No matter one’s politics, the seemingly inexorable trajectory of world events has engulfed us all of late. Those opposing a U.S. assault upon Iraq have felt particularly powerless. Even those supportive of military engagement can hardly feel sanguine about the unpredictable series of events that will play themselves out in upcoming weeks and months.
March 2003, in short, has been a difficult time to believe in the possibility of making a difference. Yet, on March 19, as the nation anticipated the air assaults that did indeed begin that night, more than 450 women and men gathered together to assert, almost defiantly, that what we do as ordinary individuals can and does matter. A pair of “Women Who Dared” events in Boston and Chicago honored a pioneering hospital administrator, an international journalist, a former Soviet refusenik and activist organizers focused on addressing violence against women
Since its creation in 2000, the “Women Who Dared” program of the Jewish Women’s Archive has spotlighted women in communities across the country who have made extraordinary commitments to a wide range of social justice causes. Program events are often timed to coincide with Purim and Women’s History Month, drawing their inspiration from Queen Esther, who risked all to intervene with the era’s leading despot, her husband King Ahasuerus, to convince him to withdraw support from Haman’s planned massacre of the kingdom’s Jews. With all her beauty and charm, Esther was as powerless as those she sought to protect. Moreover, as a closeted Jew in Ahasuerus’s court, she lacked even the dignity of her own identity. In a dramatic moment, however, Esther determines to enter history. With her declaration, “if I perish, I perish,” she shifts the whole narrative, moving from a powerless denizen of the harem to a woman who will determine the fate of her people.
Although few of us will ever find ourselves in such a dramatic position, most of us do face challenges that threaten some aspect of our comfort and privilege. As with Esther, whose courage ultimately empowered the Jews of Persia to fight for their survival, our responses may also help transform not just ourselves, but those around us.
The Book of Esther provides the biblical model for the risks of Jewish Diaspora experience, but the story resonates differently for most American Jews. We have been the beneficiaries of a Diaspora experience characterized by unprecedented acceptance and prosperity. As a result, most of our challenges have been gentler ones. Freed from the fight for survival, American Jewish women have a long history of challenging limits to their own identity and taking risks to fight for the rights and needs of others.
Hannah Solomon, founder of the National Council of Jewish Women, pioneered the creation of public activist identities for Jewish women as Jewish women. Emma Goldman suffered repeated imprisonment for advocating birth control and eventual exile for questioning U.S. involvement in the war of her day. Henrietta Szold bypassed expectations for what Jewish women could do and through the creation of Hadassah afforded hundreds of thousands of American Jewish women the ability to play a critical role in the creation of the State of Israel. Gertrude Weil fought for both women’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans in her native state of North Carolina. The list is long and comprises many whose names are well-known and many more whose stories have not yet been told.
Indeed, the women who told their stories at last week’s Women Who Dared events are heirs to a long history of Jewish women’s experience. Attending those celebrations could not change the events that will define March 19, 2003, in our history books, but the women we honored reminded us that even on the most difficult days we can still shape our world and those around us. They asked us to see that in a world that is too often cruel, every act of faith in humanity, every risk that we take to challenge destructive complacencies, every time we dare to make a difference, we are showing that it does not have to be that way.
Amid the daunting challenges of this particular Women’s History Month, it mattered that we were in the presence of women who have taken risks, who have challenged expectations, who have moved outside the established course others might have chosen for them. In the process they have touched lives, helped others, made the world a little better, a little safer. They offered material evidence that we can do the same.
Attendees in Boston emerged from Women Who Dared to the reality that the United States was bombing Iraq. There was little we could do that night beyond going home to turn on the television. But in the days and weeks to come, many of us will draw upon the lessons learned from the day’s honorees to remind ourselves that, even in the most parlous of times, the world is not beyond our grasp.
Karla Goldman, author of “Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism,” is historian in residence at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass. The Jewish Women’s Archive’s online “Women Who Dared” exhibit can be seen at www.jwa.org.