Friday, January 20, 2012

What being female meant to me at age 19

A few months ago I wrote this email:

Hi Professor H! You probably don't remember me, but I took a few classes with you back in 2001 or something like that. :) Your classes changed my life- I remember you had us do an assignment reflecting on how gender had affected our lives, which was the first time I had ever reflected on such things. That assignment was a huge turning point for me. Up until your classes I had been planning on being a housewife after graduation (like every other women in my family- they all go to college and then become housewives/stay at home moms). After your classes (and as a result of that assignment) I ultimately ended up minoring in Women's studies in college and then going on to a PhD in Sociology specializing in gender and the family. I finished my PhD last year, and I'm now an assistant professor of sociology at X university.

I thought I should let you know how much influence you've had on my life. Thanks so much for all you have done for me!

Since I wrote that essay 10 years and about 8 computers ago, I thought it was lost forever. But yesterday I was going through my old notes from this class (while working on lesson planning) and I found a rough draft of the essay I had written in my notebook! I had forgotten that back when I was in college and commuting back and forth to my parents for 4 hours a day, I used to write rough drafts of essays in my notebook on the train, and then type it into a computer later.

So this is what 19 year old baby feminist me had to say about being female, transcribed word for word, horrible grammar and potential factual errors included. I'm also going to include some things I crossed out in this draft that I can still read, cause I think they are interesting in terms of my own self-censorship:

What being female means to me

In order to apply to a private jewish high school, one must take a standardized test called the BJE's. Like the SATs, the BJEs included sections on math and english, however the BJEs additionally had several sections testing biblical knowledge. I remember being so relieved in 8th grade that I was female- for boys who take the BJEs, an additional section was present, testing talmud knowledge. I was happy, because I did not have to study this extra subject. I wasn't expected to know it. I was not held to as high a standard as the boys were. I was not tested on the talmud, because unlike the boys in my class, I was not going to be learning the talmud in high school. This was a given. It was a given to the extent that standardized tests for young jewish students standardly left out an entire section for the female test-takers. If I had gone to a co-educational Jewish high school, the girls and boys would be separated every day while the boys learned talmud and the girls learned something easier.

In my all female high school, we were permitted to learn talmud for one year because "when we grow up and become mothers, we need to be able to teach our sons talmud on the elementary level." The easier biblical subjects that replaced talmud in our curriculum were limited to the more "useful" subjects for women - such as the jewish laws pertaining to cooking, and other subjects were applied towards our futures as housewifes - we learned about cooking in physics, and child care in psychology.

Growing up as a jewish female I have constantly been faced with this degradation of women in all aspects of life, not only religious felt my options were limited.

Being female means I am constantly experiencing emotional tension. On one hand I fully expect anyone I choose to live with to do his or her equal share of work, yet on the other hand I resent my mother for not teaching me how to cook, for how can I be a good wife if I can't cook? I want to defy the culturally controlled image of women as thin and yet I can't help choosing the less tasty but lower in fat item in the vending machine. I don't want to promote cultural differences between men and women but I want to wear the tighter shirts, and shave my legs, and carry a pocketbook, and paint my nails, and wear makeup, and tweeze my eyebrows, and have long hair. So every time I shave, or tweeze, or put on make-up, I feel guilt, but I feel like I look too bad to leave my house if I don't keep doing it.

Most of the women in my family have been housewifes- my mother, her mother, her sister, my dad's sister. I have one aunt who is a lawyer (and feminist) and who did not stay home to raise her child. She is looked down upon by my family for having an outsider replace her "role" as mother. When I was in high school I assumed I would be supported by my husband, and did not see the point of getting an education. Yet if I asked my parents if I could skip out on college, they laughed at me like I was joking, and said I would need college to get a good job. Why would I need a good job? So I wouldn't have to be dependent on a husband. When I got to college, and became a feminist, I told my father that if I did get married and have children, I would be returning to work as soon as I was up to it. My father told me that I would have to stay home and watch any child I had until they were old enough to go to school. When I questioned this, he explained to me that as the person who had carried a child to term, it was my responsibility to watch it. He seemed to have forgotten that it takes two people to make a baby.

Since I am female, I am constantly being told what I can't do. In kindergarten, I wanted to race with the boys on the playground, but my teacher forbade me because "it wasn't ladylike." In high school my peers told me that I shouldn't listen to metal, because that was "boy's music." I fooled around with a guy or two and my friend started calling me a skank. This is my friend who got laid by a girl whose name he didn't know until afterwords, when she gave him her number. My teachers told me I couldn't wear pants because that was men's clothing. Is it any surprise that I've wished I was male since I was little?

I recently spoke with a friend who was married last December. When I asked what she was doing with her life, she answered she was waiting for a baby. She is 19. For most of my childhood friends, this is the norm. I am the exception.

I am the exception. Although I am sure my appearance and experiences are not atypical, I can't help but feel that I am somehow different than other women. I am a feminist, yet I find the majority of my close friends are men. I emphasize with men. The stereotypes that are applied to women do not apply to me.

It cuts off there. Reading what I cut out there towards the end makes me realize that much of what I had problems with in the ortho-jewish community is that I wanted to have more of the "male" roles, and this was just not possible in the ortho-jewish community. But out here in the real world, I can have a leadership position that commands respect (kinda like a rabbi!) and my behavior definitely falls within the normal range of behavior for women. I wonder if I would have become non-religious if I was a man and had those roles available to me?


  1. Amazing post. My heart really breaks for the thousands upon thousands of girls (not just Jewish girls) who's already limited choices are made for them, and who don't access nineteen-year-old you's insight until it's too late.

  2. I think it's easier for men to just go with the flow and remain in the fold since their proscribed roles carry higher status in the community. My friends in the community have observed that the people who go off the derech are usually able to do so because they have avoided early marriage and childbearing. This is probably why there is such an emphasis in the community on starting a family as early as possible - because it make it much more difficult to flee.

  3. amazing and it shows how locked in u where as a girl
    and esther how true thats exactly my main problem im married and have kids already so its very hard for me to go otd but i still hope to get there slowely i stop doing religious things

  4. I always thought frum women were supposed to work so their husbands could go off and study Torah. Live and learn...

  5. Conservadox- that may be true among the ultra orthodox, but I grew up among the right wing modern orthodox. No one in my family married a guy who "learns" even my charedi cousins who learned for a few years after high school eventually went to college (by the time they were in their mid twenties) to get a real job.

  6. My question is more like, Would you still be religious if you had been brought up in a Modern Orthodox family, or even a more open-minded Right-Wing Orthodox family? Much of your family's behavior as you experienced it seems almost calculated to drive someone away from observance, although I realize that was not the plan. I know MO women who feel that their parents' and teachers' assertions that they could do anything felt false when they came up against the MO marriage race, but your experience seems quite different. My own experience of growing up in a very feminist non-Orthodox family is that assertions that women can do everything and anything also seem false when one comes up against the realities of modern culture and especially the modern workplace.

  7. Katrina- I did grow up modern orthodox. Right wing modern orthodox to be sure, but modern orthodox, went to a modern orthodox high school where all this stuff took place, modern ortho shul, etc.

    as for this "My own experience of growing up in a very feminist non-Orthodox family is that assertions that women can do everything and anything also seem false when one comes up against the realities of modern culture and especially the modern workplace."

    In my professional opinion (and I do actually study this stuff professionally) yes the workplace has to change so as to be more flexible, but so does the assumption that women are the ones primarily in charge of children- men need to do their fair share in the home too, and men should not automatically have their career be the first priority. In my family my career is the first priority and my husband will probably be the primary parent to our future kids.

  8. Just got to this post, AE, very cool. Fascinating to see the self-censorship of a mind still at least somewhat trapped in Orthodoxy in action.

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  10. Very interesting to see your viewpoint, but also somewhat surprising. I know we are about the same age. And in fact, you grew up in a more MO community than I did. I am soon defending my dissertation in psychology. I am also married with 2 children. I have had other people take care of my kids and my husband and I share household duties. I have rarely been looked down for it. Many other orthodox women I know are doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers, in finance, academicians - basically high ranking professionals - whose husbands are also similar professionals or take a large role in child rearing with a less demanding career. In my experience, this type of female is the norm and not the exception. There are also women I know who have less ambitious careers but are not stay-at-home moms. And there are women who have obtained high level degrees and have decided to be stay-at-home moms.

    Basically, the types of women I've encountered in the orthodox community are similar to the types of women I've encountered in the non-religious or non-Jewish communities. There is a huge range in terms of feminism and career choice. Personally - I've never felt my options were limited because I am orthodox. I felt free to choose whatever I wanted.

  11. I think one of the fallacies is: "I did grow up modern orthodox. Right wing modern orthodox to be sure, but modern orthodox"

    Right Wing Modern Orthodox and Modern Orthodox are worlds apart in thought process and defacto ideology.

    The LWMO camp is pretty close to Conservative Jewry in outlook, but Orthodox in religious observance.

    The RWMO camp is ideologically Chareidi. They might NOT, in practice, believe that men should learn and not work, but they won't condemn the practice, and will give money when people come door to door. The hire Chareidi Rabbis to teach their children, and generally share a philosophy, although not behavior, with Chareidim.

    So in a RWMO, you would easily find things more stifling than in a more Modern world. While LWMO and RWMO don't differ (much) in observance or lifestyle, the differences manifest in world view and dress code. To children that see the world in black-and-white and heavily on the externals, you get a much more primitive world view.

    One thing that is VERY prevalent in the LWMO world though, is a very upper-middle class "nouveaux riche" world view towards education. You see a LOT more MDs, JDs, and MBAs in LWMO than PhD. There simply isn't a lot of value for the liberal arts or other pursuits of the mind. Some of that is simply upward mobile upper-middle class America, where education leads to wealth, and some of it is that Modern Orthodoxy is EXTREMELY expensive, and those in anything but the high earning, fast return professional tracks simply are priced out.

  12. miami al, interesting insights there. I do have some cousins who are LWMO and they are exactly how you describe- both the husband and the wife are lawyers, and their daughter just started law school.

    But that's the aunt I was talking about in this essay- the rest of my family always talked shit about her when I was a kid, when her kid was "being raised by strangers" (and they sometimes used the "S" word in yiddish) as my parents put it.

    But you are right that in practice we were not different at all- they kept kosher and shabbas the one practical difference was my LWMO aunt did not cover her hair except at shul and wore pants (although my mom did the same until I was around 10 years old and she went to some inspirational talk about throwing out your pants and covering your hair).

    It was definitely more in terms of philosophy that they differed though - for instance my LWMO aunt was ALWAYS arguing with my charedi aunt about 'letting her sons learn in kollel all day and not learning anything usefu' while my parents were always much more approving of my charedi cousins..

  13. great post. I love the honesty in it. I find it hard to understand your exact experience because I am not a woman. I had my own struggles with my upbringing and others have had theirs. Its great to hear that some people are able to find their way to happiness.

  14. Wow great post! I love your essay!


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