A history of the radical Jewish feminists and the one subject they never talked about
BY PENNY SCHWARTZ, DECEMBER 7, 2018 1:55 PM
BROOKLINE, Mass. (JTA) — Heather Booth, Amy Kesselman, Vivian Rothstein and Naomi Weisstein. The names of these bold and influential radical feminists may have faded in recent years, but they remain icons to students of the women’s liberation movement of the early 1960s and to generations of women activists since.
The Gang of Four, as they dubbed themselves, were among the founders of Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Union. They were disillusioned by their less-than-equal status — among the men in their leftist political circles and in society at large. Eager to confront the patriarchal norms and systemic sexism around them, they began meeting in a West Side Chicago living room, talking about all aspects of their lives.
Over weeks, months and years, no subject went unturned, from the political to the sexual to the personal. They were “ready to turn the world upside down,” recalled Weisstein, an influential psychologist, neuroscientist and academic who died in 2015.
But one subject never came up: the Jewish backgrounds of the majority of the group.
“We never talked about it,” Weisstein said.
Until Joyce Antler came calling — 45 years later.
About seven years ago Antler, a pioneering scholar in American and women’s studies and professor emerita of Brandeis University, reached out to Weisstein and others in the collective and asked what role their Jewish identities played in their early activist days as radical feminists.
The prevalence of Jews in leftist groups and the women’s liberation movement was embarrassing and something to hide, Weisstein elaborated in lengthy phone conversations with Antler. To claim a Jewish identity countered the universalist vision and the broad social and political causes embraced by their movement.
The story of the Gang of Four is told in the opening pages of “Radical Jewish Feminists: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement” (New York University Press), a captivating and timely new book by Antler that brings to light, for the first time, the ways in which feminist trailblazers were influenced by their divergent and often unspoken Jewish backgrounds. …
“It is shocking, isn’t it?” Antler observed about the fact that this story has gone under the radar for so long. …
Her new book tells two related stories: of Jewish women who looked outward to address universal feminist causes, and of Jewish women who, beginning in the 1970s, confronted male-dominated Jewish institutions, both religious and communal. …
It wasn’t easy for the women who challenged the traditional Jewish hierarchy.
“They often had to turn against their so-called allies and mentors,” Antler said, “and their struggles were often very difficult.”
Universal feminists faced their own struggles. Among the reasons the early radical Jewish feminists avoided the subject of their Jewish identity was that as young women, many in their 20s, they were rebelling against identities they associated with their mothers, Antler said….
She was keenly aware of the involvement of individual Jewish women in radical feminism, but it was not until about 20 years ago that she began to appreciate the significant numbers. Antler estimates that two-thirds to three-quarters of the women in some collectives were Jewish.
“To have this connection and this history so buried and so underground, we lose the significance of what this tradition has meant and what these women have done,” she reflected.
As I wrote earlier this year in Taki’s Magazine:
While Jews tend to pride themselves on being intellectually fractious—“Ask two Jews, get three opinions”—their survival as a nation for thousands of years is a testament to their impressive penchant for defusing internal disputes by picking fights with external enemies. …
In the U.S., intra-Jewish hostilities tend to get transmuted into critiques of society as a whole. In the post-War era, for instance, many high-IQ young Jewish women chafed under their parents investing more lavishly in the education of their brothers. A Jewish comedienne joked that at gatherings of aging Jewish mothers, the second-favorite boast, after “My son the doctor,” was “My daughter drove me.”
Not surprisingly, bright Jewish women such as Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, Rosalyn Baxandall, Susan Brownmiller, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bella Abzug, and Andrea Dworkin tended to be the leaders in the feminist revolution of a half century ago. Also not surprisingly, however, their intra-Jewish resentments of their parents’ Jewish patriarchalism have largely been hushed up, with men or society in general being blamed instead.