Trailblazers in Jewish Feminism

Jewish on Campus Journal Staff
March 1, 2024

The tapestry of history is woven with stories of remarkable women who challenged the status quo. Among these trailblazers, Jewish feminists stand out for their courageous efforts to bridge the gap between tradition and equality. Their stories testify to the power of determined individuals to effect change, inspiring future generations.

Known as the “mother” of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan ignited the second wave of feminism with her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Friedan analyzed the prevailing societal pressures that confined women to narrow roles as wives and mothers, perpetuating a myth that this was their sole source of identity and fulfillment. She asserted that women deserved more than a life confined to homemaking and domesticity, catalyzing a movement that championed equality, self-discovery, and women’s liberation from stifling gender norms. Friedan’s Jewish identity ignited her spark: “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 the 1960s and 1970s, Gloria Steinem became a leader of the second-wave feminist movement Friedan spurred. Steinem first gained attention for going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, writing an article exposing the grueling work conditions, especially the sexual demands. She co-founded Ms. magazine in 1971. The first issue alone tackled reproductive rights, discontent with housewifery, “de-sexing” the English language, and more, initiating conversations society had long ignored. Beyond serious issues, it blended pop culture and humor to resonate with diverse audiences, making feminism accessible and engaging. Steinem’s work didn’t end with Ms.; she co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Women’s Political Caucus, helped establish Take Our Daughters to Work Day, and co-founded the Women’s Media Center. Like Friedan, Jewish identity was a catalyst for Steinem. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “She considers herself an outsider and sees Jews as the quintessential out-group, and because she feels drawn to the spirituality and social justice agenda of Jewish feminism.”

Judy Chicago emerged as a prominent artist in the late 1960s and 1970s. Her most famous work, “The Dinner Party,” is a triangular table with place settings for iconic, history-making women, featuring intricate ceramic plates adorned with intricate vulvar forms, symbolizing the essence of womanhood. Beyond “The Dinner Party," Chicago’s oeuvre encompasses a wide range of artistic mediums, including painting, sculpture, and printmaking, all united by her unwavering commitment to exploring the female experience. Her “Birth Project” series highlights the intimate connection between women and creation by depicting the act of childbirth in various artistic forms. Chicago’s influence extends beyond her artwork itself; in 1971, she co-founded the first feminist art program in the United States at Fresno State College. Unlike Steinem and Friedan, Jewish identity wasn’t formative in Chicago’s feminism but rather something she found later. She went on to make art commemorating the Holocaust and has made kiddush cups, matzah covers, and seder plates.

Not all contributors to Jewish feminism have been so recognizably direct. There are Jewish women who, through their work in fields other than feminism, have still managed to promote female empowerment – whether directly or indirectly. Purim icon Esther is often regarded as a feminist icon for challenging gender norms at the time, in which women had little power or autonomy over their fate. Ruth is viewed as a champion of women both in academia and generally. For these women, existing and thriving alone was an act of defiance against a patriarchal society, making them just as feminist as Friedan, Steinem, and Chicago, even if it wasn’t a concept in Biblical times. “Indirect” Jewish feminists have also had a significant impact on the modern world.

Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Initially focused on providing healthcare services and medical aid to Jewish communities in pre-state Israel, Hadassah evolved into a massive force. Over a century later, Hadassah has over 300,000 members and associates in 700 chapters present in all American states. The organization continues its health focus in Israel but has expanded to advocate for women’s reproduction rights in America, healthy US-Israeli relations, and religious autonomy. Szold’s feminism bled into her religious practices as well. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Upon her mother’s death in 1916, Szold insisted on saying Kaddish, despite the traditional view that only sons can fulfill this duty.”

It’s difficult to talk about Jewish feminism without mentioning Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972; the organization “empowers poor women, women of color and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality.” She was confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court in 1993, making her the second-ever woman and first-ever Jewish woman to hold the position. In the case of United States v. Virginia (1996), she authored the majority opinion that the male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute was unconstitutional. Although Ginsburg expressed dissatisfaction with the non-egalitarian nature of traditional Judaism, she was proud of her Jewish identity, which shaped and magnified her lifelong pursuit of equality. “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said in a 2004 speech at the National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”

The modern era has been graced with plenty of Jewish feminists—and in many cases, these women often don’t just happen to be feminist and Jewish, but instead, these identities are intrinsically connected. Their stories remind us that the fight for gender equality—and equality as a whole, including the fight against antisemitism—is not just a matter of individual concern but a collective endeavor that spans time, tradition, and any boxed-in identity.

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