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  • The Flight of Lilith:Modern Jewish American Feminist Literature
  • Ann R. Shapiro (bio)

Judaism and Second Wave Feminism: An Overview

Second wave feminism, the movement which began in the 1960s and gained full momentum in the 1970s, reiterated many of the goals of the first wave of the last half of the nineteenth century. While first wave feminists organized around suffrage, the broader goal was equality. The first wave was dominated by educated Protestant women mainly from New York State and New England, but the second wave was remarkably Jewish. Historians often date the beginning of what was then called "women's liberation" to Betty Friedan's Feminist Mystique (1963). By 1972 Ms.: the New Magazine for Women was launched with an editorial staff that was half Jewish, including Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Historian Gerda Lerner, according to the New York Times, is a "godmother of women's history" (Lee B7). Bella Abzug emerged in national politics, while radical feminism was dominated by Robin Morgan, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, and other Jewish women.

Feminist critic Susan Gubar came to acknowledge the significance of her own Jewish origins and those of the leading feminist critics and scholars who emerged in the 1970s in her essay, "Eating the Bread of Affliction" (1994), where she categorically states, "Jewish experience has profoundly shaped the evolution of feminist thinking in our times" (4). The women cited in her essay could be a who's who of feminism: Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Heilbrun, Florence Howe, Annette Kolodny, Alicia Ostriker, Nancy K. Miller, Judith Gardiner, Nina Auerbach, Naomi Weisstein, Lillian Robinson, Elizabeth Abel, Rachel Brownstein, Rachel Adler, Judith Plaskow, Blance Weissen Cook, Natalie Zemon Davis, Estelle Friedman, Linda Gordon, Linda Kerber, Ruth Rosen, Susan Suleiman, and Marianne Hirsch. A notable and probably inadvertent omission is Ellen Moers, whose Literary Women (1976) was surely groundbreaking in literary criticism. Indeed it is hard to imagine a feminist movement without the [End Page 68] contributions of Jewish American women. Most of these women regarded themselves as secular Jews and initially did not connect their feminism with Judaism.

In an effort to understand the predominance of Jewish feminists, Gubar speculates:

Clearly those of us who grew up Jewish during the postwar years inherited a distrust of public authority and a reliance on private bonds that anticipate the feminist imperative to integrate (male) institutions and authority and to valorize (feminine) networks of reciprocity. Just as important, we had been served up a monitory lesson about conformity and acquiescence: living through debates over the immorality of "blaming the victim," some of us nevertheless harbored suspicions about a generation of adults blind to the writing on the wall because they had integrated successfully in mainstream European culture.


She adds "devotion to the text and to education" as well as "strong commitment to each individual's social responsibility" as other possible explanations for the preponderance of Jewish feminists (82-3).

Gubar quotes several Jewish feminist literary scholars, who offer their own tentative explanations for the link between Judaism and feminism. Carolyn Heilbrun states, "Having been a Jew had made me an outsider. It had permitted me to be a feminist." Commenting on her suspicions of the world and the academy in particular, Annette Kolodny confesses, "Somewhere lurking in my responses to everyone I meet is the unarticulated question 'Would you hide me?'" Nina Auerbach adds, "the Holocaust and the blacklist were twin specters….official authority has always looked stupid and menacing." Lillian Robinson claims that she came from "a freethinking family" in which she learned "to treat the very idea of a sacred text skeptically, which is a pretty good beginning for someone seeking to expand and enrich the literary canon." Nancy K. Miller concludes somewhat cryptically, "being both Jewish and a feminist is a crucial, even constitutive piece of my self-consciousness as a writer" (82). All of these speculations seem reasonable, none definitive.


For Gubar the recognition of Jewish identity evolved. Initially she writes that she had embraced Lilith as prototype, declaring, "Like the rebel Lilith, defiantly inhabiting a liminal zone outside the Jewish community…many schools in the socalled second wave feminism felt themselves embittered, hopeless about receiving spiritual...


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