Igniting a Revolution: An Introduction to the Contributions of Jewish Feminist Leaders to the Modern Women’s Movement

“Feminism saved me from the pressures of society and the effects it could have had on me.” – Arlene Frank

For most people, the faces associated with second-wave feminism are those of warriors. We see women protesting, marching, meeting at conventions, and ultimately changing the world. Among the sea of faces, however, a few loom larger than the rest. When considering leaders and role models, those responsible for the resurgence of the feminist movement in the 1960s, almost immediately the names Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are spoken. If there’s one thing these leaders have in common other than their vision and dedication to the movement it’s their Jewish heritage.

Many influential women at the forefront of the movement both regionally (in Michigan) and nationally share this heritage. The efforts of Jewish Women were behind many of the great social changes our country has seen in the last fifty years. In many ways the efforts of Jewish women were the driving force behind the creation of organizations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) and reforms such as those made to financial intuitions, such as those made to credit and lending practices which made them available to women. The names of leaders like Freidan and Steinem have become synonymous with the revolution though they are hardly the only leaders the feminist movement has known.

Bella Abzug (1920–1998), president and co-founder of Women’s Environment and Development Organization and for a short while co-chair the National Advisory Committee on Women for President Carter, is a renowned congresswoman, civil rights lawyer, and member of the feminist movement who was also Jewish.1 Another notable Jewish feminist is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the founding editor of Ms. Magazine a renowned feminist publication; she held her editorial position with the magazine for seventeen years. Pogrebin also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and a prolific author.2

While other women made feminist advances in areas outside of the movement, but within Judaism. Sally Priesand for example, was the first female rabbi. She was ordained in June of 1972. Priesand attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She has been in her current position at Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey since 1981.3

Paula Hyman, another prominent Jewish feminist, is a founding member of Ezrat Nashim, a Jewish feminist group responsible for presenting the “call for change” to Rabbis of the Conservative movement. This effort calls for an end to gender discrimination in leadership positions and religious practice. Eleven years after the presentation of the “call for change” a vote was made to allow women to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary.4

With the publication of The Feminine Mystique Betty Freidan “lit a prairie fire” under the women across the nation (interview with Joyce Ladenson, December 2007). The book centered on “the problem that has no name,” and did groundbreaking work to expose the misogyny inherent in the (then) current social structure. For many women The Feminine Mystique was their first consciousness-raising experience, a revelatory text that illuminated the prominence and oppression of the patriarchal structure in America. The book is often credited with igniting the feminist movement in the 1960s. It is nearly impossible to disconnect the Freidan’s efforts from those of the modern’s women’s movement. Freidan was a founder of NOW and the National Abortion Rights Action League, two of the major movement organizations which are both still in existence today. She is a founder of NOW, National Women’s Political Caucus, and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).5

Other than Freidan, the woman most commonly associated with the movement is Gloria Steinem. Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1972 and remained on the editorial staff for the next 15 years.6 Ms. is a publication that touched the lives of many feminists including one of our interviewees Susan Kurtzman. Kurtzman remembers her mother Betty’s love for Ms., “It was her bible. It said all of the things that she thought, and all of the things that she hadn’t thought of but wished she had.”7 Steinem is also a prolific author and journalist, whose articles early on in the movement exposed many of the things feminists wished to eradicate.

All of the women interviewed for this project are Jewish women who were active in the feminist movement in Detroit. Many of the interviews were active in Michigan NOW; Jacquie Steingold helped form the Detroit chapter and was active in Michigan Women’s Liberation Movement, its precursor. Steingold also served as the president of Detroit NOW, as well as on the National Board. Others, such as Joan Israel were heads on NOW committees. Susan Kurtzman was the director of MARAL, the Michigan branch of NARAL (founded by Freidan). Several interviewees such as Arlene Frank, Joan Israel, and Jacquie Steingold are or were active in the Detroit women’s forum, a group that meets monthly for a speaker and a luncheon.8

Ultimately, separating the gains of the feminist movement as a whole from those gains stemming from the contributions of Jewish feminists proves to be an impossible task. The women interviewed for this project were involved in an array of organizations and devoted themselves fully to a range of causes, that one is hard-pressed to find an organization or cause in which a Jewish feminist was and an active, driving force. Many of the women cited a system of Jewish values, such as not being passive, and the support of their parents as pillars of their feminist consciousness and actions. Feminism also provided women with a network of friends with whom they could change the world. More than that though, feminism and feminist organizations allowed women to step forth from confining roles and take charge. Arlene Frank eloquently phrased the effect of feminism on her life by saying, “feminism saved me from the pressures of society and the effects it could have had on me.”9


1For more information on Bella Abzug, and a timeline of her life, visit: http://jwa.org/exhibits/wov/abzug/batime.html.

2For more about Letty Cottin Pogrebin visit the Jewish Women’s Archive at http://jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA058.htm.

3An entry about Sally Priesand can be found at http://jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA059.htm.

4For more on Paula Hyman see http://jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA039.htm.

5See http://jwa.org/feminism/. Choose “Timeline” and then “1963-1969.” Click on Betty Freidan’s name and a bio will pop up in a separate, smaller window.

6See http://jwa.org/feminism/_html/JWA067.htm.

7Interview with Susan Kurtzman, January 2008 conducted by Lindsey Kate Sloan and Jasmine Angelini-Knoll.

8All of the information in this paragraph was gathered from interviews conducted by Lindsey Kate Sloan and Jasmine Angelini-Knoll.

9Interview with Arlene Frank, February 2008 conducted by Lindsey Kate Sloan and Jasmine Angelini-Knoll.

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