Final Installment of Jewish Women in the USA

by Simona Shur

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it is important to reflect on some of the Jewish feminists who propelled the women’s rights movement in America. 

Ernestine Rose | Jewish Women's Archive
Ernestine Rose

Ernestine Rose was a suffragist and is often credited as the first Jewish feminist. After she immigrated from Poland to the United States, she began advocating for equal rights. Rose strongly opposed the law that deprived married women of property control and protested against this oppressive legislation. Due to her efforts, New York eventually reversed the law, stating that married women were allowed to own land they had before marriage.

Rose famously critiqued traditional Jewish attitudes towards women. However, despite her disagreement with the faith, she continued to showcase her pride in the Jewish culture and frequently spoke out against anti-Semitism. 

In response to an editorial complaining about the increase of Jewish Americans, Rose retaliated stating, “In spite of the barbarous treatment and deadly persecution they [Jewish people] have suffered, they have lived and spread and outlived much of the poisonous rancor and prejudice against them and Europe has been none the worse on their account.”  

Rose fought for human rights and social justice until her passing in 1892.

Betty Friedan is typically considered the mother of the second wave of modern feminism. She was co-founder of the National Organization for Women and its first president. She also conducted research regarding women’s submissive role in society and her published work received critical acclaim, cementing itself as feminist literature. 

Feminine Mystique' At 50: If Betty Friedan Could See Us Now | Cognoscenti
Betty Friedan

Friedan surveyed female graduates from Smith College and found that many of them were unhappy with their role as housewives. Many of these women attributed their depression and anxiety to themselves, but Friedan disgareed, believing that America’s gender roles and expectations forced women into these positions. She eventually published The Feminine Mystique, which jumpstarted a sex-role revolution. This book remains a best seller today.

Friedan also helped fellow Jewish women throughout her career. She led a delegation of American Jewish women which engaged in a US/Israel dialogue, eventually leading to the creation of the Israel Women’s Network. 

Lillian Wald | Jewish Women's Archive
Lillian Wald

Lillian Wald founded Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service and Settlement, a nursing service for immigrants. She coined the term “public health nurse,” believing that local nurses also have the duty to treat social and economic problems. She made thousands of home visits, nursing sick children back to health and aiding her New York community through the difficulties of the Great Depression. 

Wald’s work with Eastern European Jewish immigrants appealed to German Jewish immigrants throughout New York, leading to generous donations to Henry Street Settlement. While she claimed that she had no particular religious connection between herself and Jewish immigrants she worked with, Wald embraced her Jewish liberal upbringing and channeled this benevolence into her work. 

Even though Women’s History Month is over, continue to educate yourself about the Jewish women who have contributed to American culture and society. Below are some links that may be helpful.

More Jewish Women in America: A Continuation of Women’s History Month

by Simona Shur

This is the second installment of Hillel’s dive into famous Jewish American women throughout Women’s History Month. 

Aly Raisman, a two time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA, is a fierce advocate for sexual assault surviviors and victims. She spoke out against some US Olympic coaches, including Larry Nassar, for their inappropriate behavior towards athletes. Raisman has used her position to uplift women and challenge the current athletic system to be better.

Aly Raisman - Wikipedia

Raisman credits much of her career and drive to her Jewish upbringing. “I take a lot of pride in being able to not only represent the USA, but also the Jewish community everywhere,” she said. She also frequently uses Jewish music in her floor routines, famously performing to “Hava Nagila” in the 2012 Olympics. 

I Have the Energy': Dianne Feinstein Makes Case for a 6th Term - The New  York Times

Dianne Feinstein, a California Senator, has fought for women’s rights throughout her career. Some of her key positions include supporting reproductive rights, supporting the Violence Against Women Act, and advocating against wage discrimination based on gender. 

She typically attributes her childhood Jewish education as a big factor that molded her into the politician she is today.

Idina Menzel, the voice behind Frozen’s Elsa, tends to gravitate towards roles that embody powerful characteristics and build women up. Along with her impressive acting career, she runs a charity that offers young girls from urban areas the chance to experience arts programs. Menzel teaches them leadership skills and the importance of women supporting women.

Idina Menzel puts 'Frozen' aside to be fierce in 'Uncut Gems' - Los Angeles  Times

“A BroaderWay gives the girls a safe, beautiful sanctuary to escape their lives in the city and go up into this peaceful country and explore who they are as young women,” Menzel said.

Menzel is also proud of her Jewish identity, stating that her connection to the culture has made her proud of her roots. She wants to raise her kids in a similar manner so they have the opportunity to experience Judaism as well. “I am a Jewish woman and I feel strong connections to my culture, so yes, I would like to bring them up with knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history.” 

Sally Priesand studied to be a rabbi and simultaneously became a feminist icon after becoming the first female ordained rabbi in America. She worked as a rabbi for 34 years before retiring in 2006. 

According to Priesand, there are now more than 700 female rabbis in the Reform movement, with nearly 1,000 worldwide. She thinks this is a very positive and important change for Judaism.

Sally Jane Priesand | Jewish Women's Archive

“When I decided to study for the rabbinate, I never thought much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion the rights of women. I just wanted to be a rabbi,” Priesand said. Despite this, Priesand is incredibly honored that she spearheaded the movement which encouraged women to join the rabbinate. 

Keep an eye out for another article regarding famous Jewish American feminists as Women’s History Month continues!

Jewish Women in the USA

by Simona Shur

In honor of Women’s History Month, Hillel is taking a dive into influential Jewish women who have impacted American culture.

Most importantly, there is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the late Supreme Court Justice who was a pinnacle of feminism. 

Ginsberg famously graduated from Columbia as valedictorian while being the full-time caregiver of her one-year-old daughter and then cancer-ridden husband. Throughout her career in the courts, she advocated for reproductive healthcare rights, pregnancy benefits, equal pay, and workplace empowerment for women. She persevered in the face of anti-semitism and sexism to become the most famous and successful Jewish woman in American government. 

Over the course of her career, RBG fought for minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, as well as women in American society. Her position on the Supreme Court enabled her to fight for marginalized communities as well as become an example and role model for women, especially Jewish women, everywhere.

RBG accredited her career to her personal Jewish upbringing. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.” 

Natalie Portman, the actress who starred in the moviesBlack Swan and Thor, has also cemented herself as a Jewish feminist. She was one of the pioneers of the #MeToo movement, encouraging victims of assault to come forward and speak out against their abusers. 

Portman recently announced she will be playing the female version of Thor in upcoming Marvel movies. She will be the second Jewish American woman to play a Marvel superhero, following in the footsteps of Scarlett Johansson. 

The “mother” of the second wave of modern feminism also happened to be Jewish. Betty Friedan, who co-founded the National Organization for Women in America, fought for women’s equality, and analyzed women’s role in society. 

Friedan discovered that many women felt bored and trapped in their everyday suburban lives and launched a campaign criticizing female domesticity. She published many books about the phenomenon, hoping other women would break away from this type of lifestyle and enter into more competitive work fields and become more excited about their lives. 

Susan Brownmiller, famous American feminist in the 20th century, studied the pattern of violence against Jewish women throughout history. She grew up creating and fighting for  equality within organized religion, hoping Jewish women would find their voice in the fight against female directed violence. 

Over the course of her advocacy and political career, she formed a picket line protesting women’s treatment in the workplace and fervently participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement. 

At some point, Brownmiller attributed her drive to her Jewish roots. “I can argue that my chosen path – to fight against physical harm, specifically the terror of violence against women – had its origins in what I had learned in Hebrew School.” 

These are just a few of the thousands of Jewish women in the U.S. who have impacted American culture and otherwise everyday life. Many of them credit their Jewish upbringing in their fight for women’s equality. If it wasn’t for their ethnic or religious background, they would not have found the drive to fight for girls around the world.

As Women’s History Month continues, more articles will be published to celebrate Jewish American women’s impact on history. 

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