BROOKLINE – Nearly 50 years ago, a small group of Boston area feminists began meeting in each other’s homes to talk about women’s health issues and women’s sexuality.
The women were preparing material for a course on women’s health, a subject that at the time – in the late 1960s – was ignored by mainstream health care providers and even considered taboo. The idea for the course grew out of Boston’s first “Female Liberation” conference in the spring of 1969 at Emmanuel College, where Nancy Miriam Hawley led a workshop titled, “Women and Their Bodies.”
“At the time, there wasn’t a single text written by women about women’s health and sexuality,” Hawley told women’s history scholar Joyce Antler decades later.
The group, which later became the Boston’s Women Health Collective, set out to change that. From an early, stapled newsprint booklet on women’s health, the collective wrote “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a trailblazing book published in 1970 that is widely credited with empowering women of all ages – around the world – to be informed advocates of their health, their health-care rights, and their sexuality.
Now considered the “bible” of women’s health, “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” has sold more than 4.5 million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages.
What is not well known is that the overwhelming majority of the collective that created the book were Jewish, including Hawley, the late Esther Rome, Paula Doress-Worters, Vilunya Diskin, Joan Ditzion, and Jane Pincus.
In her new book, “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement,” (New York University Press), Antler, professor emeritus of American Studies at Brandeis University, where she chaired the department, reveals a similar story for the handful of influential radical feminist organizations that emerged across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The groups, who talked about all aspects of their lives, were activists who took on society’s patriarchal norms and sexism, from workplaces to the male-dominated leftist organizations they had been part of.
But the one subject they didn’t discuss was the Jewish identities of many of the women.
Antler, whose award winning books include, “You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother,” and “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America,” set out to fill in the portrait of what has been missing in women’s history and Jewish women’s history in particular.
“Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement,” which was published last May, traces the emergence of these collectives, including in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and the backgrounds of these bold and inspirational women and the influence their Jewish roots played in shaping their lives and views.
It also tells a parallel story, that of Jewish women who, beginning in the 1970s, confronted the male-dominated Jewish institutions and transformed them.
In 2011, Antler brought 40 of these women together – 20 of the early Jewish feminists and 20 who worked to change Judaism – for a conference at New York University. That conference and years of research and in-depth interviews form the basis of Antler’s latest book.
The reasons women kept their Jewish identities under the radar of their political work were complex, Antler explained. Their social and political causes were not Jewish focused, but were universal, and they confronted sex discrimination in society as a whole, often on behalf of women from minority communities and poor working class backgrounds.
But anti-Semitism also was a factor, she noted. In some circles, Jews were at times viewed as part of the dominant white culture, considered the oppressor’s world.
The Boston Women’s Health Collective included an observant Jew, one woman who attended Jewish day school, and a third who was a Holocaust survivor as a child.
Esther Rome’s traditional Jewish practices and her Jewish-influenced passion for learning and pursuing the truth was an acknowledged influence in the collective’s approach to its work, according to Norma Swenson, one of three non-Jewish founders of the collective who Antler interviewed for the book.
“It’s crucial to put the Jewish women’s stories on the record so that new generations have guides for their own actions,” Antler said in a phone conversation.
“It’s the basis of women’s history. To be inspired.”