Despite Betty Friedan’s widely accepted characterization of postwar American women as subservient housewives, many Jewish women did not fit that mold, says Rachel Kranson, co-editor of the recently released “A Jewish Feminine Mystique?”
Jewish women benefited from their involvement in Jewish life, said Kranson, taking on important roles in religious institutions and political organizations and seizing the opportunity “to be leaders and make a public impact when American culture didn’t offer them many of these opportunities.”
Some became social and political activists through organizations such as Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women, and some turned their attention to religion.
For example, she said, women in the Reconstructionist movement petitioned for aliyot before the second wave of the feminist movement had even begun.
“Friedan herself drew on her connection with the Jewish Labor Movement,” said Kranson, adding that “Jewish involvement opened up (a new) world for Jewish women. It was one way in which they negotiated the constraints of 1950s America.”
Kranson, a doctoral candidate in New York University’s joint Ph.D. program in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies, said she and fellow doctoral student Shira Kohn were attending a seminar on American Jews in the decades after World War II and “were frustrated that none of the books dealt with gender.”
The mother of two – who grew up in Fair Lawn and holds a master’s degree in Jewish women’s studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary – decided, together with Kohn and with Hasia Diner, professor of American Jewish history at NYU, to set about filling that gap.
“The first thing we did was organize a conference at NYU to bring together scholars in women’s history and Jewish history to share their research and thoughts,” said Kranson. Pleased with the “rich and ground-breaking” material that was presented, the three women concluded that the presentations would work as a printed volume.
Their book – “A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America” (Rutgers University Press) – examines how Jewish women sought opportunities and created images that defied the stereotypes and prescriptive ideology of Friedan’s “feminine mystique.” Its 12 essays focus both on ordinary Jewish women and prominent figures such Judy Holliday, Jennie Grossinger, and Herman Wouk’s fictional Marjorie Morningstar.
“Since the mid-1990s, scholars have acknowledged that the feminine mystique didn’t apply to working-class women,” said Kranson, explaining that “they had to help provide for their families and didn’t have the luxury of retreating into their homes. But we are the first scholars to use white middle-class women as a test case.”
Many people bought into Friedan’s portrayal of women’s status, since it reflected real expectations and pressures during the 1950s, she said, pointing to limited employment opportunities and psychological studies holding that women would somehow damage their families if they didn’t stay at home.
“She gave a powerful portrayal of real social pressures, but it didn’t mean that women passively accepted these limitations,” said Kranson. Rather, some – including Jewish women – found ways to resist them.
“The theory fell short,” she said. “It was not cognizant of the way in which women were also agents, and not merely victims of a conservative ideology.”
Friedan herself did not fit the mold she described.
“She was never just a housewife,” said Kranson, citing the biography of Friedan by historian Daniel Horowitz. “She was a radical reporter in the ’40s and ’50s.”
According to Kranson, one reason women were able to accomplish so much is that they worked without pay in areas where men would not. In addition, she said, Jewish women had a history of communal involvement, whether religious or political, and many had ties to “the Yiddish working-class culture.”
“Statistics show that Jewish women tended to be more educated; (that’s) consonant with Jews in general tending to have higher levels of education than other Americans,” she said. “They were also more likely to use birth control or believe that it was OK” to do so.
“This was a cadre of highly educated women who had fewer children than other American women in the 1950s,” said Kranson. “They had more tools and more time to make a broader impact.”
“We want people to know that American Jewish women have a history of accomplishing great things, even when the wider culture didn’t necessarily support those efforts,” said Kranson. “They achieved impressive goals in the face of very real constraints. I hope that this catalyzes more scholarship; that it helps people respect Jewish women of the 1950s a bit more.”