Jewish Girls Make the Grade
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Mikayla?” my father-in-law recently asked my 5-year-old daughter at dinner.
How she or her 9-year-old sister, Araya, answers his question reveals a great deal about their gender ideology, a term that sociologists like me use for a set of beliefs that guides various life choices, including education, career and family. These ideologies even encompass religion, something that was reinforced in the results of my latest research, published earlier this year in the paper “From Bat Mitzvah to the Bar: Religious Habitus, Self-Concept and Women’s Educational Outcomes,” in the American Sociological Review.
For Jewish girls like my daughters, it turns out, being raised in Jewish homes (that are not haredi) will make them 23 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than girls with a non-Jewish upbringing. Furthermore, girls raised by two Jewish parents—and, to a lesser degree, by one Jewish parent—tend to graduate from more selective colleges than their non-Jewish peers.
We have come a long way from the 1950s, when the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of 10 women, in a class of over 500, at Harvard Law School. The question for Jewish parents and researchers alike is, what’s so special about Judaism?
Here’s a hint: It has to do with egalitarianism.
Higher education has long played a central role in the lives of American Jews, especially as they transitioned from a group of low-wage, blue-collar immigrants to one of high-wage, white-collar suburbanites in the 20th century.
Between 1910 and 1970, the American workforce changed drastically as people shifted to office work and management. However, Jews—overwhelmingly men—moved up the occupational ladder more rapidly than other ethnic and religious groups. By 1990, 67 percent were in high-level occupations, defined as either “professional” or “management” roles.
This rapid rise affected women, too. By the third generation in America, Jewish women were nearly as well educated as Jewish men; a substantial proportion had professional careers; and two-career couples had become the norm for young Jewish families.
By the time Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986, women accounted for about 40 percent of all students in law schools across America. (In 2003, Kagan was the first woman to become dean of Harvard Law School.)
Looking back at the mid-20th century, there were a host of factors that channeled women into domestic responsibilities while men went to school, perhaps chief among them the G.I. Bill that sent millions of American men to college after World War II. Universities like Yale and Princeton didn’t admit women until 1969, and several universities limited Jewish enrollment, which made it even harder for Jewish women to access higher education. It is therefore no surprise that in the most recent Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, conducted in 2020, men over age 65 are 15 percentage points more likely to have completed college than women over 65.
But in the past few decades, this trend has reversed. Not only have Jewish women caught up to Jewish men, they have now surpassed them. Seventy-two percent of Jewish women ages 30 to 49 have completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 63 percent of Jewish men.
The same trend is evident with graduate degrees. Jewish women 30 to 49 are 10 percentage points more likely to have completed graduate school than men. Today, women account for over 54 percent of students in law school—just 66 years after Ginsburg and her fellow female classmates at Harvard made up .02 percent of the class of 1956. (Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year, graduating in 1959.)
Religious culture is a powerful force. In America, Judaism outside of ultra-Orthodoxy tends to be more egalitarian than other religious groups, especially conservative Protestants. Jewish parents actively teach and model to their sons and daughters that they can have a career.
I got some personal insight into egalitarian gender ideologies when I overheard my daughter Araya, who was 6 at the time, playing “family” with another girl. “You can’t just be a mommy,” she told her friend. “You have to do something else to help the world.”
How did my daughter come to believe that motherhood comes alongside something else rather than instead of something else?
When I thought about the women whom Araya knew—myself, my mother, my sisters, my friends—I realized that in addition to our parenting, we all have careers as professors, computer scientists, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. No one had ever explicitly talked to my daughter about balancing motherhood with a career, but she had observed that this is simply what we do.
That balance may seem like an obvious choice for Jewish readers, but it is not necessarily what all women in America want. Many have jobs because they need the paycheck. But a career is not the same as a job. A career refers to a holistic set of experiences, training programs and jobs. Careers often require graduate degrees and education, such as law or medical school or Ph.D. coursework.
I sometimes feel guilty when I travel for business or work in the evenings. But studies, including my own research, show that girls admire their working mothers. Indeed, by demonstrating that women can have careers alongside motherhood, we encourage our daughters to transfer the success they have achieved in the classroom into the boardroom, or wherever their career aspirations take them.
Ilana M. Horwitz is an assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology at Tulane University, where she holds the Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life.