Thursday, October 31, 2013

When Everything Changed: Gail Collins on the State of Women in America

When I heard that Gail Collins, the New York Times op-ed columnist, would be speaking at my college, I was really excited. Although I don’t read the Times (my family boycotted it because of its anti-Israel tendencies years ago), I had used Collins’ book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present as part of my research for a paper I wrote a couple years ago. I loved reading the book, and was so glad I could get the chance to hear its author speak about the same topic. You can find my notes on her speech here.

As someone who only has clear memories of the years after 2000, some of the stories that Collins shared about how women were treated in the 1950s and earlier just seem like relics of a different millennium. Like the story of the woman who was thrown out of court for attempting to pay a traffic ticket while wearing slacks. Or the one about the high school in Iowa where the boys’ tennis team played on the courts, but the girls’ team was relegated to the school’s driveway. Or the flight attendant whose marriage had been kept a secret, but the airline found out mid-flight and removed her from the plane at a rest stop. To the modern listener, these stories are so ridiculous that they’re amusing, since they’re so far removed from anything that we deal with nowadays.

“Why someone would want to put women on a pedestal in a skirt is beyond me,” she said in relation to the judge who threw the trousers-wearing woman out of court. This is only one example of the many humorous lines Collins wove throughout her speech. I genuinely don’t understand why the stereotype of feminists not being funny arose, since, to quote Eve Ensler, “most women I know are really fucking funny.”

Because I wrote a paper about Second Wave Feminism a couple years ago in high school and used When Everything Changed for research, I knew a lot about many of the historical phenomena Collins discussed, like the flight attendants’ fight for fairness. However, I still learned many new things from her presentation, like the controversy that was sparked over a Barnard student who was living off-campus with her boyfriend.

During the Q&A session after the speech, Collins began discussing the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Since feminists’ interest in the ERA has been renewed in the past couple of years, I was surprised when Collins dismissed it. The ERA has the potential to completely revolutionize women’s status in the US, and got extremely close to doing so in the 1970s. Certainly Collins has every right to think that it’s not worth trying to get the ERA passed now, but I’m going to have to disagree with her.

Collins ended by acknowledging that there are a lot of challenges being made to women’s hard-earned status, but that we should rejoice in all of the gains we’ve made in the past 50 years. “We’ve created a platform for the younger generation to jump off of and fly wherever they want,” she said. “Think about it and enjoy it for a minute. Luxuriate in the things that we’ve achieved.” This is the absolute best advice I’ve heard in a while. We must be realistic about the political and social situation, but we must also celebrate the changes that have enabled us to have our current situation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Women's Suffrage at Harvard and Radcliffe

Background: Women and the Right to Vote
On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, thereby extending every American woman the right to vote. The amendment’s passage was a result of many factors, but largely due to the efforts of Alice Paul.

Paul, the New Jersey-born creator of the suffragist group the National Woman’s Party (NWP), spent the 1900s in London, helping the British feminist Pankhurst family obtain the franchise for women through militant means and civil disobedience. She came back to the US in the 1910s to work for American women’s suffrage. As head of the NWP, she organized suffragists to lobby Congress members, picket the White House, get arrested for these peaceful protests, and go on hunger strikes while imprisoned in order to get the amendment passed.

Suffrage at Radcliffe…
Although most suffrage advocacy work was happening in Washington, DC, Harvard and Radcliffe students in Cambridge were nonetheless active in the cause. Maud Wood Park Radcliffe 1898, a suffragist, attended the 1900 convention of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the largest suffrage organization in the country at the time. Dismayed to find that she was the youngest woman in attendance, she and fellow Radcliffe alum Inez Haynes Irwin established the College Equal Suffrage League to encourage young women to fight for the right to vote.

…and Beyond
Under the auspices of the League, Park toured the country, going from college to college to motivate women undergraduates to support suffrage. She was wildly successful, as new chapters of the League were started in 30 states. Realizing that Park had the right idea, NAWSA began to actively recruit college women in 1906, and the League became an official branch of NAWSA in 1908.

Suffrage Consciousness-Raising at Harvard
The Crimson reports that there were several lectures made available to Harvard students about suffrage throughout the 1910s. The Harvard Men’s League for Woman Suffrage hosted several of these speeches, including one in 1911 delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst, a member of the British suffragist family. Because of Pankhurst’s militant methods, her inclusion in the speaker series was controversial, leading Harvard officials to bar her from speaking on campus. Due to student backlash, she was finally allowed to speak at Brattle Hall (the current Brattle Theater).

The Harvard chapter of the Equal Suffrage League sponsored other speeches given at Harvard about suffrage. In 1913, The Crimson discussed a lecture given in Emerson D titled “How the Women Recalled Judge Weller of San Francisco.” The Crimson labels the presenter as a “non-militant supporter of equal suffrage,” carefully differentiating between this speaker and the Pankhurst who had provoked so much debate two years prior. The next year, the League brought Desha Breckinridge, a prominent suffragist, to campus to speak about “Votes for Women” in Emerson D. In 1915, a panel discussion moderated by a Harvard alum between a suffragist and anti-suffragist titled “Pro and Con of Suffrage” was held in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church.

These lectures and others like them had the desired effect on the student body, as Harvard and Radcliffe undergrads began to support suffrage in droves. “The result cannot be other than a steady improvement in the moral plane of American political, social, and economic life,” an anonymous author in The Crimson opined in 1919, after the Senate passed the amendment.

“College women should realize their debt to the pioneers who have made our education and competence possible. They should be made to feel the obligation of their opportunities and to understand that one of the ways to pay that debt is to fight the battle for suffrage now in the quarter of the field in which it is still unwon,” Maud Wood Park wrote in 1908.

Although she penned these words 100 years ago, if the word “suffrage” was replaced with “feminism,” they could have been written by any contemporary blogger. College women must be aware of the feminists who came before them, those brave individuals who fought against sexism so they would have opportunities for success. Although the battle for suffrage has already been won, there are still so many feminist goals that have yet to be attained. We must protect all of our hard-earned rights and continue to fight for full equality. It’s just part of our legacy as American women.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Buy 50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers Today!

Earlier this year, I was privileged to serve as a Correspondent for Stop Street Harassment (SSH), an excellent organization dedicated to stopping the prevalence of street harassment. Although I have not really experienced any terrible harassment firsthand, I still consider ending this social phenomenon a personal matter. Street harassment is a form of gender-based violence that violates women’s basic human right to safety. As a woman, ending violence against women at large is personal, even if I haven’t been subjected to it myself.

Holly Kearl, the creator of Stop Street Harassment and all-around feminist activist extraordinaire, recently published her second book about street harassment. Titled 50 Stories About Stopping Street Harassers, the book is a collection of 50 stories that were submitted to the SSH blog by people who experienced street harassment. Although it could be upsetting to read stories about harassment, Kearl ensures that the book is inspiring rather than depressing: each story includes the survivor’s reaction to the harassment and how he or she took control of the situation, from verbally calling out the harasser to filing an official complaint about the behavior.

Street harassment is a global issue, and 50 Stories goes out of its way to portray it as such, since it includes the experiences of women from several different countries. It’s nice to see the diversity of voices showcased and intersectional approach taken.

As an action-oriented person, I appreciate the book’s focus on helping empower women to take on would-be harassers. At the end of the day, street harassment will only end when we have a culture change and paradigm shift, but it’s important for women to be able to challenge street harassment in the interim.

“No country has achieved gender equality and no country ever will as long as women are routinely sexualized, disrespected, and harmed in public spaces,” Kearl writes in the introduction to 50 Stories. It is imperative for us, as those who understand how problematic street harassment is, to end street harassment in order to create a more equitable society for women.

You can purchase a copy of 50 Stories here. Fifty percent of all proceeds go to funding Stop Street Harassment programs.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Pew Report on Jewish Americans: How to Revitalize Jewish Youth?

The latest Pew report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, has given the North American Jewish community great cause for concern. The report compares the community’s demographics to those of the past and finds that fewer Jews see Judaism as important in their lives, fewer Jews observe Jewish traditions, fewer Jews marry other Jews and, when asked whether being Jewish is an important part of their lives, fewer (less than 50%) respond that being Jewish is a very important part of their lives.

The Pew Report did not examine trends in American Jewish education patterns, but other studies have highlighted the place that a day school education plays in the life of Jewish students. Recent studies conclude that students who attend a Jewish day school through 12th grade are more likely to marry a Jewish partner, remain connected to the Jewish community, and raise their children as Jews. 

In most major Jewish communities, families are able to choose from a wide variety of Jewish day school experiences. The Orthodox community runs schools for Orthodox families and, in the large cities, these schools include both Modern Orthodox and more right-wing school frameworks. Many Hassidic groups operate schools for their own communities. The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools are K-12 institutions that provide a strong foundation for Conservative Jewish life. Many communities also operate community schools, which are, by and large, overseen and partially funded by the local Jewish federation. These community schools aim to involve an inclusive population of Jewish kids from all streams of Judaism. 

Many parochial Jewish schools struggle with tuition costs, which are prohibitive for large percentages of the Jewish population. Other issues involve high parental expectations, as many parents expect the day school to prepare their child for the best universities and a successful professional life. Jewish schools make a great effort to hire and retain top teachers who will not only impart the subject material competently but will inspire their students and instill within them a love of their Jewish heritage -- this, even though the salaries for Jewish day school educators are below those of public school teachers. 

No think tank or organization has managed to successfully address all of the issues with which the Jewish day school network grapples. The Milken Family Foundation (MFF) has addressed the subject of hiring and retaining top educators by motivating teaching staffs of Jewish schools with their highly coveted Jewish Education Award. Lowell Milken, who has previously started a number of other education programs for the public school system, created the award to ensure that the efforts of outstanding day school educators are recognized. The award aims to honor Jewish highly effective educators for their work, their community involvement, their leadership and their support of their students and the students' families. 

The MFF Award acknowledges that a Jewish school education is the best way to encourage and nourish a child’s Jewish identity. Day schools guide their students as they develop Jewish values and learn how to maintain their Jewish heritage in a multi-cultural society. The Jewish Education Award (JEA) publicly honors talented and dedicated educators who work tirelessly within the Jewish educational system to create exciting and engaging experiences for students and their families. The goals of the JEA involve strengthening the Jewish Day School movement by honoring Jewish educators who contribute their heart and soul to the Jewish community. 

JEA recipients include Jewish day school K-12 teachers, teaching specialists, and administrators. The Award has been presented to educational professionals representing more than 40 schools, recognizing the recipient’s scholarship, creativity and compassion in their teaching.

JEA aims to recognize an educator's originality in his or her educational methods as well as his or her leadership skills, which influence policies that affect their school’s children, families and community. In deciding on the award, the MFF committee considers a candidate’s educational practices in the classroom, their relationship with their student’s families, and their involvement with their Jewish community. 

To be chosen, a teacher must teach in a Board of Jewish Education-affiliated school in their North American community. The award committee consists of professional educators and lay community members who present each year’s JEA recipients with $15,000 and the gratitude and acknowledgement of their community and the Milken Family Foundation.

Overall, the JEA is an excellent way to recognize teachers who go above and beyond for their students. Perhaps things like the JEA will help teachers encourage young Jews stay in the faith, and vitalize the American Jewish community.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thoughts on Gender and Change in Orthodox Communities

On Monday, I attended a webinar sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) titled Gender and Change in Orthodox Communities. The webinar was a live Q&A session with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, DC, moderated by JOFA Executive Director Elana Sztokman. You can find my notes on the webinar here.

The shul (synagogue) recently hired Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, to its rabbinical staff. Since the first three maharats in existence graduated from the yeshiva in May, they are basically defining what role a maharat – which is a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit ruhanit toranit, or a female halakhic (Jewish law), spiritual, and Torah leader – will take. According to Herzfeld, Balinsky Friedman is doing basically anything a rabbi would do, within the confines that gender creates. It was really heartening to hear Herzfeld delineate Balinsky Friedman’s schedule and realize that she has already become an integral part of the shul community, even though she’s only been serving as maharat for two months.

When asked from an audience member if he was a feminist, Herzfeld balked at the term and wouldn’t identify as one. In a way, it’s almost better that he doesn’t call himself a feminist; this way, he shows that you don’t have to have an “agenda” if you support increased opportunities for women in Orthodox Judaism. You just have to be someone who cares about ensuring that every Jew feels a connection to God. It just proves that Jewish feminism is really a movement for the empowerment of the people within their own religion, not just a social change movement.

I really appreciated that Herzfeld criticized anyone who questions women’s motivations when they ask about more opportunities within the religious sphere. “That’s a very hurtful line. People don’t have motivations. In my experience, people’s only motivation is to connect to God,” Herzfeld said. I mentioned a similar point in this post – most of the Orthodox feminists I know are feminists because of a strong desire to connect to Judaism. Not to make a statement.

I liked hearing Sztokman say that JOFA has no agenda in mind, either; they exist to facilitate change where change is wanted and halakhically possible. JOFA understands the importance of respecting existing traditions and customs, and not pressuring people to change when they don’t feel comfortable with it. This respect has to be mutual. When JOFA avoids applying its halakhic beliefs on more right-wing communities, those communities have to avoid preaching that JOFA is not adhering to true halakha. To each his or her own.

I’m also glad that Rabbi Herzfeld didn’t shy away from saying things that might not have been popular among a left-wing crowd, like saying that his shul won’t have women lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service or do peticha (opening) of the Aron (Ark). “Even though we have women leading some prayers, we’re not egalitarian services,” Herzfeld said. He stressed that when any change in the shul was made, it was done to adhere to halakha as well as normative Orthodoxy. There’s no need for him to be ashamed of this, and I’m glad that he didn’t try to make excuses for it.

I do think that women serving in halakhic religious leadership roles can change the face of Orthodox Judaism. They present young girls (and even older women) with opportunities that they had never even thought of beforehand. It’s a shame that for thousands of years, half of our people’s religious resources have not been effectively utilized. It’s an inspiration to know that now, maharats and rabbis – even those who don’t use the word feminist – are helping empower women in their religion.