Keeping the Personal Political

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December 1, 2012
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Judith Rosenbaum

Though “the personal is political” did not become a slogan of the women’s movement until feminism’s “second wave” in the 1960s, the slogan aptly describes the continuous impulse of feminism from its origins more than 100 years earlier. Even the first women’s rights campaigners, who fought primarily for political and civil rights, understood that the personal circumstances of women’s lives were shaped by larger social and political structures and therefore provided conditions around which to organize a movement. Though their focus was on suffrage, they addressed a broad range of concerns, from the property rights of married women to the constraints of women’s fashion.

Second-wave feminists were mostly ignorant of their movement’s history and certainly of the ongoing strands of women’s activism between the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1920 and the re-emergence of a vital women’s movement amid the social revolutions of the 1960s. They were also far from a unified movement. Activists like Betty Friedan (author of the landmark The Feminine Mystique) and her compatriots in the National Organization for Women focused on rights for women in the workplace and the public sphere, aiming for equal access. The younger, countercultural women’s liberationists sought more radical social and cultural changes rather than access to the mainstream institutions. These feminists challenged society’s understanding of nearly all gender relations — including sexuality, marriage, violence against women, domesticity, and reproductive rights — and built new institutions, such as rape crisis centers, women’s centers, women’s music festivals, and women’s health clinics.

The second-wave feminists’ slogan, “Sisterhood is powerful,” was an aspirational goal if not always true in practice. While some women experienced gender as their primary identity, other women — particularly those who experienced oppression along other axes, such as race or class — pointed out that sisterhood had often failed them (for example, in the racist appeals made by suffragists, or in the blindness of white feminists to the experiences of women of color). Though sometimes perceived as a failure of the women’s movement, this painful and often angry conversation — present in every phase of the movement — has sparked feminism’s continued evolution. Beginning as a movement devoted to the analysis and redefinition of power structures, with an initial focus on gender, feminism has developed an ever-broadening perspective that recognizes the intersection of power and identities and rejects an analysis of power along one axis only.

Reports of feminism’s death, heralded in nearly every decade, have been (to paraphrase Mark Twain) greatly exaggerated. Yet feminism has also suffered from its own success; the remarkable changes in women’s opportunities in the past 40 years have sapped some of its urgency. Many young women today take for granted their access to education, careers, sports, and financial independence, and — ignorant of the role of feminism in achieving these gains — feel no connection to the movement. This may not be solely a 21st-century problem; Susan B. Anthony famously said, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going. Gratitude never radicalized anybody.” One challenge the women’s movement faces today is how to cultivate the energy arising from that ingratitude while acknowledging the movement’s successes.

New challenges are impacting the movement: The deconstruction of the category of “woman” and the devolving gender binary raise questions about whether the women’s movement needs “woman” to be a stable category. The women’s movement also struggles with the word “feminism.” Statements that align with feminist principles often begin with the disclaimer, “I’m not a feminist, but…” Can the movement reclaim this label? Is it necessary to do so to move forward as a movement? The other language problem revolves around the concept of “choice” — as in “feminism is about choices,” a (mis)interpretation of feminism heavily promoted by popular culture. (Viewers of “Sex and the City,” for example, will never forget Charlotte insisting, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!” when made to feel defensive about giving up her career). The word “choice” is problematic, because it elides all power and context, representing an imaginary world in which all choices are equally accessible, valued, and supported. The notion that “feminism is about choices” is a total rejection of the dictum, “The personal is political.” This version of feminism maintains that all choices are personal, with no political context or structural basis for how they are made.

Finally, the nature of organizing in the 21st century is fundamentally different from that of previous generations of activism. Older feminists often bemoan the absence of younger women on traditional activist front lines of political rallies and marches, and interpret their playfulness as frivolity; young feminists scoff at their predecessors’ ignorance of social media and its organizing power, and perceive their focus on partisan politics as an unsophisticated neglect of popular culture’s influence. The Internet necessarily redefines the nature of a political act. For example, feminist blogging has connected communities of younger women and given them a forum for expressing a new version of “The personal is political.”

These differences in style and approach among generations of feminist activists are played up in the media and sometimes, too, by the feminist reliance on the “waves” metaphor to define its phases of activism. Many have debated whether “waves” remains a useful model or whether the movement should seek a new paradigm. Though it necessarily divides generations of feminists from one another (and leaves some of us, who feel we are between waves, a little confused about our location), it remains a powerful metaphor: Waves are, after all, a relentless, natural force whose constancy and insistence reshape the landscape. What more could feminism hope for?

The Jewish Feminist Movement: A Few Highlights

The insights of feminism have transformed the Jewish community:

• Creating access to public roles as rabbis, prayer leaders, and participants in a minyan; Ezrat Nashim’s “Jewish Women Call For Change” (jwa.org)

• Bringing women’s experiences and perspectives into Jewish practice through ritual and liturgical innovation; Marcia Falk’s “A Blessing for this Day” (jwa.org)

• Generating new interpretations of Jewish texts through feminist midrash; Merle Feld’s “We All Stood Together” (jwa.org)

• Expanding Jewish conceptions of spirituality and the Divine through feminist theology and spirituality; B’not Esh Jewish Feminist Spirituality Collective (jwa.org)

• Challenging the injustice of women’s powerlessness in Jewish divorce; “Freedom for Agunot Now” (jwa.org)

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Judith Rosenbaum is director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org) and curator of the online exhibit “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.” Her doctorate, from Brown University, focused on American studies with a specialty in women’s history.

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