When I was in college, I studied Architecture for three years and then decided to take a risk and switch to a major in Women’s Studies my senior year. Interestingly enough, as I was taking about five or six classes each semester (to finish on time) on feminist literature, theory, and activism, I was also becoming more religious. This was a challenging, fascinating, and confusing time for me as I straddled the two different worlds I felt increasingly connected to - the feminist community and the Orthodox Jewish community. Looking back, I’m extremely grateful for this experience because it pushed me to contemplate many complicated issues, topics, and, often uncomfortable, questions of my own identity.
Since going through this whirlwind of an experience, I've learned that no matter where we find ourselves on a path to meaning and understanding of our beliefs, we're always going to have hesitations, questions, and concerns. It's not possible for any one person to feel, authentically, that they "have all the answers". There should always be room to reach out, to discuss, and to just take time to think. I want to talk about tough topics such as identity, meaning, and my own personal journey on the blog in hopes of creating a community where we will disagree with one another at times, but can still sustain a sense of “being in this together” in wanting to tackle tougher, yet meaningful questions that we all face today.
So at this point I feel like there’s no better thing to do than to dive right into one of those qusetions right now!
How I Believe Feminism Defines Itself and My Relationship to Feminism
I get asked a lot about my position and thoughts on feminism and whether or not I consider myself to be a feminist. As a religious woman writing a blog about modern topics and issues, I think it would be helpful for readers if I addressed these questions and tried to elucidate what some of my basic beliefs and opinions are. There are many different things to discuss more specifically, but for now I’ll just outline some main points.
Before I share my views on feminism, I think it’s important to begin with a brief statement on how I believe feminism defines itself and its ideals*. Feminism, more than just a women’s movement for equal rights and legal protection, sees itself as an advocate for both freedom of choice in every aspect of women’s lives, and freedom from all forms of oppression. In order to successfully achieve this freedom, feminism strives to better understand this complex web of oppressions, where each woman faces her own unique and overlapping obstacles ranging from sexism, to racism, to homophobia, to workplace discrimination, etc. (a concept often referred to as intersectionality). The ultimate feminist ideal is to achieve a society where women have the autonomy to choose their own paths to personal fulfillment. However, most feminists acknowledge that there are many conflicts of interests and profound disputes in trying to achieve this goal.
With this in mind, I do believe that there is, however, an inherent and unavoidable contradiction in the feminist philosophy and movement that complicates the above definition and challenges the claim that feminism seeks to clear a path to any and all choices and lifestyles. As I mentioned before, feminism states that it would like to create a society where each woman can find her own path to fulfillment, free from all forms of oppression. However, the framing and defining of the word “oppression” within feminism ultimately leads to the defining of a woman who is empowered and educated, versus a woman who is disempowered and/or naïve to the oppression surrounding her. This inevitably gives more value and legitimacy to the choices, lifestyles, and life-philosophies that are perceived as coming from a place of empowerment, and applauds and celebrates women who epitomize these highest forms of enlightenment. Women whose lifestyles are perceived as oppressed or oppressive, are either seen as naïve and in need of education and help, or worse, as contributing to the further suppression of women’s rights and freedom of choice. Feminism therefore gives itself the right to decide who is on the side of oppression, versus who is on the side of enlightenment; who is on the side of wrong, versus who is on the side of right; who should be supported and celebrated, versus who should be questioned and enlightened. This ultimately means that the judgement and potential approval or disapproval of a woman’s lifestyle still remains in the hands of another, contradicting the very point of feminism in the first place.
While I see this as a problematic contradiction within feminism, I still very much admire feminists who try to tackle complicated issues with honesty and reflection. The national conversation formed by feminists Deborah Spar, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter (and even some of the radical feminist criticisms of this conversation) about women and work/life balance, for example, has made me think much more deeply about the social pressures women face in balancing their personal and professional selves. There are many feminist ideas, societal developments, and conversations that I truly appreciate, follow, and benefit from, and some of my most beloved role models and teachers throughout the years, especially in college, are deeply committed to feminism. At the same time, I don’t identify as a feminist myself. I ultimately draw my values from Torah Judaism, which guides me in all aspects of life. I have the space to learn from a variety of ideas and people, and to use their insights to challenge my own logic. But my understanding of purpose and justice and my parameters for right and wrong are ultimately defined by my religion. It's a lifelong process of epiphanies, uncertainty, insights, and questions, to try and better understand exactly what those parameters are.
My favorite Women’s Studies professor was a noted feminist theorist and involved in radical feminist work, but mentored and pushed me to use the lives and ideas of religious women to challenge class discussions. She not only gave me courage, but a tremendous appreciation for anyone who can take intense conversations to intellectually sophisticated places with poise and skill, as she often did. Having these types of discussions have the potential to dispel some of the difficult and taxing tensions between religious and feminist communities – an idea we will hopefully tackle in the near future.
*several changes were made to the post after an insightful comment by a reader (see comments)