Oh, it’s the F word, wearily, and again.
After my speech to a conference of Jewish college women in Ann Arbor recently, the undergraduate organizer confessed that wording of the original name of the gathering had been changed from “Jewish feminists” to “Jewish women.” The emotional charge of the discussion which followed, I realized, was emblematic of the current ambivalence over how we name ourselves and how we want others to see us.
A faculty member in her late thirties stood up, astounded by the news that young women had threatened to stay away from the conference in droves if the chair (a woman who had been calling herself a feminist since high school) stuck with the original nomenclature. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Among the women I know, feminist is a badge of honor.” But the undergraduates surrounding her made it clear that to be known as a feminist in many circles was to be labeled a man-hater, or worse.
And then a woman in her early twenties spoke, with a poignant honesty that refreshed the discourse considerably and redefined its terms: I attended an all-girls private school until I came to college, she said. We were told every day that we could be anything we wanted to be: presidents and CEOs of corporations, political leaders, anything. Then, at our high school graduation several of us dressed up as “feminists,” mockingly. We wore combat boots and oversize denim overalls and ugly hair. Now, six years later, I am ashamed. I look back at that day and I ask myself, how we could have been so disparaging of the movement that made it possible for us to believe all those things we were told we could be? “Without feminism,” she announced to the group, “none of the dreams we had for ourselves would have been possible.”
I was reminded of these words when a debate intruded on me via e-mail last week, showing how misguidedly scary the word feminist has become to some women. I’m part of a small group creating programs on Jewish women’s issues in Washington, D.C.—discussion groups, films, a healing service, a seder. The usual, I thought. But—lo and behold—in the planning for this year’s seder (the second annual…) one of the organizers posted this question:
« “Feminist” Seder or “Women’s seder”?… We are strongly inclined to replace the “F” word with “women’s.” I have spoken with several people who did not come to seder last year because they were put off by the “feminist” term even though they are very strongly “pro-woman.” It seems that the “F” word may put some women off, whereas the “women’s” term includes everyone. »
My first instinct was, I don’t even have to reply. For decades now women across the country have been holding community-wide feminist seders and the sky has not fallen in. Ma’yan’s New York feminist seder regularly sells out its 1,500 seats months in advance. Surely I (drowning in unanswered e-mails, snail mail and phone message slips) can sit this one out and let others make the case.
The first response to the posting came in only minutes later:
« The change to women’s instead of feminist is an excellent one. Depending on how one defines feminist, it could have very negative connotations. »
<< Though we certainly represent some ideas that could be labeled “Feminist,” I feel that it is a word that has such strong reactions, both positive and negative, that it could make some women feel excluded and keep them from attending. »
These were not college students, but seasoned community activists. Just as I realized that I had better enter the fray came this riposte from Professor Myra Goldenberg:
« I have equally strong feelings for the word “feminist.” To hold a seder for women is feminist. To drink from Miriam’s cup is feminist. To declare ourselves entitled to ritual and to write and rewrite that ritual to reflect our experiences is feminist. To fear to stand up to who we are and what we are is to surrender to patriarchal values that we renounce by the very act of holding a seder….Our seder is actually a political act, feminist in its process as well as its content. Why hide it?
<< There is another issue as well. Some women fear the feminist is synonymous with lesbian. If that is so, then we are obliged to keep the feminist label if only to include our lesbian sisters. When the revolution indeed happens — that is, when we are really free to claim our identities as women, straight or gay — then we won’t need the word feminist; ‘women’ will do. Judaism is far from such freedom for women and that is why we need the word “feminist.” »
which was followed by the posting that in its illogic gave me hope that we indeed had reason on our side:
« It might be a good idea to read through the aiches chayil, or woman of valor song that is sung each Friday night to the wife by the husband. This song embodies everything a woman could possibly be and more.
« And she is woman, not feminist. A feminist has an agenda. A woman of valor is an extraordinary Jewish woman in the best sense of the word. I rest my case. >>
I decided overwork was no defense. I had to reply. I had been offended, as I always am when the Woman of Valor, busy giving charity with an outstretched hand, treating her servants justly, dealing real estate (an honorable Jewish women’s profession even back then) is misconstrued as the apogee of compliant womanhood. I could keep still no longer. So I posted:
« This discussion over how we NAME ourselves gets to very important root concerns over our mission. Our not using the word feminist feels to me an utter capitulation that obliterates 30 years of the contemporary women’s movement, and the Jewish feminist movement, and allows others to confiscate our strength.
BTW [by the way], I think it’s a little absurd to say that Ayshet Chayil was not a feminist! She also didn’t know from women’s tallitot, or oranges on the seder plate, nor could she have (without 20/20 foresight) envisioned the strong women who came after her, including those religiously observant women who have proudly created the Jewish Orthodox FEMINIST Alliance which deals with urgent Jewish women’s issues-divorce laws, equality of education, and more, from a feminist perspective. »
I hit “send” before I realized I had plenty more to say, some of which was:
« Calling this event a women’s seder has many disadvantages. For one, it suggests a return to the “warehousing” of Jewish women in separatist religious events. The label “women’s seder” does not suggest that women now feel entitled to claim/reclaim the religious traditions of Judaism from which we have in the past been excluded.
For another, it excludes men altogether. A feminist seder suggests that there can be male feminists too. Since we live in a world which includes men, limiting ourselves by the timid terminology of a “women’s” seder (not because we are proud womanists but because some are fearful of, as the first posting coyly put it, the F word) loses us the opportunity of doing a little egalitarian education for the few guys who might show up. A lost chance to do a mitzvah! »
The power of naming is very real—look at Adam and Eve (and even Lilith) in the Garden of Eden. Look at Jewish superstition, which has it that when faced with a dangerous situation (illness, say) you change your name to turn away the evil eye. Being able to name ourselves ideologically is very empowering.
If we pretend not to acknowledge the power of calling ourselves feminists, if we do our repair-the-world work as “just” women, we hide an important part of our own recent history. Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, suggests we carry a rubber stamp, and every time we read of gains being made by women we can mark the report with the imprimatur: “This Change Brought to You by Feminism.”
So what is the seder going to be called? The name the committee chose is The Second Annual Feminist Seder—For All Women. And as I was trying to decide if the label was a brilliant compromise or a cop-out, I received, with accidentally perfect timing, this e-mail definition from someone I don’t know, on a listserve completely unconnected to the seder;
<< “I have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” — Rebecca West, 1913. »