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Towards a More Democratic Feminism

In a just-posted Newsweek article, Jessica Bennett discusses her discovery of feminism at age 28. She writes that it wasn’t until she entered the workforce that she realized that things weren’t nearly as equal as she thought they would be:

So for all the talk about feminism as passé, mine wasn’t a generation that rejected it for its militant, man-hating connotation—but because of its success. Women were equal—duh—so why did we need feminism? It’s only recently that I, and women my age, have come to eat those words.

She goes on to explain that while feminism hasn’t gone away, there is no longer a centralized movement. For Bennett, this is a bad thing; for me, it’s a good thing.

Feminism may no longer be the cultural phenomenon it was during the 1970s. But during this time, when the movement was seen as centralized, its leaders, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, were to a great extent white and upper-middle class; often, they were Jewish. These days, feminism has become more fragmented. But at the same time feminist principles have become more widespread, more culturally sensitive and, ultimately, more democratic. There are organizations like Women for Afghan Women, focusing on Afghan women’s rights and there are organizations like Domestic Workers United, fighting for working-class women.

In the Jewish world, there are feminists across the denominational spectrum, all trying to fight for equality in their own terms. And while we try to respect one another, no one centralized movement could represent all of our needs. For example, I am sensitive to how Orthodox women understand the issue of the agunot, or women legally chained to their estranged husbands, and how they view the issue of female rabbis. I try to listen to their voices instead of processing everything through my more secular worldview; in turn, I hope that women affiliated with more observant feminist groups are sensitive to my more flexible readings of Jewish texts.There is also a range of publications and blogs for Jewish feminists: The Lilith blog, Jewess, Jewesses With Attitude and The Sisterhood can all co-exist, and even find ways to work together.

In recent years, as a Third Wave feminism has revved up, thanks largely to Web sites such as Feministing, Jezebel, and Feministe, many have bemoaned the absence of a unified movement. Yes, cohesiveness might allow feminists to achieve more in terms of political action. But a fragmented feminist movement, as we see in the Jewish world, allows ideas of equality to percolate in a variety of ways, in a variety of places; ultimately, it allows feminism to cover more ground.

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