Feminism in the United States

by Joyce Antler
Last updated

Lillian Wald.
Courtesy of the Henry Street Settlement.
In Brief

Jewish women played a significant role in all aspects of the American feminist movement, advocating for women’s suffrage, birth control and reproductive rights, peace, improved conditions for working women, the Equal Rights Amendment, and gender equality. In the early and mid-1960s, Jewish women—including Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin—helped to launch second-wave feminism. Many younger Jewish women pioneered radical feminism later in the decade. In some women's liberation collectives, as many as two-thirds to three-quarters of members were Jewish. American feminists did not always acknowledge Jewish women's issues and contributions. At times, women’s rights proponents espoused antisemitic, anti-immigrant, or anti-Zionist views. Notwithstanding sometimes fraught issues, Jewish women have been among the most passionate crusaders for feminist goals.

Jewish Women and Feminist Goals

Jewish women have played a significant role in all aspects of the American feminist movement. Whether agitating for the reform of marriage and property laws, woman suffrage, birth control, improved conditions for working women, the Equal Rights Amendment, or a myriad of other causes aimed at fostering equal opportunities for women, they lent their support to and often pioneered campaigns for women’s rights.

Yet the relationship between Jewish women and feminism has been complex. Despite the energetic contributions of individual Jewish women and of Jewish women’s groups to these movements, not all Jewish women’s organizations enthusiastically supported the goals of equality or enhanced political rights for women, at least initially. Nor did American feminists acknowledge the substantial contributions of Jewish women to their cause. Feminists, moreover, only rarely spoke out in defense of Jews when they were under attack in the United States or abroad; women’s rights proponents and their allies themselves frequently espoused antisemitic, anti-immigrant or anti-Zionist views. Notwithstanding feminists’ failures to publicly support or acknowledge Jewish issues, Jewish women have been among the most passionate supporters of feminist goals throughout the long and continuing struggle for women’s rights.

Jewish Women and Suffrage

One of the earliest activists on behalf of equal opportunity for women was Ernestine Rose. Born in a (Yiddish) Small-town Jewish community in Eastern Europe.shtetl in Poland, Rose, the daughter of a rabbi, came to the United States in 1836. She soon became a leader in the fight to reform the married women’s property acts and campaigned on behalf of woman suffrage, first in New York State and then, with Susan B. Anthony, throughout the nation. She attended most national women’s rights conventions and at the first, in Worcester, Massachusetts, introduced the controversial resolution calling for “political, legal, and social equality with man.” Rose worked with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to establish the American Equal Rights Association, formed in 1866 as a successor to earlier women’s rights conventions and dedicated to the cause of abolition as well as women’s rights. With Stanton and Anthony, she transformed the Equal Rights Association into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which continued for many decades to lead the suffrage cause. A fervent pacifist as well as a feminist, Rose believed that women had a special stake in crusades for peace.

While Rose’s outspoken rejection of religion troubled pious feminists, she took a “fighting stand” against antisemitism, publicly disavowing its presence in her own circle of freethinkers and vigorously defending her people. In her own view, her work on behalf of abolition and women’s rights and against antisemitism demonstrated the “interrelationships between Jew and non-Jew, Negro and white, men and women.” Susan B. Anthony named her, along with Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Wright, as one of the most important women’s rights leaders in history.

In the next generation, Maud Nathan, a descendant of one of the leading Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi families in the United States, became the suffrage movement’s most significant Jewish leader. Nathan came to suffrage through her work as president of the New York Consumers’ League. Lobbying for better protective legislation for working women, she saw that lawmakers ignored women’s point of view because they had no political status. With many close friends who were working for suffrage—particularly Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton—this “society woman in politics,” as Nathan was often called, became increasingly active, serving as the first vice president of New York’s Equal Suffrage League.

One of the movement’s boldest and most original tacticians, Nathan invented open-air automobile campaigns, “24 hour” speeches given from cars stationed at simultaneous locations throughout the city, “silent” speeches using motorized placards, and the idea of throwing out suffrage literature wrapped around coins. Because suffragists were stereotyped as aggressive, “masculine” women, short-haired, short-skirted, and supposedly outfitted in bloomers, Nathan dressed in her finest gowns when she spoke at mass meetings or participated in the suffrage skits and burlesques she frequently performed. After one of Nathan’s speeches, President Woodrow Wilson commented to a friend, “When I hear a woman talk so well in the public interest, it almost makes me believe in woman suffrage.” Nathan assumed the credit when the president finally came out for suffrage.

Nathan’s vigorous support for woman suffrage and her lifelong interest in promoting the welfare of working women was rooted in a prophetic Judaism that emphasized the individual’s obligations to the social good. For Nathan, righteousness—the wellspring of all Judaic inspiration—meant the application of spiritual ideals to “social growth.” She often quoted biblical texts to show their applicability to contemporary society.

While Jewish immigrant women supported suffrage in greater proportions than either native-born American women or those from other ethnic communities, few women of her own class showed the spirited devotion to the cause that Nathan did. Neither the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), organized in 1896, nor any other Jewish women’s group officially supported woman suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Jewish male groups, including the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, were also ambivalent about the issue and did not pass a resolution in favor of woman suffrage until relatively late in the campaign for the vote for women. A few Jewish women, like Maud Nathan’s sister Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College, even agitated publicly against suffrage. So strong was Meyer’s support of antisuffragism, in fact, that she was often considered “vice president” of the movement against votes for women.

Lillian Wald.
Courtesy of the Henry Street Settlement.
Rose Schneiderman speaking at a union rally, circa 1910s. 
Courtesy of Brown Brothers

The lack of organized Jewish women’s support for suffrage led observers to believe, incorrectly, that Jewish women as a whole were uninvolved or uninterested in rights for women. Trade union activist Clara Lemlich Shavelson, the young woman who in 1909 urged her garment industry coworkers to go out on a general strike and in so doing changed the course of labor history, was a cofounder of the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage. Other working-class leaders active in the suffrage fight were Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Theresa Malkiel.

In New York City, Jewish neighborhoods provided the strongest voting support for woman suffrage. In 1915, in fact, the only Manhattan assembly district to vote in favor of suffrage was predominantly Jewish, as were other districts with relatively high suffrage votes. When the Woman Suffrage Party blamed immigrants for the defeat of suffrage in that election, Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement (often called the Nurses Settlement), and her nursing colleague Lavinia Dock protested that the pro-suffrage votes of immigrant districts had not been recognized. The reluctance to talk explicitly about Jews (even Wald and Dock identified “immigrant” rather than “Jewish” support) hid Jewish support for feminism and underlined feminists’ continuing failure to deal with issues of antisemitism. In part, feminists feared becoming identified with radical Jews, who were prominently associated in the popular mind with socialism.

Antisemitism in the Suffrage Movement

Yet the failure to credit Jews for their significant contributions to the women’s rights movement, and the glossing over of antisemitism within the movement itself, was more than a political tactic. In the late nineteenth century, the women’s rights movement was characterized by deeply held anti-Judaic and antisemitic attitudes. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the key theoretician of the woman’s movement and longtime president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, introduced a resolution at the 1885 convention of the association that noted that “dogmas incorporated in the religious creeds derived from Judaism” were “contrary to the law of God as revealed in nature and the precepts of Christ.” The measure did not pass, largely because members did not want to address the issues of women’s role in religion, but it indicated the lack of concern for Jewish women’s sensibilities as well as the social acceptability of anti-Jewish and antisemitic perspectives.

Anna Howard Shaw, who followed Stanton as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (formed when Stanton’s organization merged with the rival American Woman Suffrage Association), also exhibited anti-Jewish attitudes, despite her personal friendship with Jewish suffragists. One of the first ordained female ministers, Shaw contrasted what she considered to be Judaism’s negative attitudes toward women with Christianity’s positive ones.

The anti-Jewish strain of Christian-based feminist thought emerged most clearly in the first volume of Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible. This 1895 tract is laden with criticism of the Jewish God, the Jewish people (“devious,” “petty,” and “immoral”) and the Pentateuch itself (“a long painful record of war, corruption, rapine, and lust”). In the work, Stanton identified “contempt for women” as a “Jewish dispensation”—a “serpent all through history” that reproduced itself in all subsequent religions. “As long as the Pentateuch is read and accepted as the Word of God,” she wrote, a “proper respect for all womankind” would be impossible. In 1896, NAWSA voted to reject Stanton’s Bible, declaring itself a “nonsectarian” association. Although the vote signaled a decline in anti-Jewish feeling among second-generation reformers, many of whom feared alienating potential Jewish members, the Christian orientation of the movement continued, as did some members’ antisemitism.

Carrie Chapman Catt, third president of NAWSA, did not exhibit the anti-Jewish, anti–Old Testament hostility of her predecessors, but she nonetheless alienated some Jewish women with her anti-immigrant rhetoric and the claim that the “ignorant foreign vote” was a grave threat to democracy. Catt’s activism on behalf of the international woman suffrage movement also worked against her identification with issues of concern to Jews, whom she viewed as a relatively narrow nationality-based interest group.

While Jewish women leaders worked closely with Christian women in suffrage and reform activities and were proud of their friendships with leading Christian feminists such as Catt, the commitment of women such as Maud Nathan and Rebekah Kohut to Jewish groups like the National Council of Jewish Women reflected their recognition that the interests of Jewish female reformers were often distinct from those of non-Jewish women. Although Nathan admitted little disjunction between feminist objectives and Jewish concerns, in her autobiography she cites evidences of antisemitism among Christian colleagues. Rebekah Kohut, who like Nathan worked within secular women’s organizations as well as the NCJW, smarted over the fact that some of her closest gentile friends, including philanthropist Grace Dodge, had attempted to convert immigrant Jews to Christianity. And Sadie American, the NCJW’s corresponding secretary, became bitter over the fact that gentile friends remained silent after the murder, rape, and torture of Jews during the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.

Other Jewish-born feminists, however, did not acknowledge any specific bonds to Jewish women’s groups. Lillian Wald is a case in point. A leader in the campaign for protective legislation for women, Wald helped establish the reform-minded National Women’s Trade Union League and became a member of the state’s Factory Investigating Commission, appointed to prevent industrial abuses like those that caused the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers (125 of them women) lost their lives. Although Wald worked on behalf of the immigrant Jewish community and received much of her funding from Jewish philanthropists, she insisted that her concerns were entirely nonsectarian. At the end of her life, she refused to be included in a book about Jewish women in America because its title suggested “work done by women as Jews,” which hers was not. For Wald, the promotion of a more definitive religious purpose at Henry Street would have meant the loss of “something fundamental” in the settlement—the common humanity shared by all creeds rather than a more particularistic faith. Active in many movements for human rights as well as women’s causes, Wald helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Federal Children’s Bureau, the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, and other groups. But she remained little interested in Jewish issues and slow to recognize the threat that fascism posed to Jewish freedom.

Despite differences between Jewish and Christian feminists, individual Jewish women and Jewish women’s organizations participated in many aspects of the women’s movement that extended beyond suffrage and political rights for women to such issues as reform of the conditions of women’s work, the promulgation of birth control methods and information, and the abolition of the traffic in women. Jewish women helped innovate and lead campaigns in each of these areas.

Jewish Women and the Labor Movement

Eastern European immigrant Jews like Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman, Rose Pesotta, and Fannia Cohn went from laboring in sweatshops to championing the cause of working women; Cohn, Pesotta, and Newman were among the handful of Jewish women who served as officers of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Often in conflict with Jewish male trade union leaders, they spent decades attempting to improve the wages and working conditions of women from the front lines of the industrial work force.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson’s base of operations was the Socialist and later, the Communist Party, as well as neighborhood women’s groups like the United Council of Working Class Housewives (later called the United Council of Working Class Women), which drew on the power of homemakers in the 1920s and 1930s to agitate around such subsistence issues as the price of food and housing. Union organizer Rose Schneiderman found her way into the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), an association of working women and their middle-class and upper-class allies. For many decades she worked both for traditional union drives and for the protective legislation supported by the WTUL. She also served as president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League for over thirty years and was president of the national organization as well. The efforts of Schneiderman, Newman, and other working-class Jewish women on behalf of protective labor laws for women found ready congruence in the work of Maud Nathan, longtime president of the New York Consumers’ League, to improve the conditions of women in the workplace.

Sexual and Reproductive Rights

  • Yiddish Cartoon on Emma Goldman's Advocacy of Free Access to Birth Control, February 18, 1916 view larger
    Under the words "Emma Earns Her Punishment," this cartoon shows Goldman being led into prison by a police officer. The figure at the right is labeled a "sweat-shop boss," and the paper at Goldman's feet reads: "Lecture: How to protect from too many children." The caption at the bottom has the sweat-shop boss saying: "Hear this scandal! I need kids to work and she preaches against children! To prison with her!"
    Courtesy of the Emma Goldman Papers. view details
  • Rose Pastor Stokes view larger

    Labor activist Rose Pastor Stokes adopted antiwar and pro-abortion stands and joined the Communist Party.

    Institution: U.S. Library of Congress

    view details
  • Yiddish Cartoon on Emma Goldman's Advocacy of Free Access to Birth Control, February 18, 1916
  • Rose Pastor Stokes

For some Jewish women, sexual and reproductive freedom took precedence in the pantheon of women’s issues. Anarchist leader Emma Goldman insisted that the denial of sexual freedom, not political or economic inequality, lay at the core of women’s problems. For this reason, she believed that the drive for suffrage and political rights, which imitated rather than dismantled male models of authority, would do little to alter women’s subjugation. Goldman faulted suffragists for failing to attack the evils of marriage, which she saw as incompatible with the true flowering of love, and for doing little to promote the right to birth control, which she considered fundamental to women’s liberation. In 1915, she began to offer detailed birth control advice in her popular lectures, given in Yiddish and in English. She was arrested in 1916 for distributing birth control pamphlets—a violation of the federal code—but the conviction was overturned.

After Goldman’s arrest, Rose Pastor Stokes, another well-known Jewish radical, publicly proclaimed her own willingness to break the law in order to help women, particularly immigrants, obtain birth control. Jewish women physicians like Hannah Stone and Lena Levine of New York, Rachelle Yarros of Chicago, Sara Marcus of Cleveland, Nadine Kavinoky of Los Angeles, and Bessie Moses of Baltimore were among the pioneer founders and directors of birth control clinics in the United States.

National Council of Jewish Women and Feminist Activism

While suffrage, labor reforms, and reproductive rights were issues pursued by individuals rather than by Jewish women’s organizations, the campaign against enforced prostitution (“white slavery”) became a major focus of the efforts of the National Council of Jewish Women. NCJW’s model programs involved rescue homes, friendly visitors, employment guidance, and a worldwide campaign of prevention. Its success in this work gave the organization an entrée into all levels of the secular women’s movement.

After the achievement of woman suffrage in 1920, the NCJW joined other women’s groups to form the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, a nonpartisan group that pressed for legislation on women’s issues. In the 1920s, the NCJW found itself in disagreement with mainstream feminists about the Cable Act, presented to President Harding for signing in 1922 by Maud Wood Park, who had led the clubwomen’s lobbying effort for the bill. The act declared that foreign-born women could no longer become citizens by marriage to naturalized or American-born men but had to take out citizenship papers in their own right. While American feminists rejoiced at the acknowledgment that every woman was an independent human being, NCJW leaders feared that the Cable Act would separate women from their husbands and children and bar them from receiving mothers’ pensions or obtaining public employment, health benefits, and other services. They also had grave misgivings about whether immigrant women would have equal access to citizenship training with immigrant men. Secular feminists’ failure to denounce German antisemitism in the 1930s, and their minimal support of the NCJW’s program of rescuing refugees from fascism, reflected the continuing gap between the Jewish women’s groups and the broader feminist movement.

Like many other women’s groups, the NCJW opposed the proposed Equal Rights Amendment from its inception in 1923 through the 1960s. The council believed that the vote already guaranteed equality to middle-class women and preferred protective legislation as a means of alleviating the burdens of their working-class sisters. Throughout its existence, the NCJW had been firm in its support of the gendered division of functions, and despite many of its own members’ public activism, remained convinced of the primacy of the domestic realm for women. In 1962, the council somewhat reluctantly joined President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Commission on the Status of Women, fearing that the commission’s true purpose was to promote the ERA. Yet participation in the commission gave the NCJW broad insights into the pervasive problems of sex discrimination in employment, legal inequalities, and lack of child care, among other issues. By 1970, the NCJW had become an enthusiastic supporter of the ERA and other reforms to promote women’s equality.

Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique

In addition to the work of the president’s Commission on the Status of Women and that of subsequent state commissions and networks of professional women, the 1960s ushered in a series of vigorous protests against barriers to women’s advancement and continuing discrimination. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, the same year as the report of the presidential commission, had an enormous impact. In the book, Friedan exploded the myth of domestic contentment, which she argued had infantilized women, “burying them alive” in their suburban homes as if in a “concentration camp.” In Friedan’s view, the false consciousness of the feminine “mystique,” perpetuated by Freudian psychoanalysts, functionalist sociologists, advertisers, business leaders, educators, and child development experts, stifled women’s ambitions and kept them in their place. Although Friedan advocated remedies like education and employment—especially, the adoption of a “new life plan” that would enable women to develop creative work of their own—the power of the book lay in its shattering exposé of the “problem that had no name” as a widespread social rather than individual issue. Readers, especially white middle-class women, responded enthusiastically, and the book, which Friedan initially had difficulty placing because of its negative message about domesticity, sold several million copies. Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it played a major role in sparking second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

A summa cum laude graduate of Smith College, class of 1942, Friedan had gone on to a short-lived career as reporter for the UE News, the paper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America—the most radical and probably “the largest communist-led institution of any kind” in the United States—before she lived the “feminine mystique” as a suburban wife and mother of three. Although Friedan attributed her sudden understanding of her own false consciousness to interviews with Smith alumnae from her own class, her earlier labor radicalism had also exposed her to some awareness of sex discrimination. Another factor in the making of Friedan’s feminist consciousness was the antisemitism she suffered while growing up in Peoria, Illinois.

Born Bettye Goldstein in 1921, Friedan enjoyed a relatively happy childhood in Peoria, but as a member of one of the few Jewish families in the city, she eventually experienced a great deal of social ostracism. Although her father owned the finest jewelry store in the community—the “Tiffany’s of the Midwest,” according to Friedan—people who associated with him in business would not associate with him elsewhere. The family was not allowed into the Peoria country club, for which her mother blamed her husband rather than the community. Friedan herself, the only Jewish girl in her high school, was not invited to join the sorority. She grew up feeling “marginal,” with “the sense of being an outsider, apart, special, not like the others.” “Ever since I was a little girl,” she acknowledged, “I remember my father telling me that I had a passion for justice. But I think it was really a passion against injustice which originated from my feelings of the injustice of antisemitism.” In combination with her later outrage at women’s false contentment in their domestic roles, Friedan’s experience of childhood “marginality” influenced her to write The Feminine Mystique.

Second Wave Feminism

Like Friedan, many of the leaders and thinkers of the 1960s feminist movement were Jews, albeit largely secular ones. Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Vivian Gornick, and Gloria Steinem all played prominent roles in spearheading women’s rights in the 1960s and early 1970s. Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, Meredith Tax, Andrea Dworkin, and Naomi Weisstein were among the Jewish women active in the more radical wing of feminism—the women’s liberation movement.

Several reasons have been suggested for the prominence of Jewish women not only within the leadership but in the rank and file of feminism. Friedan suggests that contemporary feminism originated in the United States because it possessed large numbers of highly educated women who were expected to concentrate their energies upon the narrow sphere of the home. She speculates that the disparity between talent, ambition, and role identity was especially severe for Jewish women, who were probably the most highly educated of all American women yet whose self-definition sprang almost entirely from the family. According to writer Anne Roiphe, the “women’s movement was fueled by Jewish energies” because Jewish women felt “pain and anguish” at the way they had been portrayed in the media and by Jewish men. When their anger ignited, it “exploded” into the women’s movement.

The feminist movement did not spring full-blown from Friedan’s pen. For decades, Jewish women had been among the activists who led campaigns for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and peace. Such work provided women with a sense of personal power as well as experience in mass demonstrations and community organization. Just as women’s participation in abolitionism had created demands for greater autonomy for women a century earlier, so a “proto-feminist” consciousness had been rising from within the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. After a decade of militant antiwar struggles, activists like Bella Abzug had also come to connect war with violence against women and to identify war as a feminist issue. These women’s organizational know-how and skillful coalition building became essential tools in the development of feminism as a mass movement.

Abzug, a Columbia University Law School graduate who devoted her early career to labor law and civil liberties issues, shifted her focus to the peace effort after the United States and the Soviet Union renewed nuclear testing in the early 1960s. Abzug helped to found Women Strike for Peace, which she served as political action and legislative director, and was elected to Congress in 1970 on a women’s rights/peace platform. Reelected in 1972 and 1974, she led the congressional fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and for reproductive freedom. One of the peak moments of her congressional career was bringing Rabbi Sally Priesand to lead the prayer service at the opening of Congress in 1971, the first Jewish woman to do so. A deeply identified though secular Jew raised as a labor Zionist, Abzug believed that her connections to her Jewish heritage shaped the trajectory of her professional and political life.

Women’s Liberation/Radical Feminism

While leaders like Friedan and Abzug, who were then in their early forties, stimulated like-minded women to wage war on patriarchy, a group of younger women, mostly in their twenties, joined the civil rights and student movements. As the Vietnam War escalated, they became active in the protest against it. By 1967, many had become outraged at their treatment by male radicals, whose beliefs in freedom and equality apparently applied only to men. After their attempts to introduce women’s issues into the movement were met by ridicule, they began to organize groups of their own, identifying their cause as women’s liberation. “The personal is political” became their slogan and consciousness raising their primary tool.

Among this group were a number of northern Jewish women activists who had gone south to participate in antiracist work led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other black groups. They included such activists as Florence Howe, who would later found the Feminist Press, Susan Brownmiller, who would write Against Our Will, a groundbreaking analysis of rape as a feminist issue, and Rita Schwerner, who accompanied her husband Michael Schwerner, one of the young men murdered in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer. While most of these women were not Jewishly identified at the time, some later acknowledged that their sense of “otherness” as Jews, along with an inheritance of progressive familial values, stimulated their involvement in the civil rights movement. Their experience as allies of African Americans in turn encouraged them to raise questions about their identities as women. Becoming incensed at their second-class treatment by male radicals, they began to organize women’s groups in tandem with other disgruntled student and antiwar activists.

Women's liberation groups spread exponentially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among those with significant numbers of Jewish women were the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, Redstockings in New York, and Boston’s Bread and Roses. In some large city collectives, as many as two-thirds to three-quarters of members were Jewish.

Jewish women helped to provide theories and models for radical feminist thought and action. Notable Jewish women who contributed ideas to the movement include Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman, Naomi Weisstein, Heather Booth, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn Webb, Meredith Tax, Andrea Dworkin, Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Ann Snitow, Marge Piercy, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Vivian Gornick. With some exceptions, these women did not self-consciously identify as Jews at the time, aligning themselves with the universalist vison of a common sisterhood rather than with particularist identities.

Among the Jewish leaders of the women’s liberationists was antiwar New Left activist Robin Morgan, a founding member of one of the earliest and most influential consciousness-raising groups, the New York Radical Feminists. Morgan also founded the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) and helped organize the 1968 WITCH demonstration at the Miss America pageant. In 1970, she engineered the takeover of the New Left magazine Rat, publishing a woman’s issue in retaliation for the male staff’s “sex and porn special.” Her essay “Good-Bye to All That,” challenging male chauvinism within the New Left and calling for a women’s revolution, became “the shot heard round the left.” With other radical women, she published Rat as a feminist periodical for two years. Her 1970 collection Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, containing selections from over seventy individual women and organizations, was proclaimed as the radical feminist “Bible.” Morgan became a contributing editor of Ms. magazine when it was established in 1972. She identified as an “apostate Jew” and has strongly opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza while sympathizing with the Palestinian cause.

Closer integration between the energies of radical feminism and Jewish sources were made by such feminists as Meredith Tax, a founder of Boston’s Bread and Roses, and Heather Booth, a member of the Chicago Women's Liberation Collective (CWLU). Tax identified with the radical tradition of American Jewish women, turning to popular fiction as a means of communicating this history to a mass audience. She wrote Rivington Street (1982), a historical romance about several generations of women radicals in Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side, and its sequel, Union Square (1988). Heather Booth was a member of the "Gang of Four" (along with three other Jewish women—Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein, and Naomi Weisstein), perhaps the first women's liberation group in the country, which helped develop the CWLU. Booth's career as a social activist spanned half a century and numerous causes. With Leonard Fein, she started Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice, becoming its acting director in 2000.         

Eight of the twelve founding members of the Boston Women's Health Collective, which created the groundbreaking Our Bodies, Ourselves—the "Bible" of the women's health movement—were Jewish. The presence of Judaism as a religious faith, largely because of a Jewishly observant member, Esther Rome, established a tone of respect for religion at a moment when feminists of different faiths often viewed religion solely as patriarchal and oppressive. Other BWHBC founders, including several red diaper babies, were influenced by the social justice concerns of a more secular Judaism.

Conflicts over Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism

Despite the contributions of Jewish women to the movement, second-wave feminism, like the earlier women’s rights movement, did not generally acknowledge the contributions of Jewish participants. In certain venues, including the first two United Nations International Women’s Decade Conferences, feminism came into painful conflict with antisemitism and anti-Zionism. In 1975, at the first International Women’s conference in Mexico City, third-world delegates attacked Israeli representatives as “racists” and inserted a plank calling for the elimination of Zionism “along with colonialism and apartheid” into the conference’s final declaration. Although Bella Abzug, chairing the United States delegation, organized congresswomen and other women leaders, Jews and non-Jews, to lobby the UN General Assembly to reject the Declaration of Mexico, her efforts proved unavailing. Abzug believed that the resolution of the conference thus helped set the stage for the adoption of the General Assembly resolution the following year declaring that “Zionism is racism.”

Although Jewish women hoped that there would not be a repetition of the blatant anti-Zionism at the second UN Women’s Conference, which took place five years later in Copenhagen, “Copenhagen was even worse,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote, with “Jewish women of every nationality … isolated, excoriated, and tyrannized,” not only by third-world delegates but by their American co-nationals. Two years after Copenhagen, Pogrebin wrote an eleven-page article on antisemitism in the women’s movement for Ms. Citing “antisemitism and sexism” as the “twin oppressions” of women, the article described the prevalence of antisemitism on the radical left as well as the political right, within the black community, and among Christian feminists who blamed Jewish monotheism for the extinction of goddess cults and the death of Jesus. In 1985, the third and largest UN Women's Conference took place in Nairobi. According to many Jewish attendees, antisemitism was used less as a political tool at the Nairobi events than at the two prior UN Women's conferences.

To organize against the global challenges of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, American Jewish women formed Feminists Against Anti-Semitism, which defined itself as explicitly feminist and Zionist, in 1981. That year, the group put antisemitism on the agenda of a Women’s Studies Association conference for the first time. Three years, later, spearheaded by Judith Arcana, Rabbi Sue Elwell, and Evelyn Torton Beck, Jewish women formed a permanent Jewish Women’s Caucus within the Women’s Studies Association, with the goal of integrating the experience of Jewish women “as Jews” into feminist associations.

The year 1984 also saw the publication of Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, by Minnie Bruce Pratt, Barbara Smith, and Elly Bulkin. Their essays explored tensions within feminist politics, with Smith, an African-American, and Bulkin, a Jewish feminist, offering frank discussions of racism and anti-semitism in their communities. Despite histories of suspicions and oppressions, the authors emphasized the commonalities shared by Blacks and Jew and expressed the desire to transcend boundaries and work across differences.

Building Community, Creating Feminist Scholarship, Modeling Activism

Jewish feminists organized to work for change within the Jewish community. In 1984, the American Jewish Congress focused its annual United States–Israel dialogue in Jerusalem on the topic of “Woman as Jew, Jews as Women.” The wide-ranging discussions led to the establishment of a new women’s lobby in Israel, the Israel Women’s Network, chaired by Alice Shalvi, and to the founding of the National Commission on Women’s Equality, under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress, with Betty Friedan and Leona Chanin as cochairs. The First International Feminist Conference for the Empowerment of Jewish Women, held in Jerusalem in 1988, involved 350 Jewish women from over 20 nations. Bella Abzug gave the keynote address.

Jewish women played leading roles within the feminist movement in the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the new millennium. They were highly represented in women's studies, contributing many writings that became landmarks in the field. Among historians' contributions, Joan Wallach Scott's article, "Gender as a Category of Analysis," influenced generations of scholars by making gender central to the understanding of women's lives. Alice Kessler-Harris's work on women in economic history shaped new perspectives about gendered labor. Estelle Freedman's No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, provided an expansive history of feminism as a continuous chain of individual and collective actions. These and other Jewish women's writings became highpoints of feminist scholarship throughout the disciplines. Jewish women also played a prominent role in theorizing multiculturalism and identity politics.

Nevertheless, Jewish women were slow to emerge as subjects within general feminism. In a 1988 article in the NWSA Journal, Women's Studies scholar Evelyn Torton Beck descried the neglect of Jewish themes within feminist theorizing, classrooms, and feminist and lesbian-feminist anthologies, as well as feminists' disregard of antisemitism.

In the early 1990s, conferences on the history of Jewish women took place within women's studies and interdisciplinary programs at Brandeis University and the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. The Jewish Women's Archive, founded in 1995, took a dual direction, chronicling the stories of Jewish women within general North American life and feminism, as well as within Judaism and Jewish institutions.

Jewish women offered new perspectives on the interplay between gender, feminism, and Jewish life in popular nonfiction. Letty Cottin Pogrebin's 1991 memoir, Deborah Golda and Me, provided insights into being Jewish, female, and feminist. Works by Jewish women that focused on general feminist topics include Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War on Women, both published in 1991.

Other Jewish women who helped to define contemporary feminism include Rebecca Walker, who in her 1992 Ms. article "Becoming the Third Wave," coined a term widely used to describe the emerging perspectives of a younger generation of post-second-wave feminists. Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (2000), became one of the founders of the Third Wave Foundation. Jaclyn Friedman, the author of several best-selling books about empowering women's sexuality, founded and served as executive director of Women, Action, and Media.

Jewish women's activism on the ground took multiple forms.  Jewish women were leaders and participants in anti-violence protests; the promotion of human rights; immigration reform; environmental justice and labor activism; and struggles against global poverty, racial injustice, and antisemitism. Sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and gender violence remained paramount issues. Jewish women became deeply involved in the #MeToo movement in both the general and Jewish communities.

Jewish women of color groups emerged as prominent voices of Jewish feminist life. A 2001 issue of Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends, advocating for the use of the term "Jews of color" as a political act, is credited with the widespread adoption of the term. An open letter from "Jewish Women of Color" in 2019 defined the group as a "multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-classed, multi-gendered, differently observant, differently abled, and intergenerational community of [powerful] women." Other women of color who were raised Jewishly, like Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, provided leadership for universalist social justice causes. 

With questions about the intersection of multiple forms of identity moving to the forefront of debates about feminism, Jewish women attempted to place themselves within this context. Tensions occasionally broke through, as when Jewish feminists expressed feelings of marginality within the National Women's Studies Caucus, and especially after the 2017 Women's March, when controversies arose regarding several co-chairs' support for Louis Farrakhan, noted for his antisemitic declarations.  Divisive global debates regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Zionism generally, have been reflected within contemporary feminist thought.

In the new millennium, the central role of intersectionality as an organizing principle of social movements has been seen in the tendency to link struggles against sexism, racism, and antisemitism. Coalition politics enabled by such alignments have enabled Jewish women within the larger feminist movement to increasingly bring their voices to bear on complex subjects of concern to them.


Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Antler, Joyce. Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women's Liberation Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. New York: Macmillan, 2000.

Beck, Evelyn Torton. "The Politics of Jewish Invisibility." NWSA Journal. I,1 (Autumn 1988): 93-102.

Brettschneider, Marla. Jewish Feminism and Intersectionality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016.

Bulkin, Elly, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Barbara Smith. Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1984.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War on America Women. New York: Crown, 1991.

Freedman, Estelle. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.

Glenn, Susan A. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Klapper, Melissa. Ballots, Babies & Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Activism, 1890-1940. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

Kuzmack, Linda Gordon. Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881–1933. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1990.

Las, Nelly. Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

Leder, Sharon. Three Groundbreaking Jewish Feminists: Pursuing Social Justice. Hybrid Global Publishing, 2021.

Lerner, Elinor. “American Feminism and the Jewish Question, 1890–1940.” In Anti-Semitism in American History, edited by David A. Gerber, 305–328. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Lerner, Elinor. “Jewish Involvement in the New York Woman Suffrage Movement.” American Jewish History 70 (June 1981): 442–461.

Levenstein, Lisa. They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Orleck, Annelise. Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Nadell, Pamela. America's Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times Until Today. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement.” Ms. (June 1982): 45+.

Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. Deborah, Golda and Me. New York: Crown, 1991.

Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893–1993. Tuscaloosa, IL: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Female Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991.

Have an update or correction? Let us know


Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

How to cite this page

Antler, Joyce. "Feminism in the United States." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 23, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feminism-in-united-states>.