The talk at the second annual Jewish Women’s Conference of Southern California focused not so much on the Jewish part, as on the women’s part. Some 300 women (and one man — a devoted husband, perhaps?) filled the ballroom of UCLA’s Covel Commons on Nov. 11 for a series of sessions on activism, feminism today, women’s health, the effects of the recession on women, plus one session on Israeli women and another on rabbinical interpretations of women’s equality within Judaism.
The hall’s main ballroom was packed for the general sessions, and the breakouts were also well attended — there were very few of the usual renegade gossip-sessions in the hallways. Throughout, the thirst for connection on the topics and for engagement in the larger world was obvious. This conference, still nascent but growing in size and organized by the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), is clearly fulfilling a need, despite — or perhaps building upon — the longtime presence in the Jewish world of activist women’s organizations like Hadassah and Na’amat, let alone the many sisterhoods of synagogue congregations.
Why do Jewish women need to hear from other leading Jewish women? Perhaps because we don’t hear from them often enough. Abby Leibman, in a panel I moderated titled “Jewish Women’s Voices in Activism,” pointed out that as the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, she is one of only a handful of women top executives nationally in Jewish organizations not solely focused on women’s issues. Women are present in executive positions throughout the Jewish world, but most often not as the most senior. Which means that women professionals too often are not seated at the boardroom table, or, at best, are under-represented in a roomful of men.
Why does this still matter, and will it change? Younger women bristle now at the thought of being labeled “feminists,” preferring to avoid the gender identification. But the generation who grew up forming the women’s movement, or who were early joiners — the boomers, in other words — are aware that being identified as women and as leaders remains important, because it’s crucial to help shape the conversation.
“Women’s issues are the defining domestic issues in this country,” Leibman said. It is all too often the single mothers who find themselves without adequate money to feed and house their families, abandoned and unable to work and pay for basic needs. The discussions that took place over the course of the last election cycle regarding not just the right to choose to have an abortion, but also of “legitimate rape” and even access to birth control, brought women out in droves to the polls, electing for the first time 20 women to the Senate. (Is 20 percent representation really enough to celebrate? That question arose at the conference, too, and the consensus was: Clearly, it’s a move in the right direction.)
Robin Sax, an attorney and legal analyst for Fox 11 News, as well as a frequent legal commentator on many other TV programs, was also on the activist panel, and she pointed out that women make up the major audience for daytime TV, which is when she usually appears. “In my world, women are valued,” she said. “Women are the No. 1 target audience.” So she’s taken it upon herself to tell tough stories that are often overlooked, notably her recent series about domestic abuse of both women and children. “If media and consumer products need us,” for our buying power and as viewers, she said, “why not use them to tell our stories?”
It is the forgotten women, the sex-trade workers in Guatemala, that have become the cause of Jodi Finkel, an associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University. She is also founder of MuJER, a wholly volunteer effort in Guatemala to teach literacy to women working in red-light districts, thereby helping to free them from believing they can survive only by selling their bodies. Finkel’s inspiration for this effort came just from hearing an interview with one woman on National Pubic Radio, and with the aid of her students, Finkel set out to find this woman and teach her to read — which they did, empowering her to find new jobs.
Can men focus on these same issues? Of course, and they do. President Barack Obama has spoken eloquently on the importance of protecting women’s rights, and this fall at the United Nations, he gave a major speech on the need for a worldwide effort to combat modern-day slavery, from child sex slaves to migrant workers (a speech, by the way, that was overshadowed in the mediasphere by chatter of whether the president should, or could have, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on that same day). Women’s health, safety and well-being are not just women’s issues, but they often need women’s voices to keep them front-and-center.
Gatherings like the Women’s Conference enable women to focus, to encourage participation — to inspire. It seems so obvious, but it takes an organization like NCJW to put in the work-intensive effort to pull it off.
Twenty women in the Senate, 300 women in a ballroom — it really isn’t enough. But it’s a move in the right direction — and next time around, hopefully, there will be more.