- Women's Liberation and Jewish Feminism after 1968:Multiple Pathways to Gender Equality
Jewish feminists played a major role in the awakening that resulted from "the Jewish 1968." The bold actions and reimaginations of radical Jewish feminists, Zionist feminists, religious Jewish feminists, lesbian Jewish feminists, and many other Jewish women offer a diverse legacy that has enriched Jewish life and tradition in multiple ways.
In acknowledging our debt to these women, we must also credit the second-wave feminist activists whose pioneering movement allowed Jewish feminists to situate their own rebellions. Many of these women liberationists of the second wave–or radical feminists, as they were also called–were Jewish, although they did not often claim their identities publicly. But they are a significant part of the ferment that set the Jewish counterculture in motion. While women liberationists did not specifically rebel against the Jewish patriarchy, their connections to Jewish values helped to shape the legacies of "the Jewish 1968" by enabling the gender revolution that profoundly transformed American life.
Radical feminists helped to provide the theoretical underpinnings and models for radical action that were seized upon and imitated throughout this country and abroad. Their articles and books became classics of the movement, and led the way into new cultural and political understanding in academe, politics, and grassroots organizing. Even a partial honor roll of Jewish women's liberation pioneers needs to include such figures as Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Robin Morgan, Alix Kates Shulman, Naomi Weisstein, Heather Booth, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn Webb, Meredith Tax, Andrea Dworkin, Linda Gordon, Ellen DuBois, Ann Snitow, Marge Piercy, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and many others.
I consider the women's liberationists who were born Jewish (or who converted to Judaism) and the more Jewishly identified "Jewish feminists" as part of a continuum of Jewish activism and feminist rebellion, with different but sometimes coalescing roots and outcomes. Despite divergences, both groups of feminists helped to establish the "1968" legacies with which we still grapple.1 [End Page 37]
The women's movement acted as a crucible for change in society at large and also in the Jewish community, providing opportunities to channel values inherited from Jewish tradition, especially those promoting social justice and tikkun olam. For many women, feminism opened the door to activism by critiquing feelings of marginality that Jewish women had experienced growing up. Yet like the white women who went south on Freedom Rides in the 1960s, most radical feminists did not self-consciously identify as Jews.2 At a time when the vision of a common sisterhood took primacy within the movement, the claims of any particular ethnic or religious group, especially one identified with white privilege, could not hold sway. Even when radical feminists acknowledged their Jewish roots in a manner that historian Matthew Frye Jacobson identifies as part of a wider ethnic revival, they refrained from explicitly asserting that ancestral inheritances drove the momentum for change.3
Movement activists especially held back from making such a connection. "Our identification with the outside world, in opposition to our parents' narrow…views, was rebellious and progressive, a response against the broader society's divisions by ethnicity and religion," says Vivian Rothstein, a founder of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU), "Why would we identify ourselves as Jews when we wanted to promote a vision of internationalism and interfaith and interracial solidarity?" "We identified as universalists," agrees Paula Doress-Worters of the Boston Women's Health Collective, "We were afraid of seeing ourselves as too driven by our particularities; it wouldn't have been proper to call ourselves radical Jews. But that is exactly what we were."4 [End Page 38]
As opposed to historians' acknowledgment of the salience of Jewish women in earlier social movements, their prominence within radical feminism has failed to attract much attention. General histories of second-wave feminism, including those by Sara Evans, Alice Echols, Ruth Rosen, and Susan Brownmiller, do not identify the contributions of Jewish women to the women's liberation movement. Similarly, Benita Roth's study of the racial/ethnic components of feminism does not accord a place to Jewish women. Nor does Winifred Breines' study of black and white...