First Second Wave Jewish Feminist Conference in North America Begins
In February 1973, 500 women gathered in the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan for the first second-wave Jewish feminist conference in North America. Speakers and attendees discussed Jewish religious observance, issues of sexuality, duties of community service, inequality in Jewish movement organizations, and experiences of growing up in Jewish families. The conference brought Jewish women of many backgrounds together under a shared feminist identity.
The struggle experienced by many Jewish women gathered at the McAlpin was expressed by speaker Judith Plaskow, then a young student of theology. “The identity of the Jewish woman,” Plaskow asserted, “lies somewhere in the conflict between being a woman and being a Jew and in the necessity of combining the two in yet unbeknown ways.” Many women searching for a connection to Judaism, despite its apparent contradictions of feminist ideals, left the conference with a new perspective: The fight against sexism could be strengthened by uniting as Jewish women.
The conference was organized by Shreyl Baron Nestel, who noted that the national response made it clear “that we were riding the wave of an important cultural and political ‘moment.’” Although the conference was organized by the left-leaning North American Jewish Students’ Network, it gained support from members of religious feminist groups such as Ezrat Nashim and radical secular feminist groups, such as Brooklyn Bridge and the Jewish Liberation Project.
At the time of the conference, the divide between “secular feminists” and “religious feminists” seemed irreconcilable. However, keynote speaker Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg observed that the conference provided women with a “major portal into Judaism.” For the women who were not particularly affiliated with Judaism, it empowered efforts to bridge the expanse between feminist and Jewish identities.
Critics have argued that the conference failed to address non-mainstream groups, including gay and lesbian Jews, and that its cost rendered it inaccessible. Nevertheless, it generated dialogue that fueled efforts by many Jewish feminist movements today to include all in the feminist fight.
Gordon, Maralee. “A Beginning.” Chutzpah: A Jewish Liberation Journal, 1973; https://jwa.org/sites/default/files/jwa054b.pdf.
Antler, Joyce. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Antler, Joyce. “‘We Are Well Educated Jewishly . . . and We Are Going to Press You’: Jewish Feminists Challenge Religious Patriarchy.” In Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: New York University Press.
Jewish Women’s Archive. “Sheryl Baron Nestel.” https://jwa.org/feminism/nestel-sheryl-baron.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "First Second Wave Jewish Feminist Conference in North America Begins." (Viewed on March 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/feb/16/1973/first-second-wave-jewish-feminist-conference-north-america-begins>.