Are We Here Yet?
To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, edited by Rebecca Walker, Anchor Books
Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findlen, Seal Feminist Publications
Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, edited by Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, Drake Press
Adios Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity, edited by Ophira Edut, Seal Feminist Press
Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Farrar Strauss & Giroux
Colonize This!: Young Women of Color On Today’s Feminism, edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman, Seal Feminist Press
Exactly what Third Wave writing covers is as undefined as third wave feminism itself Let us look at what has been identified generally as the canon—those books routinely taught in women’s studies classes as third wave writing, and the books being read in informal groups. So, Jewish women. Are we here yet? Are we included? Do we get a voice’.’ What’s being said about us?
To Be Real includes three pieces by Jewish writers, but none from a Jewish cultural perspective. Listen Up includes a piece by Robin Neidorf entitled, “Two Jews, Three Opinions,” and “It’s A Big Fat Revolution” by Nomy Lamm, who, without focusing on specific Jewish issues clearly identifies herself as a Jewish woman. Third wave Agenda’s sole nod to Jewish women is an essay by Tali Edut, a Jewish Israeli-American who discusses her activist publishing work, done with her sister and Dyann Logwood, a black woman who, together with the Eduts, founded a feminist magazine. (Had the magazine, HUES, not been a critical hit, I doubt that a story of Jewish and black women working together on body issues would have made it into Third Wave Agenda, which has for the most part a white, suburban-raised tone.)
Probably the most Jewish-friendly of the early anthologies is Adios Barbie, edited by Ophira Edut, Tali’s sister—not surprising, since it’s the only one edited by a woman who herself writes explicitly as a Jew. It includes “My Jewish Nose,” an essay by Lisa Jervis (editor of Bitch magazine) about her family’s standing offer to pay for a nose job, and her reasons for keeping her own nose. And Diane Feit’s “Destination 120” discusses losing weight in the context of her plans for a traditional Jewish wedding where, she explains, “despite my cousins’ having no difficulty lifting me on a chair during Hava Nagila,” she still wondered if she should have lost another 10 pounds.
So there are Jewish women writing for these collections. Considering the desire of the editors to get as broad a range of perspectives as possible, I wondered if my feeling underrepresented in these books was unjustified. I did feel excluded, as though there were very few people “like me” in these anthologies. The excitement I felt when Nomy Lamm calls herself a zaftikeh moid—proving that someone else out there grew up with 50 words of Yiddish and the contradictions that lie between the old-country approval of zaftig and the American stigma of fat—underscored that. How many Jewish women, writing on specifically Jewish topics, was it going to take for me to really feel as though I was invited to this party?
The identity of the Third Wave, as I understand it, has been partially based on the idea that feminism has absorbed the lessons of multiculturalism, and that we have overcome being the “white women’s movement” of the Second Wave boomers. (This interpretation is not universal. Baumgartner and Richards, for example, in Manifesta, present a glossy view of the history of American feminism in which no racial tension is ever mentioned.)
I found the apparently unconscious language of some of the white essayists troubling, with its assumption that their experience was the norm. “Your Life as A Girl,” an essay by Curtis Sittenfeld which appears in Listen Up, is an account of a young woman at boarding school slowly being conditioned to expect less as a woman. It is the only piece in the anthology written in the second person, and I found it disturbing. Presumably the author is speaking to herself and yet the point, clearly, is that this is your life as a girl too. Which for me it is not. I couldn’t imagine that an essay of my own, or of an Italian woman from Los Angeles I went to college with, or of one of the Vietnamese women I went to high school with, being published under such a sweeping rubric of entitlement. Similarly, in Third Wave Agenda, editors Hey wood and Drake collaborate on a piece called “We Learn America Like A Script: Activism In The Third Wave; or Enough Phantoms of Nothing.” While placing themselves in a specific suburban white cultural context, Heywood and Drake still write as though their experience is the normative one of our shared generation. “We learned this,” they write, “as we began to learn about all the American histories…we had never before learned. Remember hearing about the Japanese internment camps for the first time? the Chinese exclusion act?…the treatment of Mexican migrant workers in the United States? Remember bringing this shit home? How could you begin to narrate these ineffable events, racking your town, your family and your body?”
And I have to say no, once again, this isn’t my life as a girl. I don ‘t remember learning this, because I don ‘t remember not knowing. This is an experience I’ve heard recounted by classmates and friends from backgrounds like Heywood’s and Drake’s, but I grew up in an ethnic community with its own recent “ineffable” events, and I went to school with the children and grandchildren of the events they discuss learning of I don’t remember learning about the Japanese-American internment for the first time. I do remember, though, that we were reading books about it in elementary school. I grew up in a mixed ethnic community, in an urban center, and that makes an enormous difference to my feminist perspective.
Manifesta solidified my increasing feeling that Jewish women and women from white ethnic or urban backgrounds were being ignored in the Third Wave’s writing. Manifesta drew fire, justly, for largely ignoring women of color in their 400-page statement on young women and the future of feminism. Jewish women are similarly invisible, as are urban women, working-class women, and anyone with an ethnic or religious identity.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire does make it onto Manifesta‘s feminist timeline, but they refer to it as “alerting people to the conditions of factory workers, most of whom are immigrant women.” Given their propensity elsewhere for finding cool chicks in history, it seems strange that they can’t say Jewish, they can’t say Italian, and they can’t say Clara Lemlich or Rose Schneiderman, leaving the impression that the 19th-century suffragists they’ve been discussing up to this point came downtown to clean up the garment industry for the nameless immigrants. While Helen Gurley Brown’s birth gets a mention, the history of women in the labor movement as a whole is practically erased. Margaret Sanger is named, Emma Goldman is not. Ernestine Rose is not. And there is no mention of what might be called “Jewish feminism” anywhere in the book.
Reading essays written by women of color addressing these ideas, I realized how natural it had been for me to make excuses for the lack of Jewish representation in these books, and to reflect the blame back on Jewish women. Maybe most Jewish women don’t write from a cultural context, maybe we ‘re “just “white girls, maybe I should get over this nose-counting business. I was inspired to see myself in these confident angry women, to assert my own observation and needs. At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that Colonize This! had exactly one Jewish contributor, and that Siobhan Brooks’ piece, “Black Feminism In Everyday Life,” described Jewish women’s attempts to discuss their issues around nose jobs and Jewish identity issues in a women’s studies class as a “symbolic form of violence” against black women, since Jewish women can “pass for white, while we cannot.” I threw up my hands. After decades of hard discussion on many fronts about what it means to “pass,” Jewish women are still drawn as racists when we talk about what it means to be asked to disappear. And while many of us can pass…silent Jewish women attending classes where Manifesta is the last word on the Third Wave…we still can’t demand to be included in the story (or the Manifesta timeline). The whole message of Colonize This! appears to be that passing and blending in is not desirable, that a feminist has a right to her whole personal and cultural identity. Regardless of Brooks’ contempt for Jewish women who attempt to do so, I think it’s a right on statement.
Are we here yet? A little bit. Do we have a long way to go? Oh yes, we do. Despite my frustration with the limited representation Jewish women have so far in third wave writing, I’m impressed with those of us who’ve made it up to bat. Further, with the publication of work such as Yentl ‘s Revenge (edited by Danya Ruttenberg, reviewed in Lilith, Winter 2001) we’re beginning to create forums for expressing Jewish feminism that will hopefully begin to work their way into mainstream Third-Wave dialogues. This is a challenge: first to define what we need and that we’re not getting it, and to look for models that will help us assert ourselves. Looking back at Second Wave-era Jewish feminist writing, I see that we’ve been tackling this one for a while. Our efforts must build, consciously, on what’s already been said.
Charlotte Green Honigman-Smith is a writer and activist from San Francisco editing an anthology of writing by Jewish women from “Jewish” and families.