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A New Book Looks at 50 Years of Jewish Radical Feminism

A wide lens and a diverse cast of activists, thinkers, and theologians combine to offer a fresh look at not only the movement’s past but also its present and future

Rachel Shteir
May 30, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: FredPalumbo/Library of Congress
Betty Friedan in 1964.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: FredPalumbo/Library of Congress
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: FredPalumbo/Library of Congress
Betty Friedan in 1964.Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: FredPalumbo/Library of Congress

Second Wave Feminism “may be the most important social movement of the last century,” I read on page one of Joyce Antler’s thought-provoking new book. That “may” stopped me, coming from the celebrated historian and author of many books about Judaism, women, and America, including the impactful The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped America, published over 20 years ago. Is Antler uncertain? Is the “may” more sleight of hand rather than scholarly mea culpa? If she does mean it, I am a bit disheartened, since Jewish Radical Feminism otherwise succeeds as corrective to the erasure of the Jewishness of second wavers by intersectional and multicultural critics. Maybe that discomfort is the point.

Antler, emeritus at Brandeis, is not repeating the story, well-known since the 1980s, that large numbers of movement women were Jewish, including several stars (such as Betty Friedan, whom I’m currently writing about). In over 400 pages, her revisionist history measures how over-represented Jewish feminists were exactly (she quotes Sonia Pressman Fuentes’ estimate of 12 percent of the founders of NOW) but more important, she groups together theologians, lesbians, secular liberals, Communists, and others, defining “radical” broadly. The focus on groups stresses the second clause of Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying (if I am only for myself who am I for?) more than the first (if I am not for myself who will be for me?) and shrewdly acknowledges millennial tribalism. Without the struggles of these groups, there would be no Second Wave, Antler seems to be saying. No feminism as we know it.

Specifically, Jewish Radical Feminism groups two groups infrequently written about together: The mostly secular Jewish radical feminists of the late 1960s who “never talked about” [her ital] their Jewish pasts; and the Jewish radical feminists in the 1970s and 1980s for whom “feminism enabled” their Jewish identity. Though the women in this second group are wildly different from each other, Antler treats them as bound by their efforts to reshape their Jewish identities via feminism.

And yet, for all its virtues, Jewish Radical Feminism alienated me a little from this grand communal history. Being of the 20th century, I prefer eccentric individuals. Also, I wondered where I fit in or might have: Born in the last year of the baby boom, raised in vaguely atheist, vaguely gender equal Jewishness, I had spent a lot of time trying to rebel alone. Too young to participate in the second wave and too old for the third, I now feel sometimes like an orphan and other times like my whole life is being lived in the wrong century. I began to get angry at Antler, and at our era. While things have “gotten better” as Dan Savage would say, for Jewish women, (for all women), since the second wave, I think about my fragmented identity often enough that Adrienne Rich’s essay “Split at the Root,” which Antler quotes, might as well have been written yesterday, not in 1982: “sometimes I feel I have seen too long from too many disconnected angles.”

I can’t completely blame Antler for my “past is prologue” schtick. September marks the 19-year anniversary of my leaving New York. Or as I call it to myself, with either irony or sentimentality, depending, my exile to Chicago. But this feeling-exile surged as I read on: “Even though these women might have been ‘insiders,’ as a matter of background and style, the women often felt like ‘outsiders,’” Antler writes. She quotes many second wavers on this subject: Historian Jo Freeman (“most of us, feminists, find ourselves in an adversary position vis a vis our governments, our economies, and our cultures”; the late, brilliant critic Ellen Willis (Jews, she argued, are fated to feel “permanently insecure” and experience “oppression and marginality as defining facts of Jewish existence”); Amy Kesselman, one of the Chicago Gang of Four (“My Jewishness bequeathed a mixed legacy. A commitment to social justice and anger at the sexism embedded in Jewish culture”; and finally, with a positive spin, Alisa Solomon )“If we are able now to speak as feminists in the Jewish community,” it’s only because we first learned to speak as Jews in the feminist community.”) Every one of these quotes struck me as up to the minute. And then I thought: maybe that fact accounts for Antler’s “may” on page one?

Still, the most profound reason Jewish Radical Feminism should be widely read is that it puts many current disputes about gender and Jewish identity into long perspective. I’m thinking of things like Tamika Mallory’s endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, the question of whether feminism and Zionism can co-exist, and #MeToo. Antler’s account of how, in the 1980s and 1990s, diversity and intersectional feminists excluded Jews is a good starter marriage backstory to many of these painful issues. But another piece of the puzzle is, as Antler points out, that second-wave Jewish feminists may have launched their erasure even before the word “intersectional” was a gleam in any baby anti-Semite theorist’s eye: In the late 1960s, many Jewish leftist founders defined themselves as Jewish universalist feminists, dedicated to eradicating racism and anti-Semitism, not as the Jewish daughters. In the 1970s, as the movement fractured, Jewish feminists turned to either recalibrating Judaism or their private lives whereas women of color, alienated by what they saw as the second wave’s whiteness, largely sided with black power and Palestinians. As for #MeToo, (besides the fact that many of the prominent women writing about it today are Jewish) Antler’s book made me think about the mundaneness of the choices. Jewish radical feminists had to pick between individual identity and familial one.

The first half of Radical Jewish Feminism, zooming in on collectives such as the New York Radical Women (well documented, albeit not as a Jewish collective), Boston’s Bread and Roses, Chicago’s Gang of Four, and the legendary women’s health guide, Our Bodies Our Selves (three quarters of the founding members of that project were Jewish) is both inspiring and a cautionary tale. Antler offers the occasional funny biographical detail, but overall I would not buy this book for the laughs, but more for the moral, which is this: Becoming a Jewish radical feminist was going to cost you. You would face opposition from the Jewish establishment who thought you would destroy the family, from men, and from your sisters. Some of the most relevant stories for our era are those about how New Left men failed to support Jewish women in their quest to challenge stereotypes, change ritual, tell women’s stories, and reshape the Jewish family. In the chapter on Chicago, Antler draws from new interviews to tell more fully an account of the chilling 1969 rally where male progressives turned into a mob after Marilyn Salzman Webb and Shulamith Firestone took the podium to talk about how liberated women should not be property. “Take it off” was one of their famous cries.

My favorite chapter in part one is the one on rootless cosmopolitans, which deals with Firestone, the late, brilliant author of The Dialectic of Sex, the late critic Ellen Willis, Alix Kates Shulman, Susan Brownmiller, and other virtuosic female voices. (All of whom have been excluded, by the way, from the numerous recent books about smart women, such as Michelle Dean’s Sharp). Antler does some close readings of some of Willis’ fantastic contrarian writing from this era, such as her great essay, “Why I’m an anti anti Zionist” and her phenomenal 20,000 word, 1974 memoir for Rolling Stone in which she visits her brother in Jerusalem, after his conversion to Orthodoxy, and tests her own powers of reasoning against the ancient ones of the most sacred texts. But I could have stood more.

The second part of Antler’s book profiles Orthodox women like Blu Greenberg, the founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who sought to challenge the patriarchy while still preserving some tradition, and Arlene Agus, who engineered a number of reforms to Judaism, including some that helped women trapped by Orthodox divorce. Antler also examines Rabbi Laura Geller, the third reform female rabbi ordained, and the theologian Judith Plaskow. There is a chapter on secular Jewish leftists, such as the writer and feminist psychotherapist, Phyllis Chesler, (a contributor to this magazine), and one on lesbian activists such as Evelyn Torton Beck. What unites these Jewish feminists is the struggle against anti-Semitism, the trauma of the Shoah, and the feeling that no matter what Betty Friedan had written about housewives in 1963, it didn’t speak to their generation. These women founded their own organizations, from the short-lived Ezrat Nashim, focused on changing the policies of the conservative movement, to the radical journal Bridges, from the mainstream Lilith to the Jewish feminist conferences of 1973 and 1974. Antler’s point, that many types of women saw many types of Jewishness as central to their self-definition, should overcome the bias that there are more and less authentic ways of being a Jewish feminist.

In the chapter on Jewish lesbians, Antler makes the point that coming out two ways makes you a good translator of the sorrows of other oppressed women, even those who hate you. And she holds up Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism, the 1982 book co-written by a Jewish lesbian, a black feminist, and a Christian as proof of the kind of productive inter-racial dialogue that could have happened more. This section ends with a grim chapter on how global anti-anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, especially at the United Nations conferences held in Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi, in 1975, 1980, and 1985, made a number of secular Jewish women, including Friedan, identify more Jewishly than they had. (Speaking of Friedan, because this is not a book about movement stars, Antler omits two of her important contributions to the history of Jewish feminism: Friedan’s speech at the Strike for Women’s Equality in Bryant Park in 1970 where she offered a revisionist take on the men’s daily prayer, and Friedan’s speech in 1984 in Jerusalem, which galvanized Israeli women to launch their own feminist movement.)

After the conclusion, Antler provides an epilogue about Jewish feminists who came of age during the third wave. While I liked this idea, I was less crazy about the execution. These women feminists talk about how certain things are more accepted, (being a Jewish lesbian) but others not so much, (being a Jewish person of color), than in the 20th century. But somehow, they seem less shiningly innovative than the women in parts one and two. That makes sense: They came of age in a less radical, albeit more diverse era. Still, the sample is a little homogeneous: A number of women in the coda had Jewish feminist mothers and work in education or media.

Covering so much, Jewish Radical Feminism cannot do justice to all of its subjects. Sometimes an earnest, anodyne triumphalism creeps in to the writing. But most of all, I am unnerved by that “may” on page one, or maybe disappointed. As Antler knows, although we are still only at the beginning of what needs to be done, we need to celebrate what we have done, too.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

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