Founding Feminism: Two Looks Back at the Struggle

‘Voice of Women,’ Lilith Magazine Celebrates Milestone With Exhibit

By Erica Brody

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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Susan Weidman Schneider could never have guessed what would follow when, in 1973, she accepted an invitation to lunch from Aviva Cantor, an editor at Hadassah Magazine. Even when Schneider, then a freelance writer, agreed to become involved with a new feminist magazine for Jewish women, she wouldn’t have predicted what it would mean for herself, for Jewish women and for the Jewish community at large.

That sit-down took place the same year the Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision. Ms. magazine had been founded two years earlier, and Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. There was similar ferment in the Jewish world: Sally Priesand had become the first woman rabbi ordained in the United States by a Jewish seminary in 1972, and the first Jewish feminist conference was held in New York City in 1973.

But while there were Jewish women’s magazines, most were affiliated with Jewish women’s organizations and none was overtly feminist. The feminist press, meanwhile, was showing little interest in Jewish issues, and often displaying hostility toward Israel.

The response cooked up by Schneider and her lunch-mates was Lilith magazine, which would publish its first issue in 1976 with Schneider at the top of the masthead. While its circulation has always been tiny, its influence has been broad. Lilith has covered the dearth of women in top communal leadership positions, the growth of women’s philanthropy, the identities of multiracial Jewish women and sexual harassment in community institutions. Its fiction pages have been home to Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick, as well as younger writers such as Allegra Goodman and Myla Goldberg. Its covers showcase the work of women artists.

“Lilith magazine was the first place I read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Jewish women in the labor movement,” said Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist and Jewish studies professor at the University of Minnesota and author of “Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation.” “I looked to it when I designed baby-namings for my daughters and planned [Seders]. It was and will always remain a touchstone of Jewish feminism.”

For Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who with Gloria Steinem founded Ms., “Lilith unmasked the truth about women’s lives and changed the world for a lot of women. When we started, women’s magazines didn’t cover sexual harassment, issues of rape and battery, domestic violence. Now the women’s magazines in the secular publishing industry cover all of those issues.”

A new exhibit, “Lilith Magazine: The Voice of Jewish Women” at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, chronicles the first 25 years of the magazine, which takes its name from the midrashic legend of Adam’s first, defiant, wife. (The magazine postponed celebrations of the 25-year anniversary of its founding, which fell around September 11, 2001.)

On view through June 27, the HUC exhibit, a collaboration between the museum and the magazine, provides the opportunity to look back over the publication’s history. A large part of the exhibit is dedicated to a series of panels that group the past decades of feminist Jewish journalism by theme, with relevant articles and illustrations.

Schneider spoke with the Forward recently in Lilith’s modest offices, where a path snakes its way through towers of books and manuscripts. Periodically pausing to answer the phone, she spoke of the magazine’s first home in “a walk-in closet in my apartment,” before it found its way to the Fisk Building on New York’s West 57th Street. “This,” she said, gesturing at the central table at which she sat with a reporter over tea, “is where we sit with all of our interns and our editors and our writers and mull over our big stories…. There is a sort of democratic, lower-case-d, process,” one that depends on input from the magazine’s readership, not just a “giant Rolodex.”

While the specifics of the struggles Lilith covers have changed over the years, she said, “the goals are still quite clearly there.” Where once feminism was voiced in an “angry tone telling people how they should think, how they should behave, how they should pray,” she said, now it’s more about “women’s own voices, what the quality of their experiences have been as women.” And so the magazine seeks a delicate balance in the issues it covers between sociological, political or religious context and the more personal, often found in firsthand accounts.

Since President Bush came into office, feminism’s triumphs have come back to the table and the courtroom: abortion rights, Title IX funding for women’s athletics, foreign aid for birth control. Women’s rights, Schneider said, have “to be explained again and again to every new generation…. If the right wing has its way, even the most traditionally observant Jew won’t be able to follow religious law, won’t be able to follow Halacha on abortion, so we just say that again and again.”

On the subject of Halacha, the magazine has its own religious expert in its editor-at-large, Rabbi Susan Schnur. While Schneider handles the business aspects of the magazine, managing editor Naomi Danis deals with the nuts and bolts, along with news editor Yona Zeldis McDonough and poetry editor Marge Piercy. The long list of contributing editors includes Sarah Blustain, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Blu Greenberg, Judith Plaskow, Danya Ruttenberg and Amy Stone.

For those who haven’t read Lilith before, the magazine offers a free issue. Its Web site, revamped earlier this month, provides information about the exhibit and selections from the magazine’s articles, past and present. Its lists of contributors and donors offer a veritable who’s who of American Jewish women.

“When I read Lilith,” Pogrebin told the Forward, “I feel like I’m reading a letter from a good friend who cares about the same things I do and wants me to know about all the exciting events in the Jewish world that affect women.”

She’s not the only one. Schneider said she’s always getting calls from college libraries for replacement copies. Apparently, those nice Jewish girls aren’t always so good.

“Lilith Magazine: The Voice of Jewish Women,” runs until June 27 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, One West 4th Street (between Broadway and Mercer Street), Manhattan. For information, call (212) 824-2293.

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