Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Impact of Education on Women’s Assimilation

Many Jewish women in Russia who assimilated left the religious community because they had received an extensive and formal secular education, but only a limited and informal Jewish education. Religious instruction for Jewish girls was subpar to the education that boys received; even the most preliminary form of Jewish education, the heder, was solely open to boys. As the Russian government required children to attend school, Jewish parents who sent their sons to heder or public Jewish schools sent their daughters to public secular schools or hired private secular tutors for them. As a result, Jewish girls only received the religious instruction that their parents deemed worthy to impart to them, usually learning little beyond Yiddish language and how to read the Hebrew prayers. Girls’ disparate secular and Judaic schooling gave them knowledge of the positives of the secular world, but no parallel understanding of the Jewish religion. Consequently, they had little desire to practice Jewish observance and preferred to assimilate.

Members of the Orthodox community noticed this phenomenon while it was occurring. Puah Rakovsky, an assimilated Jewish girls’ education activist who lived in Russian-controlled Poland during the late nineteenth century, wrote in her memoirs: “If both Jewish girls and boys had studied our Torah, culture, and customs; then how many thousands of Jewish mothers would have been saved from assimilation." 

To combat this acculturation, a rabbi at a Polish rabbinical conference in 1903 suggested that a religious school system for girls should be established, but nothing was done to realize this idea. Finally, over a decade later, an Orthodox woman named Sarah Schenirer established the Bais Yaakov system of schools for girls in Krakow in 1917. The Jewish community rallied behind her, finally agreeing as a whole that Jewish girls needed formal religious education. A major rabbi of the early twentieth century, the Chofetz Chaim, said of the Bais Yaakov movement shortly after its creation: “It is surely a great mitzvah [commandment] to teach girls….Because if not, the girls are likely to stray completely from the path of the Lord and transgress the foundations of our religion, God forbid.”

Interestingly, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that Russian Jewish women of the latter half of the nineteenth century had more secular education than Jewish men, part of what led them to assimilate was the desire for even more of this education. Many Jewish girls, seeing the extensive learning that their brothers did, wanted more of an education and went out of their way to obtain it. In order to enroll in gymnasia or study privately for the exams that would allow them entry into universities, girls assimilated and left the Jewish community. Despite the anti-Semitism that barred many Jews from the institutions of higher learning in Europe, Jewish women had a huge presence at the universities, constituting a disproportionately large percentage of female students.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Comic Cons, Cosplay, and Sexual Harassment

I Google Image searched "women cosplay,"
and this was one of the less sexualized hits.
As a feminist activist, ending the prevalence of violence against women has always been of utmost important to me. As a fangirl, the ability to feel like a full member of my fandoms is integral to my fan experience. These two parts of my identity intersect when it comes to gender issues with fandom. As fandoms are simply smaller groups within our larger society, they are not immune to the sexism and misogyny that plague our culture as a whole.

For example, gender-based harassment and violence have been a social phenomenon since women have entered the public sphere. Consequently, women experience sexual harassment in the larger world as well as within fan spaces. Although the fandom community has given some attention to harassment at conventions and in video games, the conversation has largely minimized the additional layers of complexity that cosplay adds to sexual harassment.

Cosplayers come from diverse backgrounds, and each person who cosplays has his or her own unique motivations for doing so. Certainly, most women cosplay for the same reasons as men do, whether it’s fitting into a community, rejecting larger societal expectations, or creating a new identity. However, some women also have more specific, gendered reasons for cosplaying.

Some do so in order to accentuate their femininity and embrace their sexuality. “When I do my cosplays…I try to make myself feel a bit more feminine than usual. It’s a way of putting myself out there to show people I’m sexy in a certain way…If I’ve got it, I may as well do something with it,” a woman whose cosplay persona is named Black Cat said. This does not mean that women cosplayers have to be meek or passive; another cosplayer who goes by the name The Vixen Gamer states, “Lots of women love a strong, feminine, female character. You don’t have to sacrifice your femininity to be powerful.” Through cosplay, these women are taking traditional (read: patriarchal) ideas of femininity and sexuality and repurposing them into a contemporary, woman-driven definition.

On a related note, Black Cat finds that cosplaying in sexy costumes is empowering because it means reclaiming her body and appreciating it for what it is, without worrying that others believe the way she is dressed is too sexy or slutty. An oft-quoted line from the cult classic Mean Girls (2004) says that “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” Perhaps cosplaying at conventions and other fan gatherings gives women and girls the chance to “dress like a total slut” without being vulnerable to others’ judgments.

Women also cosplay in order to claim male-created characters as their own. “Men design these characters, and if I can put it on and look accurate, I think I’m doing something right,” Black Cat said. The larger world and society is dominated by the patriarchy, and most of the people in the higher echelons of fandom are men. It’s no wonder that women, even those who don’t describe themselves as feminists, would want to claim characters with whom they identify through cosplaying them.

While probing the issue of harassment and cosplay, it’s important to remember that there is nothing inherent in cosplay that encourages harassment; men harass women regardless of what they’re wearing, as inexcusable as such behavior may be. Western culture has taught men that they may – to fit in, sometimes must – comment on women’s bodies without castigation, so they harass on a general level.

However, anecdotal evidence makes it seem that women who cosplay are particularly vulnerable to harassment. Take, for example, Mandy Caruso’s experience at 2012 New York Comic Con. While cosplaying at the convention, Caruso was sexually harassed by a group of male attendees who claimed to be interviewing her for their blog. Although she did not report what had happened to any authorities at the convention, she posted about the experience on Tumblr. The Tumblr community rallied behind Caruso: the post got 40,000 notes within 24 hours (Pahle), and currently has 50,000.

Stories like Caruso’s encouraged Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, to run a campaign with the motto “cosplay is not consent” to reinforce the idea that women must be treated with respect no matter what they are wearing. Several Hollaback! chapters have attended conventions to spread this message. (Keyhan) In 2013, Hollaback! Boston made its presence known at Boston Comic Con by walking around the convention with signs inviting women and men to talk about being harassed while in cosplay. Hollaback! Boston cofounder and site leader Britni de la Cretaz reports that many of the Comic Con attendees who saw her sign actively shared their stories or smiled in appreciation of the support and solidarity. (De la Cretaz)

Why is it that men seem to have even less respect for women’s right to their own bodies while they are in cosplay? Caruso points out that in her experience, “many people at these cons expect women cosplaying as vixens (or even just wearing particularly flattering costumes) to be open/welcoming to crude male commentary and lecherous ogling.” Male convention-goers, like men in most other situations, assume that women dress for men’s edification and not for their own sake, so they feel free to share their opinions, wanted or not.

Not every woman who is harassed at conventions is in cosplay, though. One high-profile example of this is Genevieve Valentine, a science fiction writer, who was sexually harassed at 2012 Readercon. She went public with her story on her LiveJournal. The Internet rallied around her in the same way that it supported Caruso, and Valentine embarked on a journey that would last several months to report her harasser and ensure that he received a fitting punishment for his behavior. This underscores the point that women who are harassed while in cosplay are not “asking for it” and should not have to expect harassment based on their mode of dress.

Men harassing women at conventions could be a form of gatekeeping. Men who are fans may feel threatened by women’s presence in fandom, so they (subconsciously or not) marginalize them in order to feel dominance. These men want to claim fandom spaces as exclusively their own, so they try to squeeze women out via sexual harassment.

Another reason men harass women at conventions is because look for controversy to get their names known. Because of the ease of use of blog and vlog platforms, many run-of-the-mill gamers and fans have their own YouTube channels and WordPress sites dedicated to fandom. “Some of these dudes do step over the line ‘cos they think it’ll get a few extra thousand views on YouTube,” The Vixen Gamer believes. Caruso specifically did not want to out her harassers because she did not want them to get any publicity out of the incident.

Cosplaying is an activity that many fans participate in. Although they have various reasons for cosplaying, many do so to feel like they are part of a community, to reject larger mainstream society, or to adopt a new identity. Women who cosplay may have additional motivations to dress up, including a desire to embrace their femininity and sexuality, to feel empowered, or to claim male-created characters. Unfortunately, despite activists’ efforts, many women who cosplay or simply attend conventions have been subjected to harassment. Sexual harassment is a societal trend that is symptomatic of the patriarchy, but men who harass women in cosplay and at conventions may have more specific reasons for their behavior: they believe that women are cosplaying for men’s attention, they are gatekeeping the fandom, they just don’t understand that sexual harassment is problematic, or they want to generate controversy and get publicity for their YouTube channel or blog. Overall, the issues of gender, cosplay, and harassment have a complicated but fascinating intersection. It is my fervent hope that one day in the near future, women will no longer have to worry that they will be harassed at Comic Con, or that if they are, there will be easily accessible channels to report the harassment and punish its perpetrator.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 5: Rabbinical Perspectives on Women and the Franchise

Rabbis’ opinions on suffrage were just as varied as their congregants’. As early as 1892, rabbis within the Reform movement were agitating to allow for women to become synagogue members with voting rights and the ability to hold office, as the world had progressed past the idea of women as secondary in Jewish congregations. Although the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution in agreement with this sentiment, it was largely ignored for two decades due to members’ disputes over this highly controversial topic.

In 1913, Rabbi Moses P. Jacobson reintroduced the resolution, arguing that CCAR should support women’s political suffrage because Judaism has always aligned itself with advancing the cause of liberty and CCAR was the most representative organization of progressive Judaism at the time. Two years later, Rabbi Horace J. Wolf simply said that Reform women should be given suffrage because numerous states were expected to extend suffrage to their women that year. Both years, CCAR responded that individual rabbis may allow the women of their congregations to vote, but would not make an overarching policy requiring it. Wolf reintroduced the resolution in 1917 and lobbied strongly for it, going so far as to describe the exclusion of women from the franchise as “unethical and unjust,” particularly due to Jews’ history of political marginalization, and that women deserve the vote because they had demonstrated “loyalty, patriotism, and eagerness to serve their country.” Finally, CCAR adopted the resolution, giving Reform Jewish women the vote within the religious sphere before most American women could cast a ballot for president.

Throughout this back and forth in CCAR, other rabbis made their opinions on the matter of suffrage clear. Reform Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch’s 1895 prophecy that women would be enfranchised soon was about twenty years too early, but he was correct that women would eventually obtain suffrage, both within Reform congregations and national elections. The 1915 essay “Woman and Democracy” by progressive Rabbi Stephen S. Wise levies numerous arguments on behalf of enfranchising women, calling for Americans to face the reality of women’s departure from the home and the imperative to recognize women’s autonomy from men. In the wake of CCAR’s passage of the suffrage resolution, Reform Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf published an address supporting women’s suffrage on the grounds of the equalizing status of women in society. Rabbis from other Jewish denominations also came out in support of suffrage: Jewish Theological Seminary alum Rabbi Aaron G. Robison invited Maud Nathan to speak at his synagogue, and Orthodox rabbi Jacob Levinson concluded that it is permissible and even desirable to support suffrage from a religious perspective in The Equality of Women from the Viewpoint of Halakhah.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Jews and Suffrage, Part 4: Anti-Suffrage Activists

Welcome to a new series on Star of Davida, Jews and Suffrage! As you may have surmised from the title, this series will be dedicated to discussing the history of Jews in the American women's suffrage movement, from 1848-1920. Enjoy the fourth installment!

Although many Jews supported suffrage like Maud Nathan and Rebecca Hourwitz Reyher, not all of them did. Famed socialist Emma Goldman, for example, believed in women’s equality to men, but felt that extending suffrage to women would be an exercise in futility: “are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics would be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?”

Other “antis,” as they were called, came to the movement from more conservative mindsets than Goldman’s; Helen Lauterbach believed that women’s reproductive capabilities made them superior to men in childrearing, and they should therefore take ownership of that arena and allow men to be the decision makers who run the world. A woman identified only as Mrs. Henry Seligman who was active in both the NCJW and the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage contested suffrage on the grounds that it would bring more working class women into the voting booth, a relatively common anti-suffrage argument.

As involved as Maud Nathan was in the pro-suffrage movement, her sister Annie Nathan Meyer was part of the anti-suffrage movement. A founder of Barnard College, she felt that women would simply repeat men’s follies if they were given the vote and would not be cause for a stronger democracy. She was deeply critical of the women involved in the suffrage movement, openly accusing them of hating men and desiring to be male. Her 1904 article “Woman’s Assumption of Sex Superiority” became a cornerstone text for anti-suffragists, arguing that women’s social advancement has not mirrored their intellectual capabilities, women are too flighty to be trusted with something as weighty as the franchise, voting would bring them too far away from their intended place in the home. Particularly important to her thesis was countering the popular suffrage argument that women are more moral and can bring this superior sense of right and wrong to their political activity.