- Branching Out:Toward A History of Jewish Radical Feminisms
Jewish feminisms, like Jewish studies, like Jewish people, run a full gamut of experience: religious and secular, Yiddish and Hebrew, Zionist and pro-Palestinian, heteronormative and queer. In Jewish Radical Feminism, Joyce Antler unites "the two branches of Jewish-inflected feminism": members of "the early women's liberation movement [of the late 1960s and early 1970s] and the later, more self-consciously identified 'Jewish feminist' movement that arose in the 1970s and 1980s to address Jewish religious and secular life" (p. 3). The book is structured accordingly, with four chapters dedicated to the first branch and four more to the second branch. Each chapter focuses on one influential group or occasionally a subculture within a particular city. Antler's subjects are predominantly Ashkenazi women based in the northeastern United States.1 Using an open-ended understanding of radical, Antler explores universalist feminist groups such as the radical Redstockings and the socialist Bread and Roses alongside manifestly Jewish collectives, such as the spiritually oriented B'Not Esh (Hebrew for 'daughters of fire') and the lesbian Di Vilde Chayes (Yiddish for 'the wild beasts').2 Antler's project has been a long time in the making. A range of historians have noted the significant presence of Jews in the women's liberation movement, both in terms of their demographic numbers and their intellectual contributions.3
To accomplish her task, Antler employs prosopography or collective biography, a narrative strategy that could not be more appropriate to radical feminism's collective spirit. As Antler shows, no feminist ever worked alone. Whether analyzing the conditions of their lives in consciousness-raising circles, producing new research about their own bodies, organizing public speakouts against rape, coordinating childcare collectives, or reinterpreting Torah, Jewish feminists came to their ideas and plans through electrified conversation. Through Antler's oral history interviews with at least forty-six women, passionate friendships emerge as the matrix for Second Wave feminism's revolutionary [End Page 294] ideas (p. 31).4 "Much of the energy that had heretofore gone into sexual relationships and especially couples was now being directed towards women friends and the women's community in general," observed Ann Hunter Popkin, a member of the Boston-based Bread and Roses.5 Speaking about her friends in the Chicago women's liberation movement, Amy Kesselman recalled, "Our appreciation of each other was like fertilizer, liberating energy long stifled by the sexism of the male leadership of the new left" (p. 42). That disagreements and splits just as often drained their energies only further highlights the centrality of relationships to feminist world-making. Together, the profiles of different collectives–the backgrounds of their members, the forces that drew them together, what they accomplished, and (to a much lesser extent) why they dissolved—offer a panoramic experience that is akin to flipping through stacks of photo albums with an inordinately well-informed guide.
Antler is also the sort of guide who prefers to focus on points of unity. In granting only limited space to matters of contention among feminists, Jewish Radical Feminism manages to cover a lot of ground and make itself palatable to the spectrum of readers interested in Jewish American history. The narrative launches confidently out of the late 1960s, sails smoothly through the 1970s, and glides to a stop in the mid-1980s, just as many Jewish feminists were beginning to grapple with crucial questions concerning whiteness, Zionism, and sexuality. It is unfortunate that Antler limits her admittedly long book in this way. Feminism was no less alive in 1990 than it was in 1980. In fact, as recent work by Lisa Levenstein has shown, by the 1990s, American feminism had been fortified by recent decades of international coalition building and the growing influence of lesbians, women of color, and activists from the global South.6 Jewish feminists remained vitally engaged with all of this new activity.
Jewish Radical Feminism is not an argument-driven book. Instead, its rationale lies...