The movement for women’s rights in the US started, by most accounts, in 1848 with the Seneca Falls convention on the “social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” One hundred seventy years later we are still advocating for the rights of women. The increasing power of women’s voices is undeniable. Now more than ever, is a time for women to lead change.
A growing number of initiatives are shining a light on the role of women as change-makers. Initiatives like the 2017 Women’s March and the #MeToo revolution exemplify the nationwide mobilization taking place all around us. As the CEO of a national, progressive, grassroots women’s rights organization, I have experienced the change first-hand both in the US and Israel.
This past March, NCJW released a research report on the status of women in Israel at a symposium along with hundreds of feminist activists committed to paving a path forward for women. Natalie Portman, the first woman to receive the Genesis Prize Foundation’s award, gave a video address echoing the need for women’s empowerment. The support for her award, which now totals more than two million dollars, will be distributed to groups focused on advancing gender equality in both Israel and the United States. In addition, just this month in Tel Aviv, Genesis awarded its first-ever “Lifetime Achievement Award” to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Women’s rights NGOs, many of whom are NCJW granting partners in Israel, will benefit greatly from these funds to promote gender equality, services to women and girls, and advancing women’s leadership. A parallel granting effort to benefit programs supporting gender equality in Jewish organizations in the US was recently announced.
If Jewish communal organizations are going to effectively close the gender gap, we need to critically analyze our own practices and policies. We are no less vulnerable to workplace abuse and harassment than secular organizations. These inequities have been swept under the carpet for far too long, and it is time that the Jewish community names them, faces them, and remedies them. That process is already unfolding, thanks to initiatives such as the newly formed Safety Respect Equity Coalition. The coalition is a group of more than 50 individuals, organizations and foundations who have come together to support the efforts of Jewish organizations to strengthen policies and practices concerning sexual harassment and gender equity in their own workplaces. NCJW is a proud partner in this effort.
But even with all these excellent examples of cutting edge, potentially transformative initiatives designed to move women forward, many aspects of women’s lives remain as fraught as ever. Health care for women is under constant attack at the national level as well as in many states. The Trump administration’s policies force states to either cut back Medicaid coverage or attach onerous requirements for care. Even our right to accurate medical information is in jeopardy. The Supreme Court decision on crisis pregnancy centers, aka “fake health clinics” means clinics that claim to service women’s total health needs can lawfully lead them astray. And the most recent nominee to the Supreme Court has expressed skepticism of both abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. If Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed by the Senate it will ensure an extreme conservative majority on the Supreme Court that will have a negative impact the lives of women for years to come.
Added to these chilling realities is the current status of working women. Women are paid less than men for work of equal value in almost every job category. Child care and after-school care remain unaffordable for many working mothers, setting them back in their careers, compromising their earnings, or forcing them to leave the workforce altogether. Absence from work while children are small can set back careers and earnings for a lifetime.
And for all the high profile cases of mostly white women harassed and attacked by high-status men, the vast majority of victims work in hotels and restaurants, factories, and service jobs. They are working class whites and people of color—the least powerful and the most likely to be dependent on the jobs they already have or seek. Sexual assault is, by definition and in the vast majority of cases, a case of weaponizing gender to keep women in their “place”—a place that is dependent on and subservient to the men who have power over women. While sexual assault is a crime and sexual harassment violates equal employment law, enforcement remains problematic.
In the last 18 months we have witnessed the bravery of women who have publicly called out criminal behavior, stepped forward to lead movements and who have acted to end pay inequality. Philanthropic efforts have arisen to fund the resistance of women who do not fill influential positions or have the ability to fight back. In the end, however, it is not just private power but public power that is needed — power in the institutions that govern workplaces of all kinds. Women must organize and make voting an act of solidarity in 2018 and 2020. Women must have an agenda that spans class and race disparities and lifts up policies that advance the status of all women. Our work for a secure future does not end at the ballot box, it only begins there.
Our sisters at Seneca Falls organized at a time when women were often not even allowed to speak in public, let alone exercise the right to vote. Today, together, we can transform our frustrated voices in the streets into lasting change at our state capitols and in Washington, DC. We just need the resolve to do it.
Nancy Kaufman is chief executive office of the National Council of Jewish Women.