I was reading on the subway last week and missed my stop. The beautiful irony here is that I missed the stop because I was reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s biography of Gloria Steinem, while on the way to the “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a Legacy of Innovation, Activism and Social Change,” a two-day conference at NYU. Sponsored by NYU’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, the Jewish Women’s Archive, the Spencer Foundation’s Special Initiative on Civic Learning and Civic Action and Brandeis University and convened by Dr. Joyce Antler, the conference brought together 40 Jewish women who participated in the women’s liberation and Jewish feminist movements beginning in the late 1960s.
Speaking on a panel on the next generation of feminist activism, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive, described the conference attendees as “my bookshelf come to life.” For me, it seemed like walking through a field of landmines; anyone I talked to, ran into the bathroom, stood next to in the line for coffee, was a woman who had shaped my feminist theory and identity. Needless to say, I spent two days sweating profusely.
For Alice Kessler Harris,, a professor of American history at Columbia, feminism “came to me like a breath of fresh air.” It was her identity, she said, but it was never associated with Judaism. Throughout the conference, many folks expressed the same sentiment, pondering the role of Judaism in their activism, wondering what had fueled their decisions to accentuate or hide it. Writer and political activist Alix Kates (Redstockings, WITCH, New York Radical Feminists) stated that she and others in the movement never knew who was Jewish, it simply never came up.
For some feminists, it was the tension between universal values and the particulars of Jewish identity that made them reluctant to “come out” as Jewish and this was made even more complicated by the enormous differences between individual Jewish women. Others felt intense vulnerability as a result of the wounds of the Holocaust and McCarthyism, which many had experienced first-hand, and was part what drove them into radical politics.
“If the experience of risk is in your past, you know it,” said Vivian Rothstein, a founder of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. “You gravitate towards other groups who were at risk.” Still more folks, such as Kessler-Harris, wanted to be able to work for justice without being hindered by the complicated question issue of what and who Jews were. “I didn’t want to talk about it because I wanted to be an organizer — to build a coalition you had to be middle American, so I played the part.”
There is no question that a movement that empowered women to bring their full selves into their very personal political work would be stronger. At the conference, folks questioned the role of anti Semitism. “I loved the women’s movement,” said writer and labor activist Meredith Tax. “Did I want someone to say it was a Jewish conspiracy?” Was there a ‘Jewish’ style of debate? Did it offend people? How did non-Jewish women in the movement experience Jews?
Decades later, Jewish feminists are tackling these questions with new perspective. “There was always the contradiction of existing in a patriarchal structure like Judaism as feminists,” said journalist and historian Ruth Rosen, author of “The World Split Open: How The Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.” “But Judaism had planted the seeds of radicalism without me knowing it.”
In our conversation before the conference, convener Joyce Antler told me she hoped for “a multigenerational audience, so that contemporary women can make connections and think about how to carry over the legacy.” The question, of course, is what happens now? What are young feminists extrapolating from the legacy of the 1960s and ’70s? Are we daunted by the prospect of learning from and talking to each other or, as audience member Rachel Kranson proposed, “Is generationalism real? Or is it another idea that’s keeping us from moving forward?”
For me, it was remarkable to be in a room with people who knew the meaning and connotations of the word radical because they shaped its reality. I had rightfully predicted my feelings of awe, challenge and gratitude, but not the experience of understanding what creates the need for a narrative of liberation, and recognizing myself in the stories told by women who laid the foundation for the radical feminist movement. What I could not have predicted was the deep sense of resonance I felt in hearing women 30 years older than I describe moments of consciousness-raising. They had language now to name what they had previous seen as normative, thereby beginning the work of releasing the stranglehold of systemic sexism on their lives and on the lives of others.