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Women's Studies in the United States

by Debra Renee Kaufman

The impact of Adrienne Rich on poetry in America since the second half of the twentieth century has been enormous. Too richly talented to be ignored by the literary establishment, she was at the same time too politically oriented to be comfortably digested.

Institution: Steven Barclay Agency

In Brief

Jewish women were instrumental in creating women’s studies as an academic discipline. The first phase of feminist thinking within the field of women’s studies was profoundly affected by scholars who had their political roots in the women’s movement. By the mid-1970s, feminist thinking adopted a woman-centered focus that located specific virtues in the historical and psychological experiences of women. Debates in the late 1980s anticipated the third phase of women’s studies scholarship, in which several interrelated issues became paramount: woman as a universal category, multiculturalism, and how to link feminism to other existing or emerging sociopolitical approaches and poststructuralist criticism. Jewish women may be visible within the field of women’s studies because they have experienced the world from the margins, as women and as women within the Jewish tradition.


What we have at present is a man-centered university, a breeding ground not of humanism, but of masculine privilege.

Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silences

Women’s studies scholarship has been variously referred to as “a process, a field of inquiry, a critical perspective, a center for social action, and/or the academic arm of the Women’s Movement.” As an academic discipline, women’s studies scholarship examines and produces knowledge in several fields simultaneously. Early formulations that women’s studies was by, for, and about women have changed as varieties of feminism, the substantive basis for women’s studies scholarship, and “new” scholarship influence the debates considered central to feminist thinking.

The National Women’s Studies Association notes that as an academic field of inquiry, women’s studies grew out of the women’s movement. Both faculty and students saw that “women’s social and political inequality was reflected in and partly produced by the invisibility of women’s experience in the curricula, research priorities, and methodologies in higher education.” The late 1960s are often called the second wave of the women’s movement to distinguish it from the first wave, which began with the Women’s Rights Conference in 1848 at Seneca Falls and ended with the passage of women’s right to vote in 1920. Debates about “the difference” difference makes in our gender analyses anticipate the third phase of women’s studies scholarship in which several interrelated issues become paramount: woman as a universal category, multiculturalism, and how to link feminism to other existing or emerging sociopolitical approaches and poststructuralist criticism. Women’s Studies as an academic discipline, although still marginal to mainstream disciplines, remains a critical focus within academic inquiry, although often under the title of gender studies.

Jewish women have played an impressive part in creating women’s studies as an academic discipline. Generally, because they operate on restrictive budgets, women’s studies programs are often considered marginal to mainstream liberal studies. This view, from the boundaries of conventional academic disciplines, provides women’s studies with the theoretical perspective of the “other.” The academic tension generated by its interdisciplinary perch and marginal placement creates the very conditions of women’s studies’ intellectual strength. Jewish women may be visible within the field of women’s studies because they have experienced the world from the margins, as women and as women within the Jewish tradition.

Jewish women have been critical not only as political activists and administrators, as editors and contributing editors of the key women’s studies journals, but also as prominent thinkers in the intellectual debates within the field of women’s studies. As heads of women’s studies programs, they help shape the angle of vision for scholarship, maintain the programs’ credibility on campuses through curricula and research development in the field, and support and recruit other scholars. Their efforts represent an immeasurable and often undervalued task on many campuses.

Scholarship in the First Phase of Feminist Women’s Studies

In her intellectual history of feminist thought, Hester Eisenstein outlines the chief argument of the first phase of women’s studies scholarship: The socially constructed differences in power and opportunity between the sexes were judged to be the chief source of female oppression. In this phase, discussions emphasized the distinctions between sex and gender (biology and the social construction of sex) and how to minimize differences between men and women. Eisenstein views the work in this early period as pointing, explicitly or implicitly, to the replacement of gender polarization with some form of androgyny. Carolyn Heilbrun’s Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1973) underscored this premise. As activist, educator, scholar, and publisher (the editor of Feminist Press), Florence Howe played a critical part in legitimating women’s studies scholarship by establishing a place for the publication of women’s studies monographs. Similarly, in 1981, Barbara Haber brought together the scholarly work of the first phase of second-wave feminism by editing The Woman’s Annual: 1980 Year in Review and Women in America: A Guide to Books, 1963–1975, with an Appendix on Books Published 1976–1979.

Pioneer work by psychologists such as Roz Barnett, Grace Baruch, Sandra Bem, Nancy Datan, Lois Hoffman, Alexandria Kaplan, Jean Lipman-Blumen, Martha Mednick, Sandra Tangri, and Rhoda Unger rooted women’s difference from men in the social psychological attributes and attitudes found in the cultural construction of femininity.

Whether a class, a caste, or a minority (Helen Mayer Hacker, in 1951, was among the first to discuss women as a minority group), women generally were described as a generic grouping despite differences in class, race, ethnicity, and/or nationality. Florence Howe saw this generic grouping as the groundwork for the field of women’s studies, since once defined as a group, women could then become an analytic category of study. The other premise of this first phase of women’s studies was that women’s experiences were different from those of men because of different educational and institutional opportunities, socialization processes, and the social constructions of “femininity” and “masculinity.” Janet Saltzman Chafetz was among the first to analyze, in 1974, the gender effects of early gender-role socialization. Differences focused on in this first phase were sociohistoric and/or social psychological in origin, not biological.

Liberal feminism of this period, first voiced and best expressed in Betty Friedan’s landmark The Feminine Mystique (1963), stressed the similarity between the sexes and the lack of equal opportunity to explain women’s poorer achievements in the public spheres of education and the labor market. Some of the major contributions to “liberal feminist” thinking in this initial stage of the second wave came from the social sciences, especially sociology and psychology. Although less interdisciplinary in their focus than their counterparts representing women’s studies journals, the editors, contributing editors, and consultants of such journals as Journal of Sex Roles, Psychology of Women Quarterly, and, later, Gender & Society have made important contributions to women’s studies scholarship by providing a critique of their respective disciplines through a gender analysis.

The pioneering work of several sociologists early in this first phase of women’s studies scholarship raised issues about the invisibility of women in research, scholarship, and the creation of theory and methodology. Scholars recognized that traditional definitions of knowledge were derived from, and set by, the experiences of men and a masculinist tradition of inquiry. Women’s studies as a discipline needed to focus on female experience, not only to expand knowledge but also to understand better how social life and behavior actually worked.

Pauline Bart recast research on menopause (and thereby on life cycle studies for both men and women) by focusing on role loss as more important than biological changes in explaining depression among midlife women. Preceding the “fear of success” research by more than a decade, as early as 1946 Mirra Komarovsky wrote of cultural contradictions and women’s roles, suggesting that women often had to “play dumb” to attract males. Cynthia Fuchs Epstein legitimated and made the study of gender pivotal in the sociology of the professions with her formative book, Woman’s Place (1970). This book gave new meaning and focus to the sociological adage that how people behave, feel, and what they “know” is affected by their particular location in the social structure. Epstein’s research focused on the social structure of the professions. Her network analysis of the “old boy” system launched scores of doctoral dissertations. Debra Renee Kaufman, coauthor of Achievement and Women, (1982), offered a critique of the sociological and psychological research on achievement by looking at the masculinist assumptions and techniques that legitimate the limited scope and findings about women and achievement in both disciplines. This book not only provided a critique of the disciplinary assumptions and methods that underestimated and undervalued women’s achievements but also anticipated the next phase of women’s studies scholarship, which criticized the American culture of competitive success.

Judith Lorber was the first coordinator of the CUNY Graduate School Women’s Studies Certificate Program, which began in 1988, and was among the first of such programs. Her first book, Women Physicians: Careers, Status and Power (Tavistock 1984) was a classic for those interested in the structural barriers for women in the professions. Shulamit Reinharz broke new ground with On Becoming a Social Scientist (1983), which laid the groundwork for her later work, Feminist Methods in Social Research (1992). In Another Voice: Feminist Perspectives on Social Life and Social Sciences (1975), Marcia Millman and Rosabeth Moss Kanter brought together work that posed some of the critical questions for sociology from a feminist perspective. By attending primarily to the formal, official action and actors in the social organization of social life, the editors argued that sociologists have ignored large chunks of social life. Contributors to this trailblazing anthology suggest that knowledge of the social world and social behavior could be expanded if we included the realities and interests of women in our social science theories, paradigms, substantive concerns, and methodologies. Summarizing her work on organizational theory and behavior, Kanter argues that sociologists had overlooked important support structures that house large cadres of women (secretaries, clerks, wives) in their analyses of organizational behavior. In addition, she noted that the male managerial model works against the upward mobility of female employees.

With the provocative title “She Did it All for Love: A Feminist View of the Sociology of Deviance” (1975), Marcia Millman demonstrates how the focus on dramatic events and incidents that occur in official locations have prevented sociologists from understanding the effects of deviance on victims, family members, and other individuals closely involved but having no place in formal procedures. Summarizing the work of Arlene Kaplan Daniels, the editors note how Daniels keeps her feminist politics and academic scholarship together by demanding that feminists not only do research on the conditions of women’s lives and the causes and consequences of their oppression but also identify how to improve the quality of their lives. Daniels and Rachel Kahn-Hut, her sometime coauthor, not only were vocal about the development of gender studies in the field of sociology but also focused on the relationship between the women’s movement and women’s studies scholarship.

For feminist political science scholars Berenice Carroll, Ethel Klein, and Virginia Sapiro, like the sociologists, the points of origin for differences between men and women were firmly located in the organization and institutionalized patterns of social life in both public and private spheres and/or in the assumptions inherent in the theories and methods used to measure those differences. Anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo anchors differences between the sexes in the sexual division of labor that associated women with “nature” and assigned them to the lesser-valued private sphere of life. In a critical anthology, Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975), Rayna Reiter Rapp marks the importance of the political uses of academic research, reiterating the need for new studies that focus on women because of the biases that have traditionally trivialized and misinterpreted female roles. Her goal is to “redefine the important questions, reexamine all previous theories, and be critical in ... [the] acceptance of what constitutes factual material.” The contributors to this volume, many of them Jewish women anthropologists, such as Lila Leibowitz and Ida Susser, address her cautions. For instance, Leibowitz examines the popular belief that the physical differences between the sexes are directly responsible for social-role differentiation, concluding that “biology is not social destiny, even for monkeys and apes.” Susser, in one of the first major urban ethnographies, offers an analysis of women’s grassroots organization on a neighborhood level. All the contributors offer a critical reanalysis of cultural and biological evolution, data on the productive roles of women, and the complexities of male supremacy.

This first phase of feminist thinking within the field of women’s studies was profoundly affected by women who had their political roots in the women’s movement and whose works set the stage for some of the key debates in the field and for feminist theory. Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1971), Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975), and Andrea Dworkin’s Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (1976) were central to the first phase of women’s studies scholarship and feminist theory in that they addressed the relationship among women’s reproductive roles, sexual violence, and the physical and psychological oppression of women. Dworkin stressed that sexual violence enables men to control women. All put forward a radical, historical critique of reproduction and sexual violence that highlights the extent to which reproduction and sexual violence are a result of masculine social power, not female biology.

Early Feminist Academic Journals

Similarly, many of the women responsible for editing the first feminist academic journals and airing some of the major debates were not only tied closely to the feminist movement and the New Left publishing model but also were central in defining the discipline and the content of women’s studies within the university. In 1981, Annette Kolodny won the Modern Language Association’s Florence Howe Award for her article with the political point that academic journals must stay responsible to the community of feminists outside the academy as well as within. The National Women’s Studies Association Journal, founded in 1988, best expresses the ambivalence, exemplified in the voice of Robin Leidner, about the conflicts between feminist activism and feminist scholarship within women’s studies.

Frontiers, Feminist Studies, and SIGNS were among the three earliest academic journals that covered, through an interdisciplinary perspective, feminist scholarship and research throughout the field of women’s studies. Perhaps because it initially drew on women from a consciousness-raising group organized around Columbia University’s women’s liberation group, a women’s studies lecture series at Sarah Lawrence College, and community activists in New York City, Feminist Studies has since its inception had a clear presence of Jewish editors, contributing editors, and consultants. Its association with the prestigious Berkshire Conferences on the History of Women makes it the leading publication of social history and materialist feminist analysis. Therefore, it is not surprising that its editorial staff was primarily staffed by historians or historical sociologists who had their roots in the New Left.

The politically informed scholarship of Marxist-oriented social historians in the pages of Feminist Studies was best formulated by such scholars as Nancy Cott, Linda Gordon, Robin Miller Jacoby, Alice Kessler-Harris, Gerda Lerner, Sherry Ortner, Rosalind Petchesky, Elaine Showalter, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Judith Stacey. All later published their work with mainstream scholarly presses and became leading women’s studies scholars in their respective fields. They focused on such issues as the division of labor into public and private spheres, the family as a unit of production, housework and mothering as unpaid labor, and society’s control of female sexuality and reproduction. Even those who were not historians emphasized how women’s experiences and oppression were shaped by their relations to historically specific contexts.

Frontiers, founded in 1975, had as its mission to heal the breach between feminists in the university and in the community. Renee Horowitz was on the founding editorial collective. Initially, Frontiers was characterized as regional (the West); however, its focus on community and regional interests led to two very important special issues on women’s oral history. In 1977, the first volume was published under special guest editor, Sherna Gluck. Its success prompted “Women’s Oral History Two” in 1983, with a contribution by Sydney Stahl Weinberg about the world of Jewish immigrant women. Frontiers consistently underscored the diversity of female experience, especially from the lesbian perspective, and in 1979, guest editor Judith Schwarz did a special issue on lesbian history.

In 1973, the University of Chicago Press published a special issue of the American Journal of Sociology entitled “Changing Women in a Changing Society.” Impressed with the number of copies sold, the press agreed to publish SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. From its inception, the editors wanted academic recognition and legitimization for feminist scholarship. The first editor of SIGNS used the Barnard, Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Rutgers, and New York City network of feminist scholars. The editorial staff reflects the clear presence of Jewish women: Sandra L. Bem, Jessie Bernard, Barbara R. Bergmann, Francine Blau, Joan Burstyn, Nancy Chodorow, Natalie Zemon Davis, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Estelle B. Freedman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Linda Gordon, Carolyn Heilbrun, Lois Wladis Hoffman, Florence Howe, Mirra Komarovsky, Gerda Lerner, Ruth B. Mandel, Ruth Barcan Marcus, Elaine Marks, Ellen Messer-Davidow, Hanna Papanek, Harriet Presser, Estelle R. Ramey, Rayna Rapp, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, Margaret K. Roseheim, Neena B. Schwartz, Elaine Showalter, Myra Strober, Sheila Tobias, Gaye Tuchman (guest associate), Naomi Weisstein, and Froma Zeitlin.

The Second Phase of the Second Wave

  • Adrienne Rich view larger

    The impact of Adrienne Rich on poetry in America since the second half of the twentieth century has been enormous. Too richly talented to be ignored by the literary establishment, she was at the same time too politically oriented to be comfortably digested.

    Institution: Steven Barclay Agency

    view details
  • Carol Gilligan view larger

    Harvard University's first professor of gender studies, psychologist Carol Gilligan is the author of In a Different Voice, a landmark study showing how the inclusion of women changes the traditional paradigm of human psychology.

    view details
  • Aviva Cantor view larger

    The co-founder and editor of the independent Jewish feminist publication, Lilith, and author of the Egalitarian Hagada, Aviva Cantor is a woman of wide-ranging passions and achievements.

    Photographer: Amy F.J. Stone.

    Institution: Aviva Cantor.

    view details
  • Paula Hyman view larger
    Social historian Paula Hyman.
    Courtesy of Michael Marsland/Yale Univeristy. view details
  • Adrienne Rich
  • Carol Gilligan
  • Aviva Cantor
  • Paula Hyman

By the mid-1970s, the debates considered central to feminist thinking shifted. Feminist thinking adopted a woman-centered focus that located specific virtues in the historical and psychological experiences of women. Describing this as the beginning of the second phase of the second wave, Hester Eisenstein notes that instead of seeking to minimize the polarization between masculine and feminine, current scholarship sought to isolate and to define those aspects of female experience that were potential sources of strength and power for women. In contrast to the first phase, where differences between the sexes were seen as an obstacle to achievement and as a means of keeping women in their devalued and domestic place, this second phase viewed female differences as positive.

Two books helped to usher in this woman-centered focus: Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness (1972) and Gerda Lerner’s The Majority Finds Its Past (1979). In addition, Adrienne Rich, a lesbian feminist poet and philosopher, transformed feminist thinking with her writings on sexuality and mothering. In Of Woman Born (1976), she directs our attention to the difference between institutionalized motherhood and mothering. Unlike some feminists, she saw a woman’s capacity to bear children as a strength rather than an incapacity. In her work on sexuality, she builds on Simone de Beauvoir’s premise that women are originally homosexual, then argues that women’s experience, history, culture, and values are distinct from the dominant patriarchal and heterosexual culture.

With the publication of Reproduction of Mothering (1978), Nancy Chodorow became one of the most influential feminist psychoanalytic theorists of sexual difference. Chodorow argues that the mother is the central element in identity formation. Given female parenting, girls develop relational capacities by internalizing the role of caring and by identifying with their mothers. Boys, on the other hand, learn to reject the female aspects of themselves such as nurturing and empathy in order to adopt a masculine gender identity. Adult women are able to empathize with other people’s needs and feelings, whereas men develop a defensive desire for autonomy based on the abstract model of the absent father. Chodorow revises Freudian theory by focusing on mother relations, not the Oedipus complex, to explain gender differences.

Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982) explores moral development theory from a woman-centered perspective and introduces new thinking about the place of care within a moral developmental framework focusing solely on abstract concepts of justice. Her work brings into focus the methodological biases and the conceptual weaknesses of moral developmental theories based on traditional male interests and formulations.

In the introduction to The Future of Difference, Hester Eisenstein notes that this woman-centered perspective raises questions about “maleness” and “femaleness.” Citing the work of Dorothy Dinnerstein, Eisenstein asks if “masculinity” is an “outmoded, or even a dangerous construct.” Eisenstein argues that the move toward a woman-centered perspective had a liberating effect on many women’s studies scholars, encouraging them “to contemplate the varieties of female experience.”

A spate of books in this period addressed varieties of women’s experiences, including religious differences. Older works were recovered for use in women’s studies courses. The Jewish Woman in America (1976) by Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel and, later, the readings from On Being a Jewish Feminist (1983) edited by Susannah Heschel were incorporated into women’s studies curricula and syllabi. Womanspirit Rising (1979), an important feminist reader in religion, with contributions from Aviva Cantor, Naomi Goldenberg, Rita Gross, Naomi Janowitz, Judith Plaskow, and Maggie Wenig, as well as Carol Ochs’s Women and Spirituality (1983) became widely used in introductory women’s studies courses.

In the spring of 1980, Feminist Studies published a scholarly debate entitled “Politics and Culture in Women’s History” that was important to the second phase of women’s studies scholarship. While addressing the nineteenth-century “female homosocial world,” it raised the controversial question about the origins of feminism and whether it could develop outside of a female world. This symposium marked the beginning of a host of debates about “women’s culture” in academic journals. Some feared that the affirmation of gender differences and the celebration of traditionally feminine qualities, particularly those associated with mothering, might obscure the power differences between the sexes and the fight against male domination.

The shift from the first to the second phase of contemporary feminist thought is highlighted further in the sexuality debates of the 1980s. A major conference at Barnard College in 1982, “The Scholar and the Feminist IX: Toward a Politics of Sexuality,” clarified some of the key splits among feminists on the issue of sexuality. The event featured forty participants who represented a wide variety of analytic perspectives, including the two polarized critiques that had evolved from the radical insights of sexual politics in the 1960s. One analyzed how patriarchy shapes female sexuality, extending this analysis of male dominance to include rape, degrading images of women in advertising, the myth of the vaginal orgasm, and pornography. The second explored female sexuality when free of patriarchal distortion and looked to alternative expressions of female sexuality and erotica.

The Third Phase of Women’s Studies Scholarship

The debates in the late 1980s anticipate the third phase of women’s studies scholarship in which several interrelated issues become paramount: woman as a universal category, multiculturalism, and how to link feminism to other existing or emerging sociopolitical approaches and poststructuralist criticism. Similarities between feminist and poststructuralist analysis came in the recognition of the links between the public and private realms of experience, of the existence and authority of patriarchy, and of women’s voice in the construction of the cultural categories of female and male. However, poststructuralism questions the category of woman as a unit of analysis, thereby undercutting the field of women’s studies. In the important anthology Feminism/Postmodernism (1990), theorists critical in formulating the points of tension and accord between postmodernism and feminism frame the debates. Feminists prominent in the fields of philosophy, literary theory, Romance languages, and history, such as Annette Kolodny and Susan Mosher Stuard, are among spokespersons for the arguments in this third phase of the second wave of feminist scholarship. Wini Breines brings together many of these approaches in her book, Young, White and Miserable: Women in the 1950s (1992).

New journals, such as differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies and Genders, address the need to incorporate analyses from poststructuralism, cultural studies, and critical studies into feminist analysis. For differences editor Naomi Schor, the title connotes not so much “pluralism” as “multiple subjectivities.” The use of difference as a form of cultural criticism rather than the focus on woman or gender as the unit of analysis characterizes this turn in the third phase of feminist scholarship. Genders focuses on constructions of gender within the arts and humanities as its principal concern. Each journal reconfigures the category of woman. Joan Wallach Scott, another differences editor, theorizes that gender signifies relationships of power. Literary theorist Rita Felski observes that “feminism as a critique of values is also engaged in a more general and public process of revising and refuting male-defined cultural and discursive frameworks.” Moving away from a thematized focus on women to gender opens the field of women’s studies to investigations of male subjectivities and the construction of male-defined culture. The debates raise the provocative question of whether women’s subjective position will remain the privileged focus for women’s studies analysis.

The meaning and the use of the term feminist and the question of what constitutes feminist scholarship provide the basis of an ongoing discussion about the range of theories and methods that belong to women’s studies. Jewish women have contributed significantly to this unrestricted field of study, which is continuously making and remaking itself.


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Baum, Charlotte, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel. The Jewish Woman in America (1976).

Bernard, Jesse. “My Four Revolutions: An Autobiographical History of the ASA.” American Journal of Sociology (1973): 791–804.

Breines, Wini. Young, White and Miserable: Women in the 1950s (1992).

Broverman, I., et al. “Sex Role Stereotypes: A Current Appraisal.” Journal of Social Issues (1972): 59–78.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975).

Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. Masculine/Feminine or Human? (1974).

Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness (1972).

Chodorow, Nancy. Reproduction of Mothering (1978).

Christ, Carol, and Judith Plaskow. Womanspirit Rising (1979).

Davidman, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism (1991).

Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976).

Dworkin, Andrea. Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (1976).

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How to cite this page

Kaufman, Debra Renee. "Women's Studies in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 26, 2021) <>.