Not all party favors lift your spirits. I was at a benefit dinner for a private school last month, and among the goodies in my take-home bag was a ruler, innocuous enough at first glance. But on the obverse of the strip of plastic were dozens of smaller-than-postage-stamp-sized photos, all of men. I actually stared at these pictures for several seconds, puzzled, when I saw the caption: “Presidents of Our Country.” And not a single woman!
Of course I know there has never been a woman president. I wasn’t born yesterday. But somehow seeing those little pictures was both shocking and, at the same time, ludicrous. How stupid. Only men as presidents? Look what we’ve been missing!
Cynthia Ozick wrote in these pages many years ago about what she termed “The Jewish Half-Genius” She claimed that it was inaccurate to speak of “Jewish genius” when adumbrating the accomplishments of individual Jews, since fully half of the Jews—women—had been left out of the tally.
Turns out size does matter. Beans do count. One important reason is that the percentage of women on a board or committee or governing body will dictate the response any woman in that group gets when she speaks or acts.
The magic proportion seems to be about 30 percent, according to research on women’s achievement. Below that golden mean, women’s voices aren’t heard—and the few women sitting at those boardroom tables feel themselves powerless. Numbers above 30 percent aren’t magic, but they do at least create an environment in which women can approach success.
While as feminists we know that numbers are important, they have been in scarce supply in the Jewish world this season. Ten years ago, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed that Jewish women are exactly twice as likely to remain single throughout their childbearing years as other white North American women. And that study also told us that (as we’d suspected all along) Jewish women are the best educated women on the continent. Almost two thirds have college degrees, compared with less than twelve percent of other white North American women. An update on these numbers (and on intermarriage rates, income and other useful demographics) was to have been released in November by the United Jewish Communities, umbrella for Jewish federations. Then, a week before the release date, an announcement went out that the company responsible for conducting the $6 million survey had lost some of the data! A long op-ed piece in the New York Times proclaimed that the numbers didn’t matter anyway. Jews are too preoccupied with numbers said the writer, a male Jewish academic.
But the numbers do matter very much, especially to women. Just ask the female Jewish engineering student I met recently. The only woman in many of her classes, she was taken seriously—heard and heeded—only when she dressed like one of the guys. Clad in a skirt, she found her questions and answers were almost always ignored by male peers and professors. She (and they) had no role models of women engineers. If 30 out of 100 engineering students were female, dressed however they chose, you bet they’d be harder to ignore. Watch out for those numbers. They do matter And watch out for pictures of executives in Jewish organizations. Like that plastic ruler, many of them indicate that the corridors of power are stalked only by men.
Of course the Jewish woman engineering student has other things on her mind besides her classes these days. To be a Jew on campus this season is fraught— if not with peril, then at least with great uneasiness. As you know, campuses across the continent have been the scenes of virulent anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic activity. LILITH has reported on how students, faculty, alumnae and others are responding to these situations.
But at the same time, women on campus are trying to sort out their lives in other dimensions too. To help them do so, we’ve launched an extraordinary project bringing gender issue programs to college campuses, thanks to a cooperative venture with Hillel made possible with generous support from Edgar M. Bronfman. This project, LlLlTH on Campus, brings each issue of the magazine to students, along with program suggestions and discussion guides. It’s a perfect complement to Lilith’s internship program, which has, over the years, welcomed more than 90 students into our office and featured the writing of young women in LILlTH’s pages.
The LILITH on Campus program guides are tailored to topics covered in the magazine—fertility among young Jews, the resurgence of the JAP stereotype on campus, new ways to celebrate Jewish holidays and personal lifecycle events, and more. (If you’d like to receive a copy of the program and discussion guides for other uses—Rosh Hodesh groups, synagogue sisterhoods, camps, youth groups or reading circles, send us your email address.) The goals of this project are to strengthen current Jewish women’s programming, help incubate new programs for and about Jewish women, and be a general resource for Jewish life on campus. Jewish gender issue programs like these can build bridges to other campus communities, a task that now feels more urgent than ever.