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The Personal Is Political

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Earlier this week I had dinner in a very crowded hotel dining room with more than 100 women rabbis at the 124th Annual Conference of the Central Conference of Reform Rabbis. The dinner was sponsored by the Women's Rabbinic Network. I couldn't help but remember an earlier CCAR conference, the one that took place in Arizona in 1979, just three years after my ordination. At that time there were just a handful of women rabbis and no Women's Rabbinic Network. It felt important that we women rabbis be at the convention, but we wanted to honor the boycott of non-ERA states. Some of us had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the leadership to move the convention out of Arizona which hadn't ratified the ERA. But we were too few, too young and too easily dismissed by the "old boys." Not knowing what to do, I called Betty Friedan. "Go to the convention and invite me to speak! We'll hold a rump convention!"

We did, and that speech (to a very packed house) was the first time Betty Friedan made a public connection between her feminism and her Judaism.

She began:

Sometimes 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, Illinois. 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...

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.'"

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. In some ways it even feels we are losing ground, as rights we came to take for granted seem to be in jeopardy. In Jewish communal work as well, though there are now more than 670 Reform women rabbis, and many others in the Conservative, Reconstructionist and now even a few in the Orthodox movements, there are still significant disparities in salaries of men and women in comparable positions, and a dearth of serious family-leave policies in Jewish institutions.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of "The Feminine Mystique." In reflecting on this anniversary, Stephanie Coontz wrote in the New York Times that "readers who return to this feminist classic today are often puzzled by the absence of concrete political proposals to change the status of women. But The Feminine Mystique has the impact it did because it focused on transforming women's personal consciousness." As I remember that speech and that convention, I am reminded again that the personal is political, and there is still so much work to do.

For more of Betty Friedan's speech go to the Jewish Journal, where a version of this blog appears. The full text of her speech can be found in the American Jewish Archives.