In reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique, Stephanie Coontz wrote in the New York Times that “readers who return to this feminist classic today are often puzzled by the absence of concrete political proposals to change the status of women. But The Feminine Mystique has the impact it did because it focused on transforming women’s personal consciousness.”
I was thirteen when The Feminine Mystique first came out. I didn’t read it until I was in high school. Betty Friedan was not only famous, but also the mother of my younger brother’s best friend. She was simultaneously deeply familiar, a Jewish mother, and at the same time larger than life to me. I never spent time with her, but I knew her family well enough that she would take my call.
In 1979 I made the phone call. I had been a rabbi for three years. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform Rabbinical Association) Convention was scheduled to take place in Arizona, a non-ERA state. There were just a handful of women rabbis. It felt important that women rabbis be at the convention, but we wanted to honor the boycott of non-ERA states. Not knowing what to do, I called Betty. She not only took the call, but her advice was clear: “Go to the convention and invite me to speak!” We did, and that speech was the first time Betty Friedan made a public connection between her feminism and her Judaism.
She began: “…sometimes history books say that the modern Woman's Movement began with my book The Feminine Mystique. Many people have asked me… what made me do it? Probably the simplest answer is that my whole life made me do it, or that I grew up as a Jewish girl in Peoria, Illinois. I grew up isolated and feeling… the burning injustice of the subtle and not so subtle anti-Semitism that was the experience of my generation... the irrationality of being barred from sororities, fraternities, and all the other things, like country clubs, that you were barred from as Jews. I think that the passion against injustice that I have had all my life must have come from that. Then, too, I grew up in an era when Jews, if they could, would try to pass. You'd shave off your nose… you'd change your name. When I went to Smith, some wealthy girls from Cincinnati would… hold their hands behind their backs so they wouldn't talk with their hands. And when there was a resolution to open the college to any of the victims of Nazism and to ask President Roosevelt to undo the quotas that kept the Jewish refugees from coming here, the Jewish girls from Cincinnati didn't vote for that resolution. I, who was just a freshman from Peoria, Illinois, with hayseed in my hair, was horrified. I had this burning feeling, all that I am I will not deny. It's the core of me.
“I had this feeling as a Jew first. First as a Jew before I had it as a woman. All that I am I will not deny. And if I've had strength and passion, and if that somehow has helped a little bit to change the world or the possibilities of the world, it comes from that core of me as a Jew. My passion, my strength, my creativity, if you will, comes from this kind of affirmation... I knew this, in some way, though I was never religious as a Jew, and did not feel alien in the male culture of Judaism at that time…
“You can see why so many Jewish women particularly gave their souls to feminism, when you think of all these girls brought up by the book, brought up to the book, to the worship of the word, as our brothers were. When you think of all the passion and energy of our immigrant grandmothers, in the sweatshops without knowing the language! When you think of mothers rearing sons to be doctors, and coping with all the realities of life! When you think of all of that passion, all of that strength, all of that energy, suddenly to be concentrated in one small apartment, one small house as happened with Portnoy's mother! …A lot of women realized they were not alone and we broke through the feminine mystique. A lot of women began to say, "All that I am I will not deny." The personhood of woman is really what the Woman's Movement is all about. And once we said we are people, no more, no less… we could… apply to ourselves human freedom, human dignity, equal opportunity: all the things that should have been our human and American birthright….
“And we who started the Movement did it with the simple concepts of American democracy. But we applied those concepts to our situation as women, to our unique experience as women. We applied them not to an abstract blueprint for some future generation, but here and now to the dailiness of life as it’s lived. And I always thought that the unique aspect of the Woman's Movement …comes from the unique experience of women. Later, as my children, my own son and my spiritual daughters (some of whom are in this room), began to educate me on Jewish theology, I discovered that it's also profoundly Jewish...”
Betty went on to challenge the assembled rabbis to devote themselves to the passage of the ERA, and she would continue to challenge us over the years to change the systems that make gender-equity so hard to realize. The moment she catalyzed is not yet complete. In some ways it even feels that we are losing ground, as rights we came to take for granted seem to be in jeopardy. Even in Jewish communal work, there are still significant disparities in salaries of men and women in comparable positions, and a dearth of serious family-leave policies in Jewish institutions. This 50th anniversary reminds us that the personal is the political, and there is still so much work to do.
I am grateful to be one of Betty Friedan’s spiritual daughters… and that she took that call.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California.