Jewish Radical Feminism

Voices from the Women's Liberation Movement

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Joyce Antler
Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , May
     2018.
     464 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780814707630.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement offers Joyce Antler’s ambitious and illuminating take on the intersecting layers of the origins of the women’s liberation movement and Jewish feminism. In tracing the Jewish identities of forty-some women who were a part of key moments in the development of these movements, Antler takes us from the first glimmerings of women’s liberation, through the emergence and development of Jewish feminism, and into the challenging days when anti-Zionism delimited the goals of global feminism. Unlike previous narratives, Antler’s rendering highlights rather than hides the Jewish identities of many of the pioneering thinkers and activists who shaped the creative explosion that was women’s liberation.

Antler takes up a gauntlet thrown down by historian David Hollinger in an influential 2009 article (“Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” American Jewish History, March 2009) which challenged American Jewish historians to move beyond what Hollinger perceived as narrow parochialism to take on larger questions of Jewish involvement in broader American narratives. Hollinger held up the “the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s” as the most obvious field for such exploration, noting that “one might ask if there were any leading feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who were not of Jewish origin” (8). After acknowledging that some non-Jews were indeed involved, he goes on to frame the question: “In what sense is Women’s Liberation … a Jewish story?” (8). Jewish Radical Feminism goes a far way toward answering that question, while providing the information, tools, and framings we need to continue the inquiry.

The Jewish identity of many of those who created the women’s liberation movement has been what Antler terms “an open secret” (8) both during the height of their activism and in subsequent historical renderings of the movement. Early women’s liberation cells were full of Jewish women not talking about their Jewishness. Antler brings the Jewish outlines of their identities into focus, showing that themes related to Jewish identity were often central to bringing many of these women into the movement. There was not one path to activism, however. There were myriad Jewish avenues, with factors that included growing up with radical parents, in white suburban enclaves, or in sexist Jewish communities, as well as responses to the impact of McCarthyism, the Holocaust, or encounters with Israel.

That many were carried by strong personal Jewish narratives into activist spaces where they could travel unmarked as Jews raises many questions. There is some evidence that participants feared that a movement perceived as too “Jewish” could not gain traction as a credible critique of American cultural norms. The ability of Jewish activists to go “unmarked” speaks to the racial politics of a radical era defined by “universal” causes, but one where advocates of Black Power had recently asked white activists (including many Jewish proto-feminists) to leave groups which had constituted the civil rights coalition. Although Antler does not look deeply into the way racial identities and exclusions informed the trajectory of feminism in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, future studies will only profit by being in conversation with her examination of the way in which Jewish identities were both present and not present in this story.

When Antler turns her attention to Jewish feminism, she again identifies a variety of paths to activism, opening discussion of the wide-ranging impact of this work in reshaping contemporary Judaism. In another piece of restorative history, she looks closely at the path of lesbian identity, focusing on a short-lived collective, Di Vilde Chayes, that included Adrienne Rich and Irena Klepfisz, among others. Embracing their marginalized identities as both Jewish and lesbian, the five women profiled in this chapter challenged their erasure by both communities and forwarded influential models of cultural production. It’s worth noting that lesbian contributions to transformative reframings of Jewish theology, culture, and identity appear throughout Antler’s rich account of Jewish feminism and not just in the chapter devoted to Di Vilde Chayes.

Antler’s last chapter takes up the intersection of Jewish identity questions with global feminism and the emergence of an Israeli feminist movement. As she examines the rise of anti-Zionist sentiment at the three international feminist conferences that framed the UN Decade for Woman from 1975 – 1985, Antler does yeowoman work in parsing a confusing series of events during which anti-Zionism resolutions derailed attempts to reach unified statements on global women’s issues and rights. Many of the prominent American feminists who attended these meetings found themselves shocked into renewed engagement with Jewish identity as illustrated by Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 1982 Ms. article, “Anti-Semitism in the Women’s Movement.” For many, the targeting of American feminists like Betty Friedan for their Jewish identities at these conferences forced the realization that it was no longer viable to separate one’s Jewish identity from one’s feminist identity.

As suggested here, Jewish Radical Feminism covers a lot of important ground, offering fascinating insight into the emergence and evolution of movements that changed both American society and Jewish culture. Amidst her account of the (almost overwhelming) plethora of Jewish journeys that animated the activists under study, Joyce Antler offers no single decoder-ring explanation for the activism of these feminists. Still one cannot encounter these stories in all their variety and continue to believe that Jewish women’s experience in the United States may be of only tangential or parochial interest in comprehending the rise of American feminism. This ambitious, passionate history conveys the ambition and passion of the activists who framed new ways of seeing and responding to the world for themselves and others. It provides us with the richest platform to date from which to continue to explore these questions, their contexts, and their legacy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work, Professor of Judaic Studies, and director of the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan. 

Date of Review: 
December 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joyce Antler is Samuel J. Lane Professor Emerita of American Jewish History and Culture and Professor Emerita of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of  You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother(2007) and  The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America (1997) and is the author or editor of many other books on American Jewish history and women’s history.

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