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Martha Ackelsberg

b. June 5, 1946

by Marla Brettschneider
Last updated June 23, 2021

Scholar and activist Martha Ackelsberg, 2016. Courtesy of Martha Ackelsberg.

In Brief

Martha Ackelsberg is a leading Jewish lesbian feminist anarchist activist, organizational leader, and scholar. She is a political theorist with a successful academic career and one of the twentieth- and twenty-first century’s most prominent anarchist thinkers. Her book, Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipa­tion of Women, on the anarchist feminist group Mujeres Libres, has been translated into six languages. She is a shaper of numerous historically significant Jewish groups and movements such as Ezrat Nashim, the Havurah movement, Breirah, and B’not Esh. A long-time activist, Ackelsberg has been engaged with numerous community organizations and in Jewish, lesbian, feminist, and anti-racist work over her lifetime. In the secular academy and on the left, at a time when it continues to be challenging to be Jewishly identified, Ackelsberg has managed to maintain both a dynamic Jewish and reputed scholarly life.

Family Background

Martha Ackelsberg was born on June 5, 1946, in New York, to Sylvia (Cohen) and Oscar Ackelsberg. She was raised in Bloomfield, NJ, with her two younger siblings: a sister Irvine (born 1949), and a brother Sholom (born 1958). Her parents were passionate, “radical” Zionists who dreamed of a life on a kibbutz in Israel, though their plan for Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyah was thwarted by the advent of World War II. Her parents’ Jewish grounding and political activism greatly influenced her trajectory. In her youth, Ackelsberg attended public schools where Jews were a small minority.

With the family belonging to a local Conservative synagogue, Ackelsberg spent formative years, Jewishly and otherwise, at Camp Ramah (affiliated with the US Conservative movement and connected with the Jewish Theological Seminary): as a camper from ages ten to sixteen, a counselor-in-training for a year, and a counselor for three years from 1965 to 1967.

Ackelsberg married David Mendelson in 1968; they were divorced in 1975.

In 1984, Ackelsberg began a relationship with a long-time friend and comrade, Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow. The couple held a commitment ceremony in December of 1986 and were legally married in Massachusetts in 2013. They had been public about their opposition to marriage during the decade or so of the LGB movement’s emphasis on “same-sex” marriage. Their later decision to legally marry followed a health scare: they wanted to be able to assure recognition of their primary relational status and their mutual access to each other within a health care system that often denied same-gender partners rights and dignity.

Ackelsberg and Plaskow were part of an historic moment when LGBTQ folks were forging new modes of co-parenting and familial relationships. Ackelsberg grew into a co-parenting role to Alex Goldenberg, Plaskow’s son from an earlier marriage (he is married to Lisa Kutlin). She is grandmother to Hannah, Alex and Lisa’s daughter.

For decades, Ackelsberg commuted between Northampton, MA, where she taught at Smith College, to New York City, where Plaskow taught at Manhattan College. In 2014, she retired to New York City, where she is politically active in Jewish anti-racism work.

Higher Education

Ackelsberg attended Radcliffe College, graduating summa cum ­laude in 1968 with a BA in Social Studies, an interdisciplinary program. Ackelsberg excelled during her years in college. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in November 1967 and earned a prize from Harvard University for her thesis in 1968 (although the prize could not be officially awarded because it was endowed for the “top male student thesis”). At that time, Harvard was male only, Ackelsberg’s class graduating at the cusp of the development of the women’s movement. Ackelsberg and many of the women of her class recognized the differential gender circumstances at the University. For example, the women of Radcliffe could not use the Harvard library, and until their senior year the women students had no reasonable place they were allowed to eat their lunch on campus. But they did little to resist these indignities. Many were politically active while undergraduates but did not become fully conscious or engaged as feminists until after graduation. Members of her class went on to become accomplished in their many fields and leaders in the feminist movement.

Ackelsberg pursued her graduate studies in the Politics Department and the interdisciplinary Program in Political Philosophy at Princeton University, earning an MA and PhD in 1970 and 1976 respectively. Her dissertation was entitled "The Possibility of Anarchism: The Theory and Practice of Non‑Authoritarian Organization."

Teaching

Ackelsberg began teaching at Smith College in the Department of Government as a Lecturer in 1972. She was promoted to the rank of Assistant Professor in 1976, to the rank of Associate Professor with tenure in 1980, and to the rank of Professor in 1987. Ackelsberg was awarded the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair in 2007. She retired from Smith College in 2014. 

During her time at Smith, Ackelsberg taught courses on urban politics, political philosophy, problems in democratic thought, the politics of wealth and poverty, women’s and gender studies, and social movements. She also periodically taught courses on anarchism and the Spanish Revolution at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She was part of the creation of the Smith College Program in Women’s Studies (later Program for the Study of Women and Gender) and subsequently held a joint appointment between that program and the Department of Government. While at Smith, Ackelsberg served as both Chair of the Department of Government and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender. She also served as a member of the Jewish Studies program committee and on a variety of College committees, including the Committee on Tenure and Promotion, Faculty Council, Committee on Community Policy, and a variety of ad hoc committees.

Honors and Fellowships

At Smith College Ackelsberg was an active member of the faculty, serving important leadership roles. Additionally, she was a principal investigator of the Project on Women and Social Change (1978-85), was co-director of an interdisciplinary project “From Local to Global: Community Activism in the New Millennium” (2000-2001), and received a number of Smith College and Five College professorial awards. She was in residence as a Smith College Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome in March 2014.

Over the course of her career, Ackelsberg was awarded fellowships by the American Association of University Women and the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. She served as a visiting fellow at the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, a faculty associate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Columbia University. In 2010, she was a co-winner of the Frank J. Goodnow Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession of the American Political Science Association.

Ackelsberg has also held visiting faculty positions at the School of Social Sci­ence, Univer­sity of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, U.K., the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Hampshire College.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, she served as Resident Director of PRESHCO (Programa de Estudios Hispánicos, Córdoba), University of Córdoba, Córdoba Spain.

Service in the Profession

There is a fine line between Ackelsberg’s political activism and her substantial professional service contributions. Ackelsberg has been a leader in her fields, taking on significant service roles in the profession, including serving as Council member and Vice President of the American Political Science Association and as member (and chair) of both the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession and the Committee on the Status of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals in the Profession. She also served as member (and chair) of the Women’s Caucus and of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Political Caucus and contributed to reports and recommendations on improving the status of women and of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals within the profession.

Published works

Ackelsberg is a prolific writer. Her work spans genres, including many articles for popular media outlets, numerous encyclopedia entries, and regular book reviews. Significantly, Ackelsberg has published over 80 academic articles and book chapters, in English and Spanish, over the course of her career. These works cover feminism, Jewish studies, LGBTQ studies, friendship, anarchism, and politics, as well as the crossover among these fields. Ackelsberg’s scholarship has made important contributions to both Jewish and anarchist studies. She has contributed articles to pivotal Jewish volumes, particularly feminist and lesbian works, and her research on anarchism and anarchist women’s organizations has been significant to historical and theoretical work on anarchism, earning international recognition.

Ackelsberg co-edited her first book, Women, Welfare and Higher Education: Toward Comprehensive Poli­cies, with Randall Bartlett and Robert Buchele. The essays collected for this volume developed from papers from a conference held in April 1985 at Smith College as part of the college’s Project on Women and Social Change.

In 2010, nearing retirement, Ackelsberg published a volume of her most pivotal essays, entitled Resisting Citizenship: Feminist Essays on Democracy, Politics and Community (Routledge). In this collection of essays Ackelsberg explores modes of participatory democracy, from electoral politics and grassroots activism to volunteer work and community organizing. Described as a “trailblazer,” she deepens and expands political theory by taking activism seriously, as she sharpens our understanding of the essential roles people’s engagements play in efforts toward democracy.

Ackelsberg’s signal book-length contribution is her Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipa­tion of Women (1991), which has been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Greek, and Russian. In this groundbreaking work, Ackelsberg weaves together archival research, extensive interviews with then-living members of the Spanish anarchist feminist group Mujeres Libres, and political analysis to understand this historical movement as she advances contemporary anarchist practice and theory. During the Spanish Civil War (which began with an attempted military coup in July 1936 and ended in 1939 with what was to be an almost 40-year dictatorship led by Gen. Francisco Franco), Mujeres Libres organized over 20,000 women into vast anarchist and anti-fascist networks to empower women to contribute to work, education, health care, and their communities among anarchists and in republican Spain more broadly. Mujeres Libres and Ackelsberg’s work continue to serve as inspirations to contemporary democracy movements such as Occupy Wall Street and other community-based, collective, lesbian, Jewish, and feminist organizing.

Activism and Lifetime Contributions

As she built a solid career in the secular academy, Ackelsberg also created a vibrant Jewish life and served as a founder and active member of a number of local or national communal organizations.

In 1969, Ackelsberg helped to create a feminist consciousness-raising group in New York City, with others who were connected to the health profession, many as wives of doctors, as she was at the time. As part of their work together, they realized that their connection to healthcare could be an important way to make a contribution to the larger community, and they created the New York Women’s Health Collective. They organized and taught courses on women and “their” bodies (at the same time the similar collective “Our Bodies Our Selves” was organizing in Boston), and offered them both at a downtown venue for NYU students and at an uptown storefront for people on the Upper West Side. They also counseled women in need of abortions and advocated for the legalization of abortion in New York.

In the 2000s, Ackelsberg served as a member and chair of the Northampton Housing Partnership, a community board that advocates for, and educates on, affordable housing in that city, and, through it, served on the Northampton Affordable Housing Trust, Northampton Sustainable Development Steering Committee, and the Northampton Community Advisory Committee for Village Hill Housing Development.

Jewishly, Ackelsberg was a founder and leader of numerous pivotal organizations, helping shape central developments in US Jewish life over the course of more than five decades. In August 1970, she joined the New York Havurah, among the first of such groups aimed at creating a more egalitarian Judaism. Clusters of Jewishly knowledgeable young people created small, voluntary communities of equals, offering an alternative to what they had experienced as large, alienating suburban synagogues; the New York Havurah insisted that prayer, study, and (anti-Vietnam War) politics were all critical parts of what made their Jewish community. While a number of members were rabbinical students, they aimed to create communities that did not depend on hired rabbis for leadership. Ackelsberg was also involved in the creation of the national Havurah movement, which emerged by 1979 to provide some degree of coordination among individual havurot.

Ackelsberg was a founding member of Ezrat Nashim, one of the first Jewish groups of United States second-wave feminism. Formed in 1971 as a class within the New York Havurah, the group studied together and presented emergent feminist demands to the Conservative Movement.

Ackelsberg was also an early member of Breira, formed in 1973 in response to a popular Israeli saying following the Yom Kippur War: “ain breira,” or there is no alternative to the hawkish policies of the Israeli Labour Party. This United States Jewish group was comprised of rabbis, intellectuals, and Jewish communal professionals making some of the earliest calls in the Jewish community for talks with the PLO and toward a two-state solution to the war in Israel and Palestine. It was demonized by many more establishment Jewish groups, and members were the subject of a process of excommunication.

Ackelsberg was a founding member of B’not Esh, a Jewish feminist political and spirituality collective that began meeting in 1981. B’not Esh was the first of its kind, meeting in person five days per year over Memorial Day weekend to work on a feminist transformation of Judaism and Jewish life, drawing on and supporting members’ work in the larger world. Until 2018 the group kept the membership small and by invitation only to support trust-building, while it committed to seeding additional groups to broaden the movement for change, both generally and within the Jewish community. In recent years, it has opened the membership through a wider application process.

Also in the early 1980s, Ackelsberg was involved with efforts to advocate and educate Jewish communities on homophobia and LGB (now LGBTQ) inclusion. Together with others, she established “Yetziah,” which offered workshops for Hillel directors and Jewish communal groups. She also spoke frequently around the east coast on issues of Judaism, feminism, and reconceiving families.

In her retirement in New York City, Ackelsberg is focusing on anti-racism work, committed to taking an active role in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, and through their partnership with the Alliance of Families for Justice.

Selected Works by Martha Ackelsberg

Resisting Citizenship: Feminist Essays on Democracy, Politics and Community. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipa­tion of Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991; revised edition published March 2005, by AK Press.

Mujeres Libres: El anarquismo y la lucha por la emancipación de las mujeres. Barcelona: Virus\Editorial, 1999. (Spanish translation, with new preface and some new material). 

Mujeres Libres: l’Attualita della lotta delle donne anarchiche nella rivoluzione spagnola. Milan: Zero in Condotta, 2005. (Italian translation).

La vie sera mille fois plus belle: Les Mujeres Libres, les anarchists espagnols et l’émancipation des femmes, Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire, 2010. (French translation).

Mujeres Libres. Nautilus editions, 2018 (Greek translation).

Mulheres Livres: A luta pela emancipaçao feminina e a Guerra Civil Espanhola. Sao Paulo, Brasil: Editora Elefante, 2019. (Portuguese translation).

Russian translation expected, spring 2020 (Radical Theory and Practice).

Women, Welfare and Higher Education: Toward Comprehensive Poli­cies, edited with Randall Bartlett and Robert Buchele. Northamp­ton, MA: Smith College, 1988.

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How to cite this page

Brettschneider, Marla. "Martha Ackelsberg." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 19, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ackelsberg-martha>.