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Priming the Next Generation of Feminists

This is the tenth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I embraced Jewish feminism with passion, as did many women in my generation. We were the mothers, the founders, the fighters. My special battle arena was having women ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement. When that was accomplished, I knew we would win the larger war; we were helping to create a generation of learned, committed women who would change the face of Jewish communal life. What we predicted came true. Female rabbis now seem as natural a sight on the podiums of liberal synagogues as any male rabbi ever did, and Orthodox women have begun to find their way as religious leaders.

Now I listen with puzzlement when my almost-teenage granddaughter tells me that neither she nor her friends think of themselves as feminists. “That was in your time, Grandma,” she says, “it’s not part of our lives.” But what does she think when she chants a Torah portion out loud or leads services in our Conservative synagogue, as she has done since her bat mitzvah?

She must know — because I’ve told her — that only in recent times have women been permitted to do such things. Yet she takes these activities so for granted that she doesn’t want to hear about what used to be. She is happy with what is. So am I. We always said that we looked forward to the day when women will be so fully integrated into roles that once belonged exclusively to men that nobody would even comment on their presence. We have reached those goals and can feel good about our achievements.

But here’s a worm of discontent that gnaws away at my feminist soul: We opened the doors for women in many areas, but we did not show them how to manage their lives once they stepped through those doors.

My gynecologist, who is the mother of two young boys, tells me that she and her female medical partners must all work full time to keep their practice afloat. Her husband, a computer programmer, has more flexible time than she, and devotes much of it to caring for the children. “But we hardly see each other,” she complains. “I need more time with him; I need more time with them. How do I get it?”

Like her, many working mothers feel torn in all directions. It is true that men today are involved in childcare to an extent their fathers never dreamed of. Yet in many homes, and in spite of the vast changes feminism has wrought, women still carry the larger burden of organizing family life. Women still supervise homework, plan play dates, and schedule the family’s social activities. And even when a man, like my gynecologist’s husband, takes on much of the family responsibilities, women find themselves longing for more hours with their children, to read to them, play with them, shape them.

I would not turn back the clock.

I’m glad women have full access to every field of employment. I know also that working mothers’ lives would be improved if we had better day care, more office flex time, and other work benefits. But I know in my heart that even those benefits will not end completely working mothers’ struggles.

Perhaps there is no set answer to these struggles. Perhaps every woman needs to find her own balance in the work-family seesaw, as so many are now doing. Or perhaps another generation, that of my granddaughter and her friends, will arrive at new solutions to their mothers’ problems.

Then they, too, will discover their voices as feminists. Or whatever they want to call themselves.

Francine Klagsbrun, a columnist for The New York Jewish Week, is the author of more than a dozen books. She is currently writing an in-depth biography of Golda Meir, which will be published by Schocken Books.

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