Friday, May 31, 2013

The History of Street Harassment

Street harassment is a daily phenomenon in every pocket of the United States during the present day. Interestingly, this social trend can be dated back to the late 1800s in America.

Back then, street harassment was called mashing. There are actually records of women who physically exacted revenge on their harassers. In 1904, a Manhattan woman arranged to meet privately with a masher so she could beat him up. Two years later, when a woman boxer in Massachusetts was grabbed by a man, she knocked him out and then revived him with smelling salts out of pity. Other women slapped mashers in the face with their handbags and umbrellas, gave them swollen eyes, and even lacerated their faces.

The police of the early 1900s were very active in combating street harassment. Female officers were often put in charge of catching mashers, and were usually extremely successful. In New York City, a group of jiu jitsu-trained policewomen called the Subway Squad patrolled the trains as plainclothes officers, looking out for mashing. In both the subway and aboveground, mashers were often caught through stings, where they had female officers or harassed women serve as bait to entice the would-be masher.

Interestingly, many victims of street harassment pursued legal justice against mashers. By the 1920s, women were likely to sue because of the availability of private hearings and public encouragement. This era was also the Jazz Age, when women began exploring their sexuality. Since they had gotten the right to vote in 1920, women felt more liberated. A possible result of this increased sense of self is that women were more likely to value their bodies, and were apt to prosecute a man for violating their space.

Men had mixed responses to mashing. Male officers were often apathetic towards victims of street harassment, part of the reason women police became so vital to the cause. However, many men in the force championed the anti-mashing cause. For example, after learning about a “masher’s corner” on 125th Street in Manhattan, the police chief stationed additional officers there. In general, men did take an active stand against street harassment. The Anti-Mashing Society was established in 1903 by a group of men frustrated by the mashing epidemic, and numerous men physically protected women who were being mashed.

What lessons can we, as anti-street harassment activists, learn from the history of mashing?

As effective as it may have been in the early 1900s, it may not be wise for us to support women beating harassers with their handbags. However, self-protection is vital, and women must be able to learn how to effectively protect themselves from street harassment. We cannot, however, pin the responsibility on women to not be harassed. We must educate men not to harass, and work with like-minded men to encourage their brethren to respect women’s space on the street. Our mission is to shift the social paradigm and change people’s attitudes. Hopefully, the term street harassment will sound just as foreign to our children as the term mashing does to our generation.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rachel Simmons: Be Assertive! Get Your Message Across!

Rachel Simmons has dedicated her life to helping girls find their voice and become successful individuals. She is the author of the New York Times best sellers Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. Simmons is the cofounder and program director of the Girls Leadership Institute and a consultant for the Center for Work and Life at Smith College. She will be leading an upcoming workshop entitled Say What You Mean, Be Who You Are. It will be held on the Omega Women's Leadership Center campus in Rhinebeck, New York on the weekend of July 26 - 28, 2013. This fun and powerful workshop gives young women ages 18 to 29 an opportunity to develop their own authentic voices by practicing assertive communication skills, risk taking, and conflict resolution. Below is testimony by Jocelyn S., a former participant.

I would jump at any opportunity to participate in another workshop with Rachel Simmons, who is someone I’ve admired since her first book, Odd Girl Out, came out back in 2002. I got the opportunity to be a part of one of Rachel’s workshops during my time at the Omega Institute. I participated in the Say What You Mean, Be Who You Are workshop, which Rachel managed to cram with a ton of valuable lessons. Taking any workshop at Omega is incredible — it’s a truly magnificent place where people from all over can reflect and learn in a peaceful and nurturing environment that feeds the mind, body, and soul in more ways than you could imagine — but I especially loved the engaging ways Rachel taught us to advocate for ourselves in our relationships.

I remember writing several letters after the workshop ended because I was so eager to practice the tools Rachel gave us to effectively communicate in challenging relationships. I recall her engaging exercise which taught us to express joy and silliness and to let go of the need to look polished and collected. It was during her workshop that I realized how rarely I express my sheer excitement for life, even when there’s a party of adrenaline racing through me just ready to burst. Thanks to Rachel, I can now do this. The opportunity to role play and connect with other young women going through similar struggles was a gift to all of us. Rachel, like many of Omega’s incredible teachers, reminds us not just how to embrace ourselves, but also how to connect who we are with our values and ambitions.

The impact her workshop had on me reminds me of the Gandhi quote: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” I left the weekend with a clear vision of myself and my future. My vision includes loving myself and seeing myself as other people see me and focusing on all I did accomplish today instead of all the things I did not. I wish to embrace the uncertainty of this stage of my life. I want to work to promote empowerment, teach teenagers about the importance of setting boundaries, communication, positive body image, support trauma survivors, teach self-expression, and like Rachel, teach others to listen and find their inner voice.

I just want to give a big shout out to Rachel Simmons and Omega Women’s Leadership Center (OWLC) for the incredible opportunity, and encourage others to learn more about this amazing program (especially scholarships that are now available)!

A note from Sarah K, part of the OWLC Team: Rachel’s 2013 workshop at Omega will take place on July 26-28. The deadline to apply for a scholarship is June 14. Please contact with any questions or to submit your application. We hope that you will join us!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

One of Those Girls

It was just a regular chat in Gmail with one of my best friends, talking about whatever random stuff we always talk about. Teachers. Schoolwork. Gossip. The usual suspects. That’s when she told me that she had an eating disorder for four years, during three of which I counted her as part of my close inner circle of friends.

I was floored. Of the many girls at my school who I could imagine developing an eating disorder, this friend was among the last on the list. She was never one of those girls. You know who I mean when I say those girls. Those girls buy an overpriced salad for lunch and only nibble on some lettuce before throwing it out. Those girls have a calorie-counting app on their iPhone. Those girls stare disapprovingly at their perfectly normal-looking bodies in the bathroom mirror at school. But this friend of mine wasn’t ever one of those girls. As a result, I was completely taken by surprise when she confided in me.

Based on my experience at an Orthodox girls’ high school intended for overachievers, it feels like body dissatisfaction and excessive dieting and exercise are ubiquitous among my peers. However, it’s difficult to ascertain if rates of eating disorders are indeed higher within the Jewish community than they are for the general public. Only a small number of studies have been done on this issue, and those scant few have yielded extremely inconsistent responses.

One study comparing Jewish and non-Jewish girls in a Toronto public school found that 25% of the Jewish girls suffered from disordered eating, while 18% of the non-Jewish girls did. In contrast, an Israeli study surveying Jewish public school girls found that they suffer from the same amount of body dissatisfaction as girls in Western countries; another study posited that the amount of diagnosed eating disorders among teenage Jewish Israeli girls are comparable to Western rates.

The prevalence of eating disorders among the Orthodox community is just as disputed. One unpublished study found that the amount of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction among non-Orthodox Jewish college women is significantly higher than those for Orthodox Jews. These findings are contradicted by a different unpublished study conducted at an Orthodox girls’ high school in New York, which found that 1 in every 19 girls had an eating disorder. (The national average was 1 in 50 at the time of the study.) Until more reliable data becomes available, it’s a toss up as to which studies portray reality.

Those specialists who believe that eating disorders are just as or more common among Orthodox girls and women than the general public have tried to explain the phenomenon. Many blame the strong weight that the Jewish religion and culture place on food. Strict regulations on what is and is not kosher, washing before bread, and saying brachot before and after eating are just a few rituals centered around the mechanics of having a meal or snack. Once we begin to consider that the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) meal is akin to a Food Network Thanksgiving and every Jewish holiday (save for fasts) has a specific food or meal associated with it, it’s easy to see that food has a unique connection to Orthodox life.

Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, an expert on eating disorders within the Orthodox community, strongly disagrees with the claim that Judaism’s emphasis on food breeds anorexia. “Regulations on food intake do not lead to disorders. They’re just like a nutritionist or dietician who suggests your menu,” Rabbi Goldwasser said. “The fact that there’s an emphasis on food [in Judaism] - it only creates a challenge for someone who already has an eating disorder.”

Rabbi Goldwasser also believes that the rates of eating disorders among Orthodox girls and women are no higher than those of any other minority group. “[Orthodox Judaism] has the same challenges as other religions that also have feasts and fasts….Does sacramental wine make Catholics alcoholic? No. But an alcoholic Catholic may be challenged by the presence of sacramental wine.”

I very much agree with Rabbi Goldwasser’s hypothesis. Anorexia is rarely about food; it’s about body image, conformity to the social ideal, and maintaining control. While the ubiquity of food in Jewish ritual and culture may make it more difficult for Orthodox girls and women suffering from eating disorders, I don’t believe that it’s a factor that triggers anorexia and bulimia.

There are innumerable other factors that play a part in the development of eating disorders among Orthodox girls and women. As Jews, we must follow the imperative of kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh - we are responsible for one another. We are religiously obligated to help our sisters with eating disorders, and ensure that they are fully integrated into Orthodox society. If we don’t, who will?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Marital Status Shouldn't Matter at the Mikvah

Last year, I attended Genesis, a summer program for Jewish high school students at Brandeis University. It was truly the most amazing experience of my life, and I literally had the best time there. During the summer, participants had the chance to go to Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikvahMikvaot are ritual baths, typically used by married women who must immerse after they menstruate in order to resume intimacy with their husbands. Mayyim Hayyim is a beautiful, spa-like mikvah that is open to everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious denomination, marital status, or any other identifier. I decided to take the opportunity and go see the legendary mikvah. Although it’s unusual for single women to immerse in the mikvah, while at Mayyim Hayyim, I did so anyway.

When I tell people I immersed, they’re often pretty confused. They usually think I just went to look at the mikvah, but when I clarify that I actually dipped in the waters, the reaction I get is almost always a look of confusion, followed by a nervous giggle, and then a “but WHY?” To be honest, I’m not sure why I wanted to. I have no plans to be intimate with anyone who I’m not married to, and certainly wasn’t expecting to have any opportunities when I did immerse. I wasn’t trying to make any sort of statement, since I don’t believe in using Jewish ritual to make a statement. I just did because I could, to see what it feels like and if it has any impact on my connection to God.

Although I don’t see the big deal about immersing as a single woman, unmarried women going to the mikvah has been a point of contention among the Jewish communities of both America and Israel. Since halakha (Jewish law) prohibits pre-marital sex, most Orthodox authorities are reluctant to allow single women to immerse in the mikvah, since the assumption is that they will then go on to engage in forbidden activities. In Israel, where mikvaot are run by the government’s Ministry of Religion, there has been a lot of controversy over whether or not single women may go to the mikvah, as the implication is that they will then be breaking halakha. As recently as last year, the Israeli government mandated that mikvah attendants must ask women who to come to immerse why they are doing so, and turn away unmarried women.

To combat this injustice, the Center for Women’s Justice and Kolech, two religious feminist organizations in Israel, filed a Supreme Court case against the Minister of Religion to give women who go to the mikvah privacy. After all, a woman (single or married) who goes to the mikvah is not necessarily going to have sex, and even if she does, it’s not really anybody’s business but hers and her partner’s. Happily, the government declared that women’s marital status and reasons for going to mikvah should not be questioned by mikvah attendants. How well this will be enforced can only be determined as time goes on, but I certainly hope that it will be. No woman should be interrogated about why she is immersing in the mikvah. She shouldn't be interrogated about her motives for doing anything else either, for that matter. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Being a Freshman

Why must I be a freshman next year?

Well, because I’ll be enrolling in my first year of college. Yes, I know that. My question centers not on the existentialist quality of being a freshman, but the language of it. Why must I be a freshman?

According to, the word freshman comes from the words fresh (as in new) and man (as in not woman), and has been used to refer to first year university students since the 1590s. This term is clearly a relic of ye olden dayes when higher education was a realm solely accessibly to (rich, upper class, white, able-bodied) men. Although we have abolished or significantly limited the usage of numerous gender-insensitive terms over the years, freshman is still the only way mainstream American society refers to ninth graders and first year college students. Even extremely liberal colleges that generally bend over backwards to be politically correct use the word freshman. For colleges that are supposed to be bastions of left-wing enlightenment, I’m surprised that they use such a dated, sexist term.

Since this has irked me since I was a mere ninth grader in high school, I have traditionally replaced freshman with freshperson. Honestly, it’s become second nature to type in person instead of man after the fresh. However, I am completely aware of how awkward freshperson sounds and how ridiculous it looks to non-feminists.

As a result, I have begun to use the less-clunky term first year. It’s the same amount of syllables as freshman, can be used in the same contexts, and doesn’t sound weird or affected at all. Some colleges, like Wesleyan and Sarah Lawrence, actually use it. I really do think that it’s a viable alternative to the word freshman, and could be used instead.

So, college representatives reading this piece: please, take my suggestion to heart. At least reconsider what you call your first year students. Make a concerted effort to include approximately 50% of your admitted students. It’s the appropriate thing to do in the 21st century.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week: Thank You, Mr. Apter!

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. I’d like to dedicate this post to the teacher who got me into feminism: Mr. Apter.

Mr. Apter was my seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher. I liked him from the first day I took his class. He made students work hard for their grades, which did not endear him to many of my classmates. Personally, I found the work he assigned fun and interesting - never busywork - and his tests were always extremely straightforward. Admittedly, I am a history nerd, but I particularly enjoyed his classes. Mr. Apter used innovative teaching methodology, and once completely overhauled his curriculum because he saw my class was bored. I appreciated the fact that he wanted us to enjoy his class and worked with us to make that happen, something that is unfortunately uncommon to find among teachers.

I will always be indebted to Mr. Apter for helping me find feminism. In seventh grade, we had to write research papers about an influential individual’s impact on history. After quickly Googling everyone on the list of people we could choose from, I opted for Jeanette Rankin, the first woman in Congress. At the time, I was not a self-identifying feminist. I just figured it would be an easy paper to write, since her impact on history (opening the door for women to run for public office) was obvious.

During the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I decided to begin working on my entry to the National History Day (NHD) competition. When I perused a list of women’s firsts online, I found the name of Belva Lockwood, who I had never heard of before. After discovering that she was the first successful woman lawyer, the first woman to argue in front of the Supreme Court, and the first viable female presidential candidate, I chose to write about her. Mr. Apter supported my decision and helped me through my NHD paper. When it came time to write term papers for his class, he forced me to write about a women’s rights history topic (how Alice Paul got women the right to vote), even though I had wanted to write about someone else.

When I worked on the next year’s NHD paper the summer before ninth grade, I was only used to writing papers about women’s history, so I automatically began looking for topics under that heading. I decided to write about something that had occurred during the Second Wave of feminism, since all my previous papers were about the First Wave. Once I chose my topic (the positive impact of the Barbie doll on girls in the 1960s and 70s), I began doing research on the Second Wave and reading the feminist classics of the era. I had my feminist click moment when I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Although it is a little dated, the book still resonated with me, and inspired me to begin identifying as a feminist.

So thank you, Mr. Apter, for getting me into feminism. Without your influence, it’s doubtful I ever would have done research on the history of the women’s rights movement. Because of you, I know what I want to do with my life, and how I want to make my imprint on this world. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude.

Friday, May 3, 2013

In Memoriam: Star of Davida Interviews Mariam Chamberlain

On April 2, 2013, pioneer feminist Mariam Chamberlain died. In September of 2011, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Chamberlain, who was an integral part of establishing women's studies departments in American colleges and funded early research about women's status in the workplace. I am pleased that I can honor her memory by publishing my interview with her.

When and where were you born?
Chelsea, Massachusetts, on April 24, 1918. I grew up there and lived there until I went to grad school in 1941.

You live in New York now. When did you move here?
I lived in New Haven until 1952, and by 1954 I was in New York. I lived in Washington, DC in 1941 to work in the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), which was a precursor of the OSS, which was a precursor of the CIA. I worked in research and analysis. I followed my professor there. The COI was just formed by Bill Donovan, who had a brain trust with eight professors and economists and political scientists and sociologists. This was all before war began in America.

Why did you pursue your BA in economics?
It was a new subject to me, something I had never learned in high school, so it interested me. Also because my father liked public policy, so I wanted to impress him.

Do you feel your childhood or background impacted your views on women’s rights?
Economics was a new field, applying what we learned in grad school. We had to analyze data. There was no gender issue around the work. There were women working there, but they were secretaries, there were few women in higher levels. They did estimates on population needs per capita and the like. Mostly men held leadership positions. It reflected the discrimination that was commonplace at the time. The full professors were all men, and the CIA brain trust was all men (economists, geographers, political scientists, etc.).

I felt a tug towards women’s issues later, in 1971 or 70. By then I was in New York, and on Fifth Avenue there was a women’s march. I saw this parade. A woman watching from the sidewalk had an “equality in marriage” button, so I asked her what it meant and she explained, but I didn’t really get it.

A year later I was working at the Ford Foundation. In 1971, there was a conference at Ford bringing together women I had met, and it was held in the president’s conference room. Among the attendees were Cynthia Epstein, Bunny Sandler, people from WEAL, total there was about 15 people. The VP of Ford wanted to know what the meeting was, so he stayed, and so did the president. They got into women’s issues, so at proposals I never had any opposition.

I got into it because they made a case of discrimination in education and I was in education. Florence Howe had overseas contacts and we, in 1980, went to a conference in Copenhagen. I got Flo to come and bring consultants, and Flo put together a women’s studies program. Afterward she wanted to continue contact and they wanted to help with starting an organization.

Was economics was a popular field for women in the 1930s?
It was uncommon. A few were there, but it was uncommon. It was an important subject, coming to face at that point. There were new theories coming in from England, like Keynes, and we got them at Harvard - I did my PhD work at Radcliffe - before publication. It grew as a field, although not as big as political science or anthropology or psychology. There was a lot of management education, which at the time was mostly managers telling students about the best practices around. We felt there should be better ones. Some colleges developed these new ideas on introducing psychology and math, and we sponsored seminars on those subjects. This was all when I was at Ford. From 1956-1961 I was in economic development and from 1966-1982 I was in educational policy. The second was considered women’s work.

Did any other Radcliffe graduates go into economics or other professions?
There was a period when continuing education was popular, and the idea was to be not only a housewife. For undergrads, a quarter of those who were in economics assumed women would work at least part time. My classmates did have careers, there were three or four outstanding women.

How many women were in the Harvard PhD program with you?
At Harvard after the war, there was a big influx of students, so there was about 100 men and ten women. I don’t know if they finished or not. Some women stayed on track though, even if not at Harvard with me.

Why did you get your PhD?
I had already started it in college and continued it in Washington because I had professors down there, and back at New Haven. I taught at Albertus Magnus College while completing my PhD. I had no objective for a PhD, really. I graduated college in 1940 and got money that way. I took a 25 hour course a week while I did graduate work, and took a job as a research associate at a policy seminar. The head was a woman, and my job was set up for a person doing PhD work. I just stepped into it, it was different than nowadays where everything is so timetabled.

What was your professional goal?
I wanted to be an economist.

Did your family support you being so atypical?
I think so. My mother was neutral, but my father was always proud to have me doing what I was doing. My family’s savings went to law school for my older brother. My father really wanted a lawyer in the family and my brother did it. He majored in Latin and did perfectly but went with law. My younger brother was the same as me, and got no monetary help. I worked my way through and it wasn’t easy for me, but not as much as for younger brother.

What did you do when you worked for the US government as an economist during WWII?
Analysis. We had data sent in by other OSS divisions and they had ratings, A1 was a usually reliable source and info is consistent on that area, C3 was clueless, you figure it out. We took data and put it together in a coherent picture. I came up with estimates for German airstrikes to see if they were possible. We got data from the New York Times if planes got shot down, and the Russians published serial numbers. I put together a logical picture of production, training, losses, etc. Estimating enemy air strength was my job.

Were there a lot of women hired at the time?
A couple. We were treated like the men though.

Were you fired when the soldiers came home?
I stopped working when my husband was demobilized. There were fellowships available for demobilized veterans, so they went to servicepeople who had done grad work but had no job. My husband, through my contacts, found work at Yale, so I left Washington for Yale. We moved to New Haven and he did his fellowship and I did grad work.

When you worked at the Economic Growth Center of Yale, were there many other women there, students and professors?
Yes, the research secretary.

During this time, I taught at Connecticut College as a fill-in. From 1960-1966, my boss was the chair at Ford too. He took a leave from Ford for three years, and he offered me a job so I took it.

While you worked there, The Feminine Mystique was published and NOW was created. Did you have any role in the feminist movement at this point?
At Ford, I was still working on education, as pressures came in from junior staff responding to movement. By 1971 there was pressure on us to do something. Our division had no involvement, that conference started stuff. I was willing to fund anything that came my way.

What were some early grants you gave?
Mainly fellowships for women’s research. Money went to supporting women in educational administration, ACE (the American Council on Education Women’s Network) came in too, I was involved in that. HERS (the Wellesley Institute for Women in Higher Education) too. That was an interesting project. There was a group of women educational administrators, one was a president at a college and the other was the assistant provost at Yale. The women wanted a reference service for women, so we gave them that. It’s still around. We set up a center for women’s research, which began with the Stanford proposal, then at the Washington Institute for Family Studies. We supported both, still today. Minority women were another project we supported. There was a group of sociologists who wanted a grant for research on black women, we gave a grant and helped start a research center at Memphis. This was towards the end of my tenure, they got the proposal in before I left.

What were some organizations that you gave money to?
When Ford got a new president, I didn’t like him or his new administration. He was advised by a friend, so he proceeded to cut out all people over 50, all senior people, without telling the Board and got in trouble. So I left Ford, but I had several colleagues at the Russell Sage Foundation, and they invited me to do a year-long project on women (which was funded by Ford) and set up a task force with 19 people, all of whom were specialists in different aspects of higher education. We put our findings into a book. I included chapters on the use of women’s studies departments, minority education, women in educational administration, all aspects of women in higher education. The 19 women took responsibility for different chapters, and the group made comments. It was a joint project. We sent it to the Sage publishing office and it was accepted and edited into Women in Academe, and came out in 1988.

Was that while you were with NCRW?
I started NCRW while I was at Sage. It was Marjorie Lightman’s idea, at IRH. She joined the Council as treasurer, not director because she already was one but she got into arguments and got voted off.

You were appointed as the founding president of NCRW. Did you attend the gathering Marjorie Lightman convened?
Yes, it was Marjorie’s idea to form a coalition of all those centers. I made a grant for a conference at Siemens about women. I thought it was over, but they agreed to join as a coalition. There was no money for it, but Carnegie agreed to a small support staff, Ford gave some more money, and Sage gave us a space. At first we were on a shoestring, housed at Sage because I was working there. It was a lavish shoestring, but we didn’t have much of a budget. Some early organizations were the Feminist Press, Interart, HERS, ACE, the Wellesley Centers, Stanford Center, Memphis, Jonathan Cole at Columbia, Duke, and the Urban Institute.

Were you surprised that you were chosen to be the president?
Marjorie didn’t want to be it. I guess I was at the center. I had a relationship with these organizations, so they knew and liked me, I had a good relationship with Ford too.

What do these books talk about? What did you do during your term?
I did stuff with international women, and participated in exchange fellowships with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I also focused on minority women. Ford asked if we could do a US women studies fellowship with him. It was really a coalition then, all the meetings were with senior members, members showed up and worked collaboratively. Whenever they wanted women’s contacts they came to us, NCRW was the nerve system. We got more member centers too, tried to keep some alive.

You wrote the books Women in Academe: Progress and Prospects, and Women of Color and the Multicultural Curriculum: Transforming the College Classroom.
Women of color came around later, women of color were there (beverly etc) so it just sorta happened.

Do you have any words of wisdom?
Part of success is being rational, intellectual, and more in theory realm. We have to work for diplomatic change from within rather than barging from outside. I couldn’t persuade anyone, just open eyes of people, teach the curious.