The first generation Jewish feminists

In a new research paper, Prof. Pamela Nadell looks at the intrepid Jewish women who fought for equality.

JEWISH WOMEN played a prominent role in the feminist movement in America, with figures like Polish-Jewish immigrant Ernestine Potowski Rose and Betty Friedan prime examples of such (photo credit: REUTERS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
JEWISH WOMEN played a prominent role in the feminist movement in America, with figures like Polish-Jewish immigrant Ernestine Potowski Rose and Betty Friedan prime examples of such
NEW YORK – Were it not for American Jewish women, the feminist revolution of the 1960s would have been a very different affair according to a new report commissioned by University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, which traced the history of Jewish women in the movement.
According to the document, the lineup of Jewish women in the forefront of the movement is “astounding” and dates back to the mid-19th century, when the woman suffrage movement launched in the United States.
American University professor Pamela Nadell, who wrote the report, specializes in American Jewish history and women’s history. She has written several books on the topic, including her most well-known one, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination.
Pamela Nadell (American University)Pamela Nadell (American University)
Nadell, currently writing a book about American Jewish women, began working with the program about two years ago, after she took part in the organization’s program for American Jewish studies and taught as a visiting professor at the University of Haifa.
“I thought this was an important topic to understand: how feminism shaped American life in the second half of the 20th century, and then specifically to understand Jewish women’s connections to it and also leadership,” she told The Jerusalem Report.
In her research, which will also be published in Hebrew in Israel and will be distributed in universities, libraries and to more than 500 Israeli policy makers across the country, Nadell lays out the historical timeline of the feminist movement through its first and second wave, focusing on the Jewish women’s rights activists who helped lead it.
This includes figures like Polish- Jewish immigrant Ernestine Potowski Rose, who won acclaim in the 19th century for calling for married women’s property rights and women’s suffrage; and Betty Friedan, who in 1963 wrote The Feminine Mystique, considered a key trigger to the second wave of American feminism in the 20th century.
Nadell explained that for these women, the fight for equal rights often overshadowed any expression or affiliation with their Jewish identity.
“I think for many of the feminists in the mainstream on the American side, their Jewish identities were not salient to them at that point in time,” she said. “It wasn’t the most important thing for them.
“It’s only later when we look back, that we see an extraordinary number of Jewish names,” Nadell continued.
“I think it had to do with their education, their resources – but also their sense of Jewish marginality.
Gender and women’s rights were so much more important than the Jewish aspects.”
In general, Nadell explained, religion itself is only a small part of the Jewish identity of American Jews.
Being an American Jew is much more of a cultural, ethnic and communal element. This was also the sentiment of Jewish feminists active in the movement.
But to their sorrow and anger, Jewish feminists also confronted vitriolic antisemitism and anti-Israelism in the international women’s movement.
Those face-offs, the paper states, caused some in the first generation of Jewish feminists, who, in the past, were either antagonistic or indifferent to Jewish particularity, to recognize Jewish difference and reconnect.
“Betty Friedan grows up a very assimilated Jew and doesn’t have a lot of religious Jewish content in her life, but she recalls these experiences growing up where she experiences exclusion as a Jew. That experience of exclusion in one way that leads her to see exclusion in another way,” Nadell detailed.
Some of the Jewish women’s rights activists who encountered antisemitism decided at the time to reach out to Israeli women for support.
According to the Ruderman report, interplay between Israeli and American feminists continues today, especially around shared concerns, such as those affecting Orthodox women and the struggle of the Women of the Wall to win the right to pray at the Kotel.
Back in the 1960s, when the feminist movement burst out in American life, after women started questioning traditional gender roles, the report explains that Jewish feminism became an offshoot of this new wave.
“Judaism, by no means the only religion confronting the feminist critique, did so in multifarious ways,” Nadell wrote. “Jewish feminists demanded religious equality in their synagogues, amendments to religious law that disadvantaged women and access to religious leadership.”
While the laws of Judaism may have not, at their core, been favorable to feminist goals, Nadell believes change within the religious realm is possible.
According to her, ordaining of women in religious leaders’ positions, which has flourished in recent years, is a perfect example.
“Jewish law has never been static; it has always, across the millennia, adapted and changed. It has always been influenced by the worlds in which the Jews lived,” Nadell told the Report. “It’s possible that there could be change. One needs to adapt and to work within the structures of Jewish law.
“If you think of Judaism in terms of religion, it runs on an enormous spectrum from right to left. From the humanistic Jews all the way on the left, to the far right, where you get to all the branches of the haredi world – that’s where those battles are fought over how one interprets Judaism.
According to her, the Ruderman- sponsored research is of particular importance in the United States and beyond today, as the topic has been on the forefront of the political scene for the past year, since the presidential campaign begun unfolding.
“We haven’t finished the feminist revolution, especially in the United States at the moment. We have probably the whitest, most male cabinet that we’ve seen in decades.
We are also at a moment in the United States where we could well see a rollback or even further erosion on access to abortion, issues crucial for the future of the country.”
Recently, however, women have begun organizing again, as was seen around the time of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, when some million women joined women’s marches across the United States.
“What’s important about women organizing now and what was important about the feminist movement in the period that I talked about historically, is that it’s not a single-issue movement,” Nadell pointed out. “It has multiple and conflicting goals. There are people who believe there should be abortion rights, and there are women who believe women should not have access to abortion.
“So it’s not like the women’s suffrage movement, where once women have the right to vote, then everything will be okay. This is different. It’s a constellation.”
Nadell made clear that the new generation of American feminists has expanded the agenda beyond the original feminist goals, which included equal pay, equal access to the workplace and equality within marriage.
“This generation has really extended the critique of American society to consider racism, disability rights, the notion of American society really being a guarantor of equality for all in the law. That’s an enormous agenda, and it’s one that feminists can contribute to advancing.”