You’ve come a long way, baby
But women still have far to go
|Photos courtesy gloriasteinem.com|
With feminist icon Gloria Steinem coming to town, The Jewish Standard reached out to area women in politics, business, and Jewish communal service. Here, each of them weighs in on women’s issues.
Now 76, Gloria Steinem has had second thoughts about posing as a Playboy bunny in 1963.
“I never should have done it,” said Steinem, who will speak in Teaneck on Sept. 21 for the National Council of Jewish Women.
An investigative journalist at the time, she became a bunny for several weeks to research the working conditions of the costume-clad women, chronicling her findings in a two-part series in Show magazine.
While the adventure put a temporary damper on her professional life — “I was taken less seriously as a writer,” she told The Jewish Standard — it nevertheless cemented her reputation as a champion of women’s rights.
Steinem said she is frequently invited to speak to Jewish groups. The writer, lecturer, and activist chalks that up to having shared values.
“I hate to generalize,” she said, “but with that proviso, I think the emphasis on social justice … has probably created a situation where Jewish women may be disproportionately represented in the women’s movement.”
Still, she added, as with all women, the amount of discrimination faced by Jewish women “depends on the part of the Jewish community they’re coming from.”
|Gloria Steinem will speak at the opening meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section on Sept. 21. The event will take place at 12:30 p.m. at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck. For more information, call the NCJWBCS office at (201) 385-4847 or visit the website, www.ncjwbcs.org.|
At the NCJW Bergen County Section’s opening meeting of the year, Steinem will speak about the role of religion in women’s lives. Particularly, she said, “the extent to which religion has not been equal to spirituality, which emphasizes internal authority.”
She will also talk about “one part of history that has not fully come out — the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust and the entirely female concentration camp, Ravensbrück.”
The mistreatment and sexual exploitation of Jewish women has not been written about sufficiently, she said.
“What we need to understand is that the sexual exploitation of women is an inevitable part of genocide. If we had understood that and had the information about this during the Holocaust, we might have been prepared for Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur.”
Steinem, who has been active in feminist and social justice causes since the mid-1950s, will also encourage attendees at the Sept. 21 meeting to learn more about their own family history.
“I have found in my own experience that the feminists in our own families are often unknown to us,” she said.
Raised in Toledo, Ohio, she was always proud of her grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, known to her as a progressive educator in the Toledo community.
“But they didn’t tell me she was a suffragist who addressed Congress,” said Steinem. “It’s interesting for each of us to look back at our own foremothers.”
She added that one of the things she has most appreciated about feminist seders is the practice of recognizing one’s foremothers and asking questions that reflect their experience.
For example, she said, “We ask, why were our foremothers sad on this night?” The answer? “Because they could prepare the feast but not participate in the ceremony.”
Despite gains made by women over the years, much remains unequal, said Steinem, adding that she will know that women have achieved full equality “when I go to Central Park and see black babies being cared for by white men who are well-paid; when I see erotica instead of pornography; and when I see more fathers who are involved in caring for and nurturing their children.”
The major obstacle to this scenario, she said, “are the systems of male dominance; the idea of a hierarchy — being born into a group where one group eats while the other cooks.”
She acknowledged that the word “feminism” has encountered some resistance, but suggested that those who are troubled by it “look it up in the dictionary.” (The American Heritage College Dictionary, for one, defines feminism as “Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”)
“The main problem,” she said, “is that the word has been demonized” by people such as Rush Limbaugh. “But more women consider themselves feminist than Republican.”
“You can’t have democracy without feminism.”
Steinem said young women today are not less feminist but are simply angered by different issues than were women of the last generation.
“They’re mad on the basis of what inequality they experience,” she said. For example, they may be upset about “no sex education in the schools, birth control not paid for by insurance, or pharmacists not filling their prescriptions.”
Often referred to as the poster child for the women’s rights movement, Steinem agreed that there are no longer recognizable feminist superstars.
“We all knew each other then because there were so few of us,” she said, explaining her celebrity. “Now there are many more,” including leading members of Congress. “We’re not as isolated.”
As for the term “post-feminist,” she called it “an invention of The New York Times.”
“It means they’re trying to declare it over. There are two stages of resistance. The first one is saying that something is not necessary — that it goes against nature. The second is to say it used to be necessary. Time magazine has said we were dead 27 times.”
Her own involvement in feminist issues was spurred by “being born female,” she said. Discriminated against as a journalist — “not given important political assignments even when I was more qualified,” being relegated instead to clothing, food, and fashions — she soon learned the value of sharing her experiences with other women, who were going through the same marginalization.
The activist still spends a third of her time on the road as an organizer and lecturer. In addition, she remains actively involved with the Women’s Media Center, co-founded in 2005 with writers/activists and Robin Morgan. According to its website, the group works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard.”
A co-founder of Ms. Magazine, which she describes as “still the only national magazine owned and controlled by women,” Steinem said the journal is important because it covers issues “you can’t find anywhere else. It covers connections.” For example, she said, “You can exactly predict the degree of militarism [in a society] by the degree of child abuse. We don’t disconnect the human experience.”
The media are important, she stressed, because “what we see in the media shapes what we think is normal or possible.”
She’s particularly troubled by the media’s role in sexualizing women and in linking young girls’ self-esteem with physical appearance. While the Women’s Media Center has initiated a project to address this problem, Steinem said others can take action by boycotting offensive media outlets as well as their sponsors.
“We can speak out against it, and we can use it to educate,” she said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘Don’t play with a Barbie doll,’” but you can show a young girl that in real life, the doll can’t even stand up.”
She believes that some things have definitely improved. Pointing to “the power of naming,” she noted that “domestic violence,” “sexual harassment,” “reproductive rights,” and other such terms “are all new words” that have succeeded in raising awareness of these issues.
She also credits now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with “changing women’s ideas,” allowing them to conceive of a female president.
“I didn’t think she could win [the presidency], but she won in the sense of allowing people to imagine,” said Steinem.
What does she tell young girls today?
“I tell them to trust their own instincts and feelings; to do what they love; to look for the wisdom already inside them.”
While much remains to be done, Steinem calls herself an optimist. “Hope is the way we plan, look forward,” she said. “It’s important to be hopeful.”
More on: You’ve come a long way, baby
Barbara Kaufman, former president and now program chair of the National Council Section that will host Gloria Steinem Sept. 21, said the group is “always interested in finding speakers who share the same point of view we do — pro-women, pro-children, pro-families.”
She pointed out that the Bergen County Section, with some 1,200 members, is one of the largest contingents in the 100,000-member national volunteer organization.
Yanina Fleysher, named by Jewish Women International in December as one of 10 “Jewish Women to Watch,” came to the United States from Moldavia, then in the Soviet Union, when she was 12. Today, at 43, she runs a thriving custom-jewelry business based in Cedar Grove and was recognized in National Jeweler magazine last year as America’s best jeweler in the couture category.
How she got her start is a little bit sad and a little bit funny.
Ruth Cole, the president of the State Association of Jewish Federations, supplied the following information:
• There are two female executive directors, out of 12, of Jewish federations in New Jersey — Gerri Bamira of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and Diane Naar of the Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties.
• In the country, there are 54 female executive directors out of 157. This number reflects the fact that there are, in some cases, acting co-executive directors. For example, in Washington, D.C. there is a female acting executive director.
• If the numbers are broken down by city size, the statistics are as follows:
Women in Jewish communal life
After some 23 years in Jewish communal service, Judy Beck would still encourage young women to enter the field.
“I would tell them it’s a fantastic career,” said Beck, former director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “But I’d also say it’s not really a field that will lead them to a top position in an agency.”
In fact, said Beck, while she hopes that the young women she’s mentored over the years would be the leaders of the future, “I don’t know if they’ll be able to.”