Why Women’s Organizations Won’t Repair Our Mind-Body Split

How to juggle home and workplace? Who is responsible for helping families keep all those oranges in the air? These have been focal questions for feminists since the movement began. The passage of the U.S. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 was a great victory. But thanks to restrictions in the act, more than 41 million people, or half of the country’s private workforce, are not covered under the act’s guarantee of unpaid, job protected leave, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. And even if workers are guaranteed unpaid medical leave, many cannot afford to take it. And the act doesn’t come close to solving the many day-to-day conflicts that come up for parents—mainly women— who are pursuing careers and raising children simultaneously.

For the most part, women’s organizations, including Jewish women’s organizations, aren’t doing anything to help. Repeated calls to the National Organization of Women (NOW) yielded no response to this question, and the policy section on their website devoted to the work-family balance and childcare has not been updated for a year and a half And at the Feminist Majority Foundation, LILITH’S inquiries were directed to an online columnist for Ms. magazine, which is now part of that organization.

Nor are any Jewish women’s organizations making this issue a priority. A spokesperson from Hadassah said that while women’s issues such as reproductive freedom are at the forefront of their current agenda, helping women balance work and family is “not on the screen at the moment, although it may be in the future.” Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) said that while she believes that quality, affordable childcare for middle-income women is lacking, especially within the Jewish community, NCJW and other women’s organizations don’t have the resources at the moment to fight that battle. “The political and economic realities today means that NCJW and others are playing defensively and reactively right now. There is not enough [money] and motivation to do proactive work right now,” she told LILITH.

Advocacy aside, Jewish organizations generally don’t even promote family-friendly and mother-friendly policies within their own organizations, saying that they don’t have the resources. Of the largest organizations, Hadassah offers some emergency alternative childcare and NCJW offers some flex time and telecommuting options, but no paid family leave, onsite or back up childcare, or a policy of reimbursing childcare costs for after-hours meetings.

In a research project for Journey, the journal of Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC in Manhattan, Susan Sapiro spoke with a range of Jewish organizations and found that “only one [The Nathan Cummings Foundation] had a paid maternity leave policy that guaranteed an income for longer than a week. …hi many Jewish organizations, staff are expected to accrue and use all of their sick leave and vacation time in order to be able to take paid maternity or parental leave.” Sapiro also found that with childcare. “Flexible arrangements are made on an individual level, rather than an institutional one. What this means is that one’s ability to get flexible work arrangements is dependent on the good graces of one’s supervisor.”

Some good news comes from the National Partnership for Women & Families, which spearheaded the FMLA a decade ago and is working to expand benefits where the act leaves off. But, says Jodi Grant, director of Work and Family Programs at the National Partnership, “It’s also about changing attitudes in the workplace” to encourage men to take advantage of these same benefits. “If the policies are just used by women, women will continue to be discriminated against in the long run.”

Jewish women’s organizations should be setting an example for family-friendly workplaces, and working to bring these issues to the top of the national policy agenda. If women are going to be able to lead the Jewish community, Jewish organizations had better make sure that the “opt-out revolution” doesn’t take capable women right out of the pool.

Jewish Organizations are “Awful”

Sociologist Rela Mintz Geffen, President of Baltimore Hebrew University, has had her eye on Jewish organizations’ policies on childbearing and the workplace for decades. In the 1980s, she directed a groundbreaking LILITH American Jewish Committee survey of “Jewish Women on the Way Up” [“Struggling? Juggling? Trying to Integrate Our Multiple Roles,” LILITH, Spring 1988]. She says that today’s dual-career dilemmas are very similar to when she started studying them in the 1970s and 1980s.

She labels “elitist” the arguments, promoted by professional women In a recent spate of articles, that the best thing for working women is to give it a break while they stay home and take care of their children. Focusing on the behaviors of these privileged women deflects attention away from how we change “the structure of society and the workplace…so that mothers and fathers can spend more time with their children.”

Geffen told Sarah Blustain recently that the Jewish community is “obsessed” with fertility and that this obsession distracts from the important work of making Jewish workplaces family-friendly for women and men; on this, she says, the Jewish community is “abominable.”

“I think that the Jewish community talks a good game” in its programs on this subject, Geffen said, particularly in women’s departments of Jewish federations or young leadership groups. “In theory they are in favor of family friendly workplace,” but in practice, they are “awful…very good on advocacy for the rest of the world.”