Rabbi Laura Geller, the third female rabbi ordained in the United States, shared these reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique:
“In 1979, I had been a rabbi for three years. The Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention was scheduled to take place in Arizona, a non-ERA state. There were just a handful of women rabbis. It felt important that women rabbis be at the convention, but we wanted to honor the boycott of non-ERA states. Not knowing what to do, I called Betty [Friedan]. She not only took the call, but her advice was clear: “Go to the convention and invite me to speak!” We did, and that speech was the first time Betty Friedan made a public connection between her feminism and her Judaism.
She began: ‘… [S]ometimes history books say that the modern Woman’s Movement began with my book ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ Many people have asked me … what made me do it? Probably the simplest answer is that my whole life made me do it, or that I grew up as a Jewish girl in Peoria, Ill. I grew up isolated and feeling … the burning injustice of the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism that was the experience of my generation … the irrationality of being barred from sororities, fraternities and all the other things, like country clubs, that you were barred from as Jews. I think that the passion against injustice that I have had all my life must have come from that. Then, too, I grew up in an era when Jews, if they could, would try to pass. You’d shave off your nose, you’d change your name. When I went to Smith, some wealthy girls from Cincinnati would … hold their hands behind their backs so they wouldn’t talk with their hands. And when there was a resolution to open the college to any of the victims of Nazism and to ask President Roosevelt to undo the quotas that kept the Jewish refugees from coming here, the Jewish girls from Cincinnati didn’t vote for that resolution. I, who was just a freshman from Peoria, Ill., with hayseed in my hair, was horrified. I had this burning feeling, all that I am I will not deny. It’s the core of me.
‘I had this feeling as a Jew first. First as a Jew before I had it as a woman. All that I am I will not deny. And if I’ve had strength and passion, and if that somehow has helped a little bit to change the world or the possibilities of the world, it comes from that core of me as a Jew. My passion, my strength, my creativity, if you will, comes from this kind of affirmation. I knew this, in some way, though I was never religious as a Jew, and did not feel alien in the male culture of Judaism at that time. …
You can see why so many Jewish women particularly gave their souls to feminism, when you think of all these girls brought up by the book, brought up to the book, to the worship of the word, as our brothers were. When you think of all the passion and energy of our immigrant grandmothers, in the sweatshops without knowing the language! When you think of mothers rearing sons to be doctors, and coping with all the realities of life! When you think of all of that passion, all of that strength, all of that energy, suddenly to be concentrated in one small apartment, one small house as happened with Portnoy’s mother! … A lot of women realized they were not alone and we broke through the feminine mystique. A lot of women began to say, ‘All that I am I will not deny.’ The personhood of woman is really what the Woman’s Movement is all about. And once we said we are people, no more, no less, we could apply … to ourselves human freedom, human dignity, equal opportunity: all the things that should have been our human and American birthright. …
And we who started the Movement did it with the simple concepts of American democracy. But we applied those concepts to our situation as women, to our unique experience as women. We applied them not to an abstract blueprint for some future generation, but here and now to the dailiness of life as it’s lived. And I always thought that the unique aspect of the Woman’s Movement … comes from the unique experience of women. Later, as my children, my own son and my spiritual daughters (some of whom are in this room) began to educate me on Jewish theology, I discovered that it’s also profoundly Jewish.’
Friedan went on to challenge the assembled rabbis to devote themselves to the passage of the ERA, and she would continue to challenge us over the years to change the systems that make gender equity so hard to realize. The moment she catalyzed is not yet complete…”
Friedan’s message, even as it is still relevant today, helps me realize how far women have come. And then other messages in our society remind me how far we have yet to go.
Have you read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In? Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, urges women to take on higher levels of leadership in the business place. Whether or not you have read the book, there is a good chance you have come across the criticisms it has attracted: Critics complain that Sandberg speaks only for the highly educated woman, the wealthy woman, the intelligent woman. I find it fascinating to compare these critics to those of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique, 50 years ago! Friedan, too, was accused of speaking only from the perspective of the highly educated woman with financial resources. How is it, then and now, that some critics believe that any woman writer needs to speak for every woman’s experience. Do we have space for only one woman’s perspective in the public square? Is there only one kind of woman? Of course not! Women are diverse and there is value in understanding the many differing voices in our society.
I was blessed to participate in our congregation’s recent RS Women’s meeting. As RS women has done over the past years, and really every part of congregation life has done over the past years, the group is reimagining its next chapter. At the meeting, participants shared many good ideas for moving forward with the RS Women. But what I found most inspiring was not the collection of wonderful ideas but the collection of wonderful women. Each had the chance to share something about herself. As women began to share their stories a beautiful tapestry unfolded. The diversity of the group included many demographics, mothers, grandmothers, women with no children, married, unmarried, widowed, career women, cooks, friendly women, shy women, the list goes on. The leadership’s design to have everyone share and the participants’ willingness to open up with others revealed inclusion for a diversity of voice and devotion to the RS vision of creating profound connections.
May Betty Friedan have her voice, may Sheryl Sandberg have hers, and may we have ours.