In 1911, Lady Musgrave, President of the East Grinstead branch of the Anti-Suffragette League said she was strongly against the vote being extended to women. “Put not this additional burden upon us,” she pleaded, as “women were not equal to men in endurance or nervous energy, and (she thought she might say on the whole) in intellect.”
In Africa and the Middle East, the people who insist on continuing the practice of female circumcision, who hold down screaming young girls as they are mutilated, are also women.
Being a woman gives no one an automatic exemption from being abusive to women.
And so it is that I look with great sadness at those religious women who seem to feel that their task in life requires them not only to support the unfair excesses of the patriarchal society into which we were born, but to throw tomatoes and epithets at their sisters who are trying to make that society a better place for their daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters.
As they lean back into their comfortable lives, armed with a cup of tea prepared for them by their indulgent husbands, they talk with distaste about those “strident, aggressive, loud” women demanding changes in the religious world. Why, we live in the best of all possible worlds, they protest. We love having twelve children, working full time, keeping house, fighting poverty. We are spiritually fulfilled, we are overjoyed.
Let me say that I am sure this is certainly true for some women.
However, what of those who are not overjoyed and fulfilled with this state of affairs? From my own experience as a resident in ultra Orthodox neighborhoods, I can say with some certainty that a such a woman better keep that information to herself. A woman collapsing under the burden of her life will be given many helping hands. But she will get no help or sympathy if she has the intelligence and ability and courage to publicly protest the state of affairs which brought about the social conditions which burden her.
For a woman who admits such “wrong” thinking, will be lectured about her duty and told to shape up. She will be threatened about reducing the marriageability of her offspring if she continues to bring such shame to her family. All this, by other women.
In a recent article, a religious woman points to the hundreds of women who join together at the Kotel for prayers on the New Moon, seeing this as some kind of metaphor for women’s contentment with their religious lives. I can only suggest the writer look a little more closely at her sisters there. Perhaps she will notice that some have tears streaming down their cheeks as they press little notes into the cracks of the ancient walls. For in a society which denies rape, incest, drug abuse, and wife-beating, where else can the victims of such crimes plead for justice?
Women in this world are creative and free, this writer insists. They are writers, poets, playwrights, musicians…
I agree with her. There are many talented women in the religious world. But what outlets do they have for their creativity? The haredi presses which are publishing women, using their talents, are run by men who dictate exactly what guidelines must be followed; how characters need to dress, what they need to think, feel, say and do is all proscribed. The one haredi woman novelist I know who is published by a mainstream press, a terrifically talented Rabbi’s wife from Meah Shearim, uses a pseudonym. Not even her husband knows what she does. For creating real literature is still a dirty little secret in that world, make no mistake.
Even in the most clearly defined area of abuse against religious women, that of the current interpretation of divorce and marriage laws, we get women siding with the stagnant rabbinic establishment which refuses to use those Halachic tools at its disposal to rid the Jewish world of the travesty of rabbinically-sanctioned blackmail and oppression against women. Instead of supporting rabbis who are trying to use Halachic tools like annulments that would take some of the complete power over women out of their abusive husbands’ hands, religious women parrot their men, opposing these efforts, and denigrating those rabbis with the courage to use them.
I would like to turn to my sisters and quote Margaret Mead who said: “A small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
We religious women are not going to be the passive recipients of miraculous changes in our world. We have to make these changes happen – with meetings, petitions, public speaking, and non- violent protest. The suffragette movement started with five women drinking tea. Together, they changed the world in a way which benefited all women.
We religious women can do the same. Let’s not fight each other. Let’s work together to bequeath our granddaughters and their granddaughters a safer, happier, and more just existence. The kind of life our Torah surely envisions for all people.