Jewish women have a long-standing history of deep involvement in the American feminist movement. Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” was Jewish, as is playwright and activist Eve Ensler, current leader of the international movement opposing violence against women. The connection Jewish women have to their “womanhood” is clear, so why aren’t Jewish community institutions engaging in conversations on women’s issues?
Much of the activism for Jewish women revolves around asking them to donate money rather than creating programs to address important topics that have a huge impact on their lives and their children’s lives. In an age when many women are financially independent or sole income-earners facing a challenging economy, women increasingly need and want more information, education, support and mentorship. Jewish women want to learn about women’s issues and women’s issues within Judaism. We want to meet each other. We want to learn, grow and help each other learn and grow. And we need programs to help us do so.
Interestingly, many women have dropped off the “feminist” map, openly expressing their discomfort with this word. This group includes highly successful women such as Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, who said, “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I think that I certainly believe in equal rights, I believe that women are just as capable, if not more so in a lot of different dimensions, but I don’t, I think, have, sort of, the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that.”
Similar to Mayer, many young women today fear being labeled as militant or overly angry. But at the same time, women are still earning only 77 cents to each dollar a man earns. And are we equal when, as I write this on the eve of Election Day, only 17 percent of seats in Congress are held by women, 12 percent of U.S. governors are women, and 23 percent of state legislators are women?
After the first Jewish Women’s Conference in 2011 in Los Angeles, it was clear that Jewish women had been craving programs focusing on them and their needs. Nearly 90 percent of post-conference survey respondents felt that Jewish organizations, centers and synagogues in Southern California do not or rarely create enough dialogue on women’s issues. The same high percentage of women felt that these institutions do not or rarely do a good job of connecting Jewish women to each other.
Women expressed wanting more professional networking with other Jewish women, meaningful connections with organizations participating in tikkun olam, and educational programs about women’s issues. Many expressed fears that younger generations of Jewish women are apathetic about feminism, activism and the history of Jewish women’s involvement in the feminist movement. A conference attendee in her early 20s responded, “One woman expressed her fears about the next generation being too quiet. That really stood out to me. I need to learn to find my voice on the issues that matter to me.”
Living in a far-flung city marked by traffic woes, Southern Californians face challenges finding mentors, establishing communities and making time to listen to women of different generations share their experiences and expertise. The Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California, which has its second annual meeting on Nov. 11 at UCLA, is dedicated to creating a space for a diverse group of multigenerational women to learn from, mentor and delve into the more difficult issues that we often don’t want to face. Such topics include how we are going to care for ourselves as we age, what we need to know about our health at various periods in our lives, and how can we financially plan for our futures.
Jewish women face many more concerns than are implied by terms such as “women’s issues” and “feminism.” The 46 speakers at the upcoming Jewish Women’s Conference, all of whom are fully donating their time, are helping to create a more empowered and inspired community of Jewish women in Southern California. It takes a community to empower one individual, and it often takes only one individual to empower an entire community. It’s time to make a collective effort to increase programs and promote topics important to women within the Jewish community.
For more information on the Jewish Women’s Conference, and to register, visit http://jwcsc.org/.
Maya Paley is Program Director of the Jewish Women’s Conference at the National Council of Jewish Women/LA. She also writes the Woman Writes blog at jewishjournal.com/womanwrites.