Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement by Joyce Antler, New York University Press, US $35.00, Pp 454, May 2018, ISBN 978-0814707630
The women’s liberation movement that began in the United States in the late 1960s was probably the most important social movement of the 19th century. It started with the formation of several small feminist groups which later coalesced into bigger groups. Formed in 1967, Chicago’s West Side Group is considered the first women’s liberation group in the United States. The group discussed every subject — women’s pain, their righteous anger, and their orgasm — intensely. However, the group refrained from talking about the Jewish backgrounds of the majority of its dozen members. In Jewish Radical Feminism, Joyce Antler says that even in the decades after the demise of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the citywide group the West Side women had helped to create, they didn’t talk about their Jewish identities. Antler is the 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 also 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).
The role of Jewish women in women’s liberation movement is highly significant. Joyce Antler says that they helped to start several of the first radical feminist groups in the country, including the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, New York’s Redstockings and New York Radical Women, and Boston’s Bread and Roses. Eight out of the dozen founders of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, one of the most long-lasting women’s liberation projects in the country were Jewish. As the inequalities arose from the linked oppressions of gender, sexuality, class, and race, Jewish women in the women’s liberation movement played leading roles in launching a largely successful challenge to sexism. In their fight against the strictures of patriarchy, they were gender universalists who did not prioritize or even recognize, their ethnic origins as a claim on the most inclusive concerns of sisterhood.
Joyce Antler says that only in later decades did some of them begin deliberately to associate themselves with the Jewish influences that had contributed to their activism. For other women’s liberationists, it was the belated awareness of what they perceived as the neglect or threat of anti-Semitism in the feminist movement that led them to acknowledge their Jewishness and seek ties with other Jewish women. Jewish women’s affinity for critical thinking as a key aspect of their movement participation was not exclusive to Jewish women in women’s liberation — where exploration of life experiences became the primary mode for raising consciousness — critical thinking was an aspect of Jewish culture that had been passed on through many generations. Joyce Antler argues that Judaism’s valorization of intellectual questioning and creativity, its propensity for argument and debate, and its openness to multiple interpretations stemmed from ancient rabbinical tradition. While some critics thought that “excessive intellectualization” might have been problematic for Jews, the emphasis on teaching and learning — the idea that Jews were “People of the Book” — remained a highly regarded component of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Jewish culture.
The historically diverse experiences of Jewish women in Jewish Radical Feminism demonstrate the multiple ways in which Jewish women brought together the Jewish and feminist aspects of their experiences along with the class, generational, sexual, regional, religious, and other perspectives. Joyce Antler says that we see their lives unfolding along these interlocking frames, exposing the simultaneous axes of belonging, commitment, and influence that shaped their participation in the women’s movement and with which they affected change in their own lives and those of many others. The women’s identities were complex, fluid, and multi-sided. Together they illustrated the wide range of identities among their cohort and the continuous shifting of identity over the course of their own lives. These women’s struggles, contributions, failures, and achievements point to new ways of thinking about these remarkable decades.
Jewish Radical Feminism gives a deep look into the role of Jewish women in the Second Wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. Joyce Antler probes and shines a light on how these iconic Jewish radical feminists helped found women’s struggle and sustained it for several decades. Jewish Radical Feminism tells us how Jewish women and Jewish faith helped shape modern feminism for the first time. The role of Jewish women in the feminist struggle was never fully explained. Jewish Radical Feminism fills this gap in scholarship both in the history of modern Judaism and feminism. This valuable study is a tribute to the struggle of these pioneer Jewish feminists.