I recently came across this article in Tablet about the establishment an ambulance service staffed by women and intended for women’s health in the right-wing Orthodox community, in the same vein as the popular Jewish ambulance service Hatzalah. But this article is not about women’s health care or Orthodox gender relations; it’s about identification as a feminist.
In the Tablet article linked to above, the ambulance service’s founder Rachel Freier dissociates herself from the infamous f-word.
“I am not a feminist,” Freier told me. “In our community, being a feminist means you want to do what men do. I don’t think women should sing during prayer services, become rabbis, wear tallis, or have an aliyah. But women are natural nurturers who have been assisting in births since biblical Miriam! There is no halakha against women being midwives.”
I don’t blame Freier for wanting to distance herself from feminism. When I first read about the nascent organization a couple years ago, I reached out to her by email, hoping to interview her or something for Star of Davida. When she never emailed me back, I realized that it had been silly to think she would respond to me. Freier said herself that “in [her] community,” feminism is anathema. If she tried to claim the feminist label or associate with feminists, her work on behalf of the women’s ambulance service would be dismissed and devalued. Identifying as a feminist and allying herself with the existing Orthodox feminist movement would not have been a wise tactic for her; on the contrary, it’s better for her and her colleagues to outwardly call themselves activists inspired by traditional women’s roles rather than feminism.*
On one hand, I find it sad that someone doing work inspired by feminism – whether or not she denies it – so adamantly refuses to affiliate with the movement. I do think that it’s important for feminists to use the label, since it unites activists who are fighting for the same things under the same banner. It also nods to previous generations of feminist activism. I think it’s unfortunate that feminism has taken on a bad taste for the world at large, but the fact that it’s looked upon negatively in my own community hurts me on a more personal level.
Although Orthodox feminism certainly can take form in singing during prayer services and becoming rabbinic advisers, as Freier says disparagingly, that does not have to be the only type of work that Orthodox feminism can accomplish. I think the creation of this ambulance service for women is an excellent example of what Orthodox feminism can do, and why feminism is something that every Orthodox community, no matter how conservative, can benefit from. I define Orthodox feminism as giving Orthodox women a greater voice in their own religion and community; however they wish to exert that voice is up to every respective community’s comfort level. So Freier’s creation of this ambulance service would adhere to at least my definition of Orthodox feminism.
On the other hand, does it really matter if someone says she is a feminist or equalist or humanist or completely eschews labels? The feminist blogosphere has been debating the import of celebrities’ embrace of the word feminist, most recently when Shailene Woodley responded that she is not a feminist because “I love men.” I engaged in this conversation myself a while ago, when Lady Gaga said “I'm not a feminist. I hail men, I love men.”
At the end of the day, the word feminist just a label, and doesn’t really mean anything. Actions are what matter. If someone accomplishes good, it doesn’t matter how he identifies. Personally, I think that Rachel Freier, Shailene Woodley, and Lady Gaga should all pick up a dictionary and call themselves feminists, but if they don’t want to, that’s okay too. We’re all sisters in the same struggle.
*Because Freier has made it so clear that she does not want to be associated with feminism, I have purposely left out the name of her ambulance service so that this article, on an obviously feminist blog, will not be one of the top hits for anyone Googling the ambulance service.