A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America

By Fermaglich, Kirsten | American Jewish History, June 2010 | Go to article overview

A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America


Fermaglich, Kirsten, American Jewish History


A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America. Ed. by Hasia R. Diner, Shira Kohn, and Rachel Kranson. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2010. xi + 269 pp.

This excellent collected volume had its origins in a three-day conference at New York University in 2007 designed to explore the lives of American Jewish women in the post-World War II era. As is clear from the title, the conference took as its launching point Betty Friedan's 1963 argument that a "feminine mystique" pervaded American culture in the years after World War II, limiting women's horizons to the domestic sphere of home and children. Since at least the 1990s, American women's historians have questioned Friedan's argument, noting the ways in which Friedan focused on popular images of white, suburban, middle-class women while ignoring the lived experiences of women of different racial, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds.

With the question mark of their title, the editors of A Jewish Feminine Mystique? engage this scholarly debate, but from a different angle. In addition to questioning the existence and importance of a "feminine mystique" in postwar America, contributors also consider how Jewishness complicated women's experiences. How did Jewish identity affect women's roles, experiences, and public images? As women mostly considered "white" and suburban, did Jewish women experience the mystique in ways similar to non-Jewish women? Or did Jewish women's political liberalism, working-class and urban backgrounds, and complex racial identities make the mystique less powerful?

For the most part, contributors to this volume emphasize Jewish women's difference from non-Jewish women. Using ethnicity and religion as categories of analysis sharply changes the images of 1950s women portrayed by Betty Friedan. For example, Jewish women's experiences on the political left made them activists for peace and civil rights in the 1950s, not quiescent domestic consumers. Indeed, Betty Friedan herself was engaged in left-wing activism in the 1930s and 1940s, and that activism shaped her political engagements in the 1950s and 1960s, as contributor Daniel Horowitz's influential biography has shown. (1) Several contributors to A Jewish Feminine Mystique? offer similar portraits of politically engaged Jewish women in the 1950s. Kathleen A. Laughlin recovers the National Council of Jewish Women's activism in liberal causes such as civil liberties and internationalism, while Raymond Mohl highlights the radical activism of three Jewish women who fought for peace and civil rights in Florida. Approaching Jewish identity from a different political angle, moreover, Nancy Sinkoff explores the ways that Lucy Dawidowicz's attachments to European Jewish culture shaped her political conservatism in the postwar years. And turning from political radicalism to religious innovation, Deborah Waxman describes the Reconstructionist movement's embrace of gender equality in the 1950s, predating the Jewish feminist movement in other branches by more than a decade.

Just as Jewish women lived lives that moved beyond the domestic sphere, cultural images of Jewish women during the 1950s went beyond the "feminine mystique." Judy Holliday's films, for example, continued to reflect the working-class feminism that the left-wing politics of the 1930s Popular Front had made popular, Judith Smith shows, even as Holliday herself was forced to clear her name before the House Un-American Activities Committee. …

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