This is the seventh entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, I unknowingly experienced Jewish feminism before it really existed. Beginning in 1938 my mother, Marjorie Wyler, worked full-time as the Jewish Theological Seminary’s director of public relations, radio and television; it was a position she held for 55 years. My mother was way ahead of her time, not only as a public intellectual and as a leader in an institution dominated by men, but by raising my sister and me with the unshakable belief that we could do and be whatever we wanted.
I would learn decades later that my mother’s trajectory didn’t always have a silver lining: She constantly fought sexism in the workplace and was grossly underpaid. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was in the thick of my political career as a New York City Councilwoman, and as Manhattan Borough president. Sexism gnawed at the edges and chewed through the center of my work.
When I expressed an opinion, I was often dismissed as being “rude,” “pushy,” or “hysterical.” When I requested a public hearing about a piece of legislation I’d drafted, a powerful male colleague responded by saying: “Of course you can have a hearing. I can never say no to a pretty girl.” And although I was popular within the Hispanic community, I could never win the support of Hispanic women over 40. Why? Because back then, many women in the community believed that women shouldn’t work outside the home.
When I lost the mayoral election and left city politics for a new career in international development, my understanding of gender inequality acquired a global perspective.
As president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I am reminded almost daily of the relentless oppression of women in the developing world. I am reminded that, globally, women’s wages are 17 percent lower than those of men; that every year, over half a million women and girls die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth because they do not have access to prenatal care; that in sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 60 percent of all adults living with HIV are women; that more than 60 million girls worldwide are forced into early marriage before the age of 18. But I also know that these women have the power to create change themselves and that there are countless indigenous women activists fighting successfully to improve the quality of life in their communities.
Being a Jewish feminist has been, and always will be, at my core. I don’t think of Jewish feminism as a political platform or as a religious ideology, but as embedded in living a tradition animated by pursuing justice; a tradition that pushes me to question authority and to empower those who are powerless.
In the Forward’s annual salary survey, I learned that even with so many gains for women in these times, there’s still much work to do to level the economic playing field, especially among Jewish communal leaders. The Jewish communal sector’s record on closing the gender pay gap and achieving gender diversity in its leadership isn’t as good as that of other sectors. We must help young Jewish women access top leadership positions held almost exclusively by men.
“We become more secure of our place in the scheme of things as we mend the world,” my mother once said.
Navigating the bold and gentle ways of mending what’s broken is a tough process — a process that often requires leaps of faith and clarity of vision. Being a Jewish feminist anchors me to the work that needs to be done.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization that works to alleviate poverty and advance human rights for marginalized people in the developing world.