‘Jewish Radical Feminism’
Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement By Joyce Antler (New York University Press. 433 pp. $35)
It was the elephant in the room: One couldn’t help noticing that among the leaders of the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a large proportion were Jewish. Yet they often hid that part of their identity from others and from themselves. For example, among the 12 founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which published the Our Bodies, Ourselves series, eight were Jewish—but their Jewishness went unremarked until much later.
Joyce Antler, professor emerita of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University, wondered why the Jewish component of these women’s identities had received so little attention. In 2011, she convened a conference on “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity,” bringing together some 40 activists in the general women’s liberation movement or in the feminist movement within Judaism. Out of that conference came this book, which delves into the life stories of these participants and the many faces of Jewish feminism.
Antler intertwines individual biographies with the broad outlines of the movement’s growth and ideological shifts. There are several different arcs: Some were early secular radicals who discovered Jewish roots to their social activism later in life. Some, such as the members of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, found that their feminism was informed by their Judaism, and so, for instance, they celebrated seders together for many years. Others, like Arlene Agus, co-founder in 1971 of Ezrat Nashim, the first American Jewish feminist organization, and Blu Greenberg, who went on to found the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in 1997, were deeply knowledgeable Jews who began to challenge the patriarchy and sexism of Jewish religious life. For some, the Holocaust played an important role in their identification with the oppressed and their belief in standing up for the freedom of others
The battles to be fought varied from religious movement to movement, but the women whom Antler calls “identified Jewish feminists” changed Judaism itself over the next 45 years. They became rabbis and cantors, rediscovered Rosh Hodesh as a women’s holiday, wrote new prayer books, created feminist seders and challenged the male-dominated Jewish establishment. These changes in culture and in ritual could have been explored more fully.
But Antler has so much material to cover—including lesbian Jews, political activists like Bella Abzug and transnational Jewish feminists with one foot in America and one in Israel. The canvas grows wider and the stakes higher as Antler dissects the global aspects of feminism during the three United Nations-sponsored conferences on women in Mexico City, Copenhagen and Nairobi, from 1975 to 1985. There, contentious resolutions equating Zionism with racism distorted the goals of the conferences and dashed hopes for feminist unity. Activists such as Phyllis Chesler, Betty Friedan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and E.M. Broner had to confront the anti-Semitism inherent in the anti-Zionist resolutions and find strategic ways to combat it. They suddenly found their Jewish and feminist identities in conflict and, in Pogrebin’s words, wondered whether “feminism might be helping to empower some women who hate Jews.” Antler notes that the anti-Zionism of those conferences motivated Hadassah to get involved, to reach out to other women’s organizations and to absorb feminist perspectives into its own agenda.
This book is extensively documented, both from archival sources and through in-depth conversations with the living protagonists. It is fortunate that Antler undertook her research now, before the hard-won gains of second-wave Jewish feminists are taken for granted. Jewish feminism may have come a long way, but, as the #MeToo movement has shown, there is still far to go.
Roselyn Bell is co-editor of the JOFA Journal. She recently completed her M.A. in Jewish studies from Rutgers University.