Harriet Pass Freidenreich’s new book. Female, Jewish, and Educated: The Lives of Central European University Women, (Indiana University Press, $34.95) documents the life choices of 460 European women in Germany and Austria prior to the Nazi period who decided to become physicians, lawyers, and academics, a decision which inevitably amounts to sacrifice in the realm of marriage and motherhood. Sound familiar to Jewish women today? Freidenreich’s point exactly.
“Professional women today often see themselves as pathbreaking ‘superwomen’, juggling careers and homemaking, childcare and commuting. They are generally unaware of the pioneering generations of Jewish university women in Europe, who faced many of the same problems, but dealt with them under different historical circumstances,” she writes.
Freidenreich argues that the lives of these groundbreaking women were much harder than women’s lives today: not only did they face severe sex discrimination in their academic endeavors, but their careers and ultimately lives became endangered as Hitler came to power. “Nazis targeted this group for multiple reasons, classifying them as ‘non-Aryan’ academics and professionals, ‘double earners’, and in certain cases, socialists or communists.” While the women in her study were able to emigrate from Germany after being dismissed from their academic positions, most revolutionary professional women were lost to the Holocaust. Had the persecution of Jews not erased their brave steps forward, they too could have served as role models for the Jewish women of today.
Freidenreich shows that present-day Jewish women can learn how to balance their lives, both professional and personal, because it was done before us, long before the 1960s women’s movement. This unique group of “New Women” in the early 20th century dared to challenge normative roles of the German middle-class, pursued careers in male work worlds, and defied their roles as mothers and wives in quest of self-fulfillment. “We are the descendants and beneficiaries of these remarkable women whose lives serve as beacons to help usher us into the world of the 21st century.”
Ilana Kramer is studying for an MA in Gender Politics at New York University.