Women of Character

Activist, doctor, and educator Abby Shevitz in 2004.

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: women are amazing, strong, brave, and resilient. I do not know a single woman who has not had to relive moments of sexual harassment and assault this week, whether they shared their story on social media with #MeToo or spoke privately with friends. Women are sharing vulnerable and painful truths about their experiences of moving through the world with a female body with the hope that men will see how pervasive and widespread this culture of sexual entitlement and sexual violence is. As the feminist satire site Reductress succinctly phrased it, women are posting so that men will “learn how to be human beings.”

This movement has happened the same week that the White House is celebrating “Character Counts Week,” a celebration of ostensibly universal values traditionally observed during the third week of October.

The idea of this president championing the importance of “character” seems completely incongruous to me. Working at JWA, however, means I am surrounded by women (in history and in our office) who act with integrity, honesty, bravery, compassion, and a myriad of other values that are foundational to my definition of character, values that this president seems to neither possess nor support.

In a week where I feel paralyzed by the amount of work still required to create a safe and respectful world, the idea of “Character Counts” does serve as a reminder that we are not the sum of the things that happen to us; our stories aren’t defined by someone’s decision to assault or harass us. In coming forward, women have shown their resilience, perseverance, and fortitude this week, and that strength has reminded me of some of our Jewish foremothers, whose legacy is a direct result of their strong characters.

Following are a few women from the archive who remind me that, even when those with status and influence act without integrity, character counts.

Rose Finkelstein (1889-1980) fought for rights of women workers in factories, rallying together 8,000 to strike for the Boston Women’s Trade Union League. Her advocacy work extended to many other frontiers. Rose worked with the NAACP for racial justice and Books for Workers to spread literacy in factories, championed rights for domestic workers, working married women, and many others.

Confined to a wheelchair by a childhood disease, Edith Fisch (1923-2006) wanted to be a chemist but there was one problem: her college chemistry classes were on the second floor. Fisch turned her attention to the law, becoming one of the country’s earliest woman lawyers and working to make sure that students with physical disabilities were not limited in their pursuits by a building (or society’s) infrastructure.

The author of Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014) devoted her life as a transgender activist to fighting for marginalized groups, and fought for the rights of women, the working class, and those with disabilities.

Abby Shevitz (1959-2005) wove compassion into the care and treatment of those diagnosed with AIDS at a time when most people, including medical professionals, refused to touch those suffering from the disease.

Margaret Lazarus (1949-) uses film as a platform to address societal problems such as rape culture, nuclear war, and homophobia and won an Academy Award for her groundbreaking documentary Defending Our Lives which documented battered women imprisoned for killing their abusers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-) is a keen feminist legal scholar, whose insistence on equality for all––even when that means limiting some of women’s legal power––reveals great social and intellectual integrity. As a rising lawyer, she worked against laws that ostensibly preferenced or sought to protect women because, even though these laws protected women in the short run, they did not result in equality between the sexes.

Susan Brownmiller (1935-) was a young feminist scholar in the sixties and seventies when she began to interrogate society’s ideas about sexual assault. Her book, Against Our Will, illustrated how sexual assault is not about sexual desire but power; Brownmiller’s work was a powerful first step in changing our national culture of victim-blaming.

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How to cite this page

Book, Bella. "Women of Character." 19 October 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 21, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/women-of-character>.