Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Remember when Democratic politicians sounded like Haredi Rabbis? And other notes on feminism

The New Yorker provides this insight into an earlier, less exciting time, via a snippet from Adlai Stevenson's address to the women of the Smith Class of 1955 in which he sounds like most Haredi Rabbis I know:
You may be hitched to one of these creatures we call ‘Western man and I think part of your job is to keep him Western, to keep him truly purposeful, to keep him whole.” Stevenson had, he affably confessed, “very little experience as a wife or mother”; but he believed that the housewife’s task was a worthy one, since “we will defeat totalitarian, authoritarian ideas only by better ideas.
The article's author, Louis Menand, continues:
The wife is there to implant those ideas in her working husband. It seems almost a kind of magical thinking that caused people to believe that keeping capable, highly educated people at home—actually de-incentivizing them from entering the workforce—was a good way to win the Cold War.
Sounds familiar doesn't it? Swap the words "win the Cold War" for "defeat the yetzer hara" and the match is made.

Some points (and questions) after the jump:

The question:

Its currently a bedrock OJ belief that a Jewish woman's purpose in life to keep her husband on the straight and narrow. She is supposed to encourage him to run to shiur, to wake him up in time for davening, and to look after his domestic needs so that he is free to study Torah and/or to interact with the outside world. As one Haredi Rabbi I know is fond of saying, our wives are our consciences, the little Jimminy Crickets on our shoulders impelling us toward virtuous actions. When did this condescending, simplistic, and ultimately limiting impression of women enter the Orthodox Jewish imagination? Is it something very old, or did we arrive at it in the 50s? The article quoted above provides some evidence that the it was in the 50s when the the rest of the world settled on the notion women belonged at home, unemployed, and undereducated. In the 20s, for instance,  there were more women Ph.Ds and more women in college than in the 50s. Women also married at an older age in the 20s, and had fewer children. In earlier eras they worked in factories, or in the fields.

The points:
I think its probably true that some women have a civilizing affect on some men, and there's nothing wrong with this per se. The problem with Haredi society is not that it encourages women to be our better halves, but that it attempts makes this their only option. A woman who wishes to do something else with her life shouldn't be stopped; indeed she should be given an education that leaves her with options later on. Not every woman (or man for that matter) has to pursue a career, but the door to that path shouldn't be held shut by society. (and of course the tragedy of out time is that increasingly the door is held shut for men as well.)

The deeper problem, the problem that I think creates the limited education opportunities for girls, and the demeaning messages parents and teacher unconsciously articulate, is this: Among Heredim there is a belief that women are biologically destined to be domestic and subordinate. This is just a construct, created by Rabbis, used as an ex-post-facto justification for inequality, and defended with apologia about the invisible, intangible, yet more elevated female soul. Until the construct is defeated and Haredim come to understand what the rest of the world begrudgingly started to accept in the 60s and 70s, many Haredi women will remain trapped in roles that were not necessarily of their own choosing.

The words Among Haredim  there is a belief that women are biologically destined to be domestic and subordinate. This is just a construct, created by Rabbis, used as an ex-post-facto justification for inequality are a very minor adaption of words written by  Louis Menand  that appear in the article. 

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