)
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Just a few of the silence breakers throughout history for 2018 Women's History Month. Starting from the top left: Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Rose Schniederman, Betty Friedan, Barbara Seaman, Betty Berzon, and Rose Kushner.
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How to cite this page

Book, Bella. "Historical Silence Breakers." 1 March 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 25, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/silence-breakers-throughout-history>.

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