The good news is that the group quickly grew. Within two months there were over 1,000 members. Today, there are nearly 2,000 members. Sure, this pales in comparison to the 30,000 women binders who showed up in a Facebook group within a few weeks of each other last year. And it’s not yet at the level of the Israeli (Hebrew) religious feminist group that has some 8,000 members. But those first few months were really interesting and invigorating. And controversial and difficult.
What I wasn’t expecting was so much push-back about the name from religious feminists. “Why so angry?” was the complaint. Along with, “Why so negative?” This created a whole series of discussions about whether women are permitted to ever be angry or upset or whether we are socialized into constant perkiness. I said that I would change the name if that’s what people wanted, but that I would really like to give women permission to be angry if that’s what they happen to feel. Especially if that anger is about the social construction of gender in the Jewish world. Yes, I wanted to create a place where anger is welcomed and respected.
Well, the debates raged on and some people left because of the name. But eventually the most productive suggestion was the one where a series of acronyms was suggested. As a bow to all these discussions, I decided to create an inclusive acronym: FEDDD UPPPPP, Feminist Forum For Empowerment and Exchange to Discuss, Debate, Defuse and Unpack Unfair and Uncompassionate Patriarchal Practices and Paradigms in Positive and Proactive ways….A little cumbersome, perhaps, but I thought that a little humor around our own embracing of anger and controversy might go a long way.
The group has evolved into a metaphorical coming-in-out-of-the-cold, where people who have felt alone in their anger and frustration can talk to other people with similar views and feel less alone. There is something very comforting, warming, and even thawing about that experience. I think people tend to become less angry when they feel that their points are taken seriously. The group actually is usually far more analytical than angry. Women, and men, come from all around the world – the UK, South Africa, Australia, and of course Israel and the United States. They also come from different backgrounds, and not everyone is Orthodox. In fact, not everyone is Jewish. We have several Muslim feminist contributors who take the conversation into phenomenally interesting directions, in my opinion. And there are men in the group, too, many men in fact, not all of whom identify with feminism but seem to want to be here anyway. And then there are those who have left, or who have been asked to leave. It is astounding to me how much trolling feminist groups attract. As Lindy West wrote in the Guardian recently, the obnoxious trolling of feminists seems to be the painful reality for women on the Internet.
The group has been really amazing for many participants. I get messages every week in which people say “Thank you” for the kind of comfort and serious discussion that takes place there. I have also made a whole bunch of new friends – and in some cases reconnected with old friends. It’s very special to build relationships based on a shared set of values, especially when those are values that are so dear to you, the same values that can also be isolating in some of your most cherished locations. If I had a dime for every feminist who thought that because she is the only feminist in her shul that she is alone in the world – well, you know. This group has helped many women, and men, realize that they are not alone.
So recently when I was in New York, I decided to see if anyone wanted to get together and meet in person. A bunch of people responded, and we set a date and a place. In the end we were a small but impassioned group braving the weather. It was really beautiful for me to put real bodies to names. When people share their stories online, you can’t always read the lines on their faces. You can’t always feel their energies shift. There is a certain kind of bond that comes from an in-person meeting that is hard to replicate, even online. On the other hand, there are bonds that form from the typed chat, when your words are clear and isolated, standing on their own without the burden of trying to interpret an entire set of non-verbal cues. There can be a special intimacy in typing and chatting, where one writes truthfully and briefly without overthinking. The online connection is perhaps sharp and distinct, while the in-person connection is rick and complex. The combination can be powerful and beautiful.
I really enjoyed meeting my co-conspirators over coffee. I was able to learn more at length what drives them, what brought them to this place, and what they have riding on the success of the conversation. There is a lot of abuse happening in the Orthodox world, and it is not incidental that many people come to feminism from a background of abuse. And this group also demonstrates that men can also be victims and women can abusers, that feminist consciousness comes in all shapes and sizes. And also, that religious feminists need allies. I was particularly grateful that one prominent non-Orthodox feminist joined the table as well, and talked about solidarity and supporting each other. That was a really wonderful take-away for me from the evening.
I hope to have more of these meet-ups. One has been suggested in Israel – far more convenient for me, personally – so we may try that next. Stay tuned.