Feminist Awakenings

What struck me most upon reading Deborah Siegel’s engaging history of the modern feminist movement, Sisterhood: Interrupted, was the sense of absolute awakening that the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 70s gave to so many women. As a woman born into a world where the basic feminist tenet of equality between the sexes has always been taken for granted, at least in theory if not in practice, it had never occurred to me how profoundly the feminist “revolution” was a revolution, how profound a change it provoked in the basic attitudes of women and men about each other and themselves. The power that feminism wrought for so many women is precisely what Siegel tries to convey in her book, so that we women of the “post-feminist” era will get it. Because it’s the lack of such an inciting and inspiring spirit that has made feminism into such a bore, or a non-issue, or the F-word, for so many younger women today.

While it’s often assumed that Jewish feminism is decades behind the secular brand, and thus hasn’t reached the point where younger women can take its advancements for granted, that’s not necessarily the case, as this post by Shira Salamone of the blog On The Fringe-Al Tzitzit points out. Salamone links to two different posts about “the F-word” — one in which an Orthodox woman proudly declares herself a feminist though she has always believed she is not supposed to be one; and another in which a young Orthodox woman, Chana, declares she is decidedly not a feminist though everyone assumes she would be, since she is extremely bright, independent and loves to study Talmud.

The ideas at the root of the Jewish feminist generation gap, and the adamantly non-angry-feminist stance of Chana, are well illustrated by a feature in the current issue of Lilith, the mother-daughter companion pieces collectively titled “First Frissons of Feminism.” But the piece suggests that plenty more feminist awakenings are already stirring in our mother’s daughters, even if they don’t know it yet.

Anne Lapidus Lerner (the mother) and Rahel Lerner (the daughter) each share their respective moments of feminist awakening. The younger Lerner hits the particular post-feminist nerve. She recalls having taken part, as a teenager, in the photo shoot that would result in Frederic Brenner’s now-iconic photograph of women wearing tallit and tefillin, originally published in Brenner’s book Jews/America/A Representation, and reprinted in several prominent publications, including Lilith. Lerner, a woman who was raised taking for granted that praying in tallit and tefillin was how she should pray and never thinking that she was being defiant or revolutionary in doing so, remembers the horror she felt upon seeing that picture for the first time:

…I felt used. I didn’t see myself in it, nor my mother, nor the other women I knew. Instead I saw the photographer’s projection of what women in tefillin must be like: angry. … I saw angry women in the traditional, very “masculine” tallit–women grasping at male ritual symbols, where I had never thought of taleisim as gendered before.

Because of the decisions her mother had made years before to wear a tallit and tefillin, Lerner writes, she believed that Jewish ritual could be gender-blind. She was not an angry feminist because she had no reason to be.

The stance of the young Rahel Lerner, who her adult self has come to think of as naive, is reminiscent of Chana, who though she insists she has no desire to wear a tallit and doesn’t understand women who do, admits that she loves Talmud and is grateful that she lives in an age when women are allowed to do so. But as many of the commenters to the post (many of them male) point out, Chana ignores all the things that should make her angry. She is satisfied with her current lot as a Jewish woman, but she’s not paying attention to the things that perhaps fall outside of her immediate experience that would, or should, dissatisfy her.

Which is precisely what Rahel Lerner concludes about her young and naive self. Sadly, she recounts how over the ensuing years since that photograph first came out, she has observed how much women still struggle for equality, that “there was much more left to be done that I realized when I was entering college,” and she says, “I am far angrier about the treatment of women than I ever thought I would have cause to be.”

My hope for Chana is that she never does find cause to be that angry but that she also is awake enough to realize that sometimes anger is the appropriate response to injustice, and that a little can go a long way as a motivator for change.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman

4 comments on “Feminist Awakenings

  1. Shira Salamone on

    “My hope for Chana is that she never does find cause to be that angry but that she also is awake enough to realize that sometimes anger is the appropriate response to injustice, and that a little can go a long way as a motivator for change.”


    Through blogging, I’ve made the acquaintance (at least online) of a couple of Stern students (Chana being one of them) who are extremely bright and articulate and very comfortable with the traditional role for women. I can only hope that life doesn’t give them any reason to change their minds. If a woman chooses a religious feminist approach, I’d prefer to see her do so simply because that approach is a means of following the injunction to pursue justice.

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