Women's Liberation and Jewish Feminism after 1968: Multiple Pathways to Gender Equality.

Author:Antler, Joyce

Jewish feminists played a major role in the awakening that resulted from "the Jewish 1968." The bold actions and reimaginations of radical Jewish feminists, Zionist feminists, religious Jewish feminists, lesbian Jewish feminists, and many other Jewish women offer a diverse legacy that has enriched Jewish life and tradition in multiple ways.

In acknowledging our debt to these women, we must also credit the second-wave feminist activists whose pioneering movement allowed Jewish feminists to situate their own rebellions. Many of these women liberationists of the second wave--or radical feminists, as they were also called--were Jewish, although they did not often claim their identities publicly. But they are a significant part of the ferment that set the Jewish counterculture in motion. While women liberationists did not specifically rebel against the Jewish patriarchy, their connections to Jewish values helped to shape the legacies of "the Jewish 1968" by enabling the gender revolution that profoundly transformed American life.

Radical feminists helped to provide the theoretical underpinnings and models for radical action that were seized upon and imitated throughout this country and abroad. Their articles and books became classics of the movement, and led the way into new cultural and political understanding in academe, politics, and grassroots organizing. Even a partial honor roll of Jewish women's liberation pioneers needs to include such figures as Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman, Naomi Weisstein, Heather Booth, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn Webb, Meredith Tax, Andrea Dworkin, Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Ann Snitow, Marge Piercy, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and many others.

I consider the women's liberationists who were born Jewish (or who converted to Judaism) and the more Jewishly identified "Jewish feminists" as part of a continuum of Jewish activism and feminist rebellion, with different but sometimes coalescing roots and outcomes. Despite divergences, both groups of feminists helped to establish the "1968" legacies with which we still grapple. (1)

The women's movement acted as a crucible for change in society at large and also in the Jewish community, providing opportunities to channel values inherited from Jewish tradition, especially those promoting social justice and tikkun olam. For many women, feminism opened the door to activism by critiquing feelings of marginality that Jewish women had experienced growing up. Yet like the white women who went south on Freedom Rides in the 1960s, most radical feminists did not self-consciously identify as Jews. (2) At a time when the vision of a common sisterhood took primacy within the movement, the claims of any particular ethnic or religious group, especially one identified with white privilege, could not hold sway. Even when radical feminists acknowledged their Jewish roots in a manner that historian Matthew Frye Jacobson identifies as part of a wider ethnic revival, they refrained from explicitly asserting that ancestral inheritances drove the momentum for change. (3)

Movement activists especially held back from making such a connection. "Our identification with the outside world, in opposition to our parents' narrow ... views, was rebellious and progressive, a response against the broader society's divisions by ethnicity and religion," says Vivian Rothstein, a founder of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), "Why would we identify ourselves as Jews when we wanted to promote a vision of internationalism and interfaith and interracial solidarity?" "We identified as universalists," agrees Paula Doress-Worters of the Boston Women's Health Collective, "We were afraid of seeing ourselves as too driven by our particularities; it wouldn't have been proper to call ourselves radical Jews. But that is exactly what we were." (4)

As opposed to historians' acknowledgment of the salience of Jewish women in earlier social movements, their prominence within radical feminism has failed to attract much attention. General histories of second-wave feminism, including those by Sara Evans, Alice Echols, Ruth Rosen, and Susan Brownmiller, do not identify the contributions of Jewish women to the women's liberation movement. Similarly, Benita Roth's study of the racial/ethnic components of feminism does not accord a place to Jewish women. Nor does Winifred Breines' study of black and white women in second-wave feminism. Breines refers to many radical feminists who are Jewish, but the identification is not made and the category not explored. (5) The invisibility of Jewish women as general feminists is a problem within American Jewish history as well, according to David Hollinger, exemplifying the dominance of a "communalist" approach (related to events, persons and trends in the Jewish world) as opposed to "dispersionist" patterns (activities of Jews in the wider social and political world). Hollinger argues that enhanced attention to the Jewish demography of modern feminism would enrich narratives of American Jewish history and help to integrate them more fully into mainstream United States history. (6)

Jewish Women and the Women's Liberation Movement

Women's liberation can be distinguished from its predecessor, the more moderate, "equal rights" wing of second-wave feminism that developed in the early 1960s and which was manifest in groups like the National Organization for Women. The women's liberation movement, generally made up of younger women in their twenties, disdained liberal feminists' legalistic approaches as too accepting of the status quo, calling instead for a full restructuring of society and culture, including the abolition of normative gender roles and--for some leading radical feminists-of the family and gender itself. Organization profiles, strategies, and tactics also differed. Based in organizations like NOW and state commissions for equal rights, liberal feminists pursued such traditional forms of protest as lobbying, picketing, marches, and lawsuits. Women's liberationists joined more fluid, "amoeba'Mike consciousness-raising groups, creating theory that brought together the "personal and the political." (7) Although by the mid-1970s strategies and ideas of the two branches came to converge, different orientations remained, often across a generational divide.

Shulamith Firestone, a young Orthodox Jew from the Midwest, helped to initiate Chicago's West Side Group, considered the first women's liberation group in the United States, in 1967. Soon afterwards, she moved to New York City and organized three important groups in New York City with other collaborators. Firestone edited and wrote for the movement's influential newsletter, Notes from the First Year. In 1970, when she was only 25, she penned the bold theoretical work, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. In writer and movement participant Susan Brownmiller's words, Firestone was an "unidentified comet," a "studious, nearsighted yeshiva girl" who transformed herself into a "fearless dynamo ... consumed by a feminist vision." (8)

Firestone had been an architect of a major foundational event of the women's liberation movement. During a convention of the National Conference for New Politics, held in Chicago on Labor Day weekend, 1967, a women's caucus met for days, framing a minority report that called for free abortion and birth control, an overhaul of marriage, divorce, and property laws, and an end to sexual stereotyping in the media. But the conference chair refused to let Firestone and Jo Freeman, the women's caucus representatives, speak, "literally patting [Firestone] on the head" and telling her, "Cool down, little girl ... we have more important things to do here than talk about women's problems." "Shulie didn't cool down," Freeman reported, and "other women responded to our rage." Following this incident, Firestone and Freeman created the West Side Group. Two years later, that group helped organize the citywide CWLU, which became a model for 16 other socialist-feminist organizations in the United States and one of the longest lasting.

The year 1968 was formative for women's liberation, with important conferences held at Sandy Springs, Maryland, in August, and Lake Villa, Illinois, over Thanksgiving. Jewish women played prominent roles in both events, as they did in organizing the feminist action at the New Left's Counter-Inaugural in Washington, DC in January 1969. Firestone and Marilyn Webb, a graduate student and activist from Chicago were scheduled speakers, but again, New Left men were hostile to female leaders. When Marilyn Webb took the microphone, male participants began shouting and chanting. "Take it off! and Take her off the stage and fuck her!" The audience became even more "feral" when Firestone took the stage, with anti-war activist Dave Dellinger trying to "shut Shulie up." Ellen Willis witnessed the event. "If radical men can be so easily provoked into acting like rednecks," she asked, "what can we expect from others?" (9)

As women's liberation groups proliferated, many on the New Left remained hostile. The split between socialist-feminist "politicos," tied to the men of the New Left and their anti-capitalist vision, and "radical feminists," who wanted a women's movement independent of the New Left, did not dim the women's determination to find their voices and raise consciousness about the necessity for gender and sexual equality. Pioneering work was done by new organizations, including such groups as New York's Redstockings, created in February 1969; Boston's Bread and Roses, organized in May of that year, and the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, begun shortly after. As in Chicago's West Side Group, a significant number of women in these two Boston groups were Jewish.

My interviews with members of these and other radical feminist groups reveal that growing up Jewish during the years of the postwar feminine...

To continue reading