Laura, I wish you good luck

Just over 20 years ago - in March 1990 - the JC recorded the death of Beatrice J Barwell, or Trixie, as she was apparently affectionately known.

The truth is that there was very little affection in the communal treatment of Trixie Barwell. The late Chaim Bermant got it spot on, as usual, when he wrote in his column in 1994 that Trixie, a former headmistress, was undoubtedly "a lively and intelligent woman who made an immense contribution both to the expansion of Jewish education and the efficacy of British Zionism.

"She unquestionably had a mind of her own but whenever she tried to introduce a new idea or shake up an old organisation she would usually hear the refrain: 'What would she know? She's only a frustrated old maid.'"

Bermant, who knew a thing or two, observed: "And what was really sad about all this was that the refrain invariably came, not from men, but from her own gender."

Trixie Barwell was a plain woman and a plain speaker. Or should I really say, both a singular and a single woman.

Last week we learned that Laura Marks, the indefatigable founder and organiser of Mitzvah Day, had been appointed by the Jewish Leadership Council to head a commission aimed at discovering why there were so few women in Jewish public life. The commission is due to report in the summer and, doubtless, will take its work seriously, interviewing and securing evidence from left and right in the community.

I do feel, however, that Ms Marks could save herself the trouble by looking at the dreadful example of how Trixie Barwell was treated.

The facts were that Trixie was a) not attractive, b) single, and c) without independent financial means. Such a toxic combination could have only one outcome: she was derided.

Had she been able to reverse one of the three factors, Miss Barwell's contribution to Jewish public life could well have been different.

But she had no power base, and it is a woeful truth that of the few women who have had the patience to enter the viper's nest that is communal politics, almost all of them have been supported by wealthy husbands.

I can think of just one, Dame Vivien Duffield, whose financial circumstances allow her to snap her fingers at the male establishment and do what she wants - and, believe me, very few men are thrilled to be so subservient.

Jewish public life as it is currently constituted - that is to say among its lay leadership - is a long and seemingly endless round of committees, commissions, workshops and seminars, most of them strained beyond their natural lifespan.

Most women don't have the patience for the endless talking shops of Anglo-Jewry. They don't have the time, either. Most women have many other things to claim their attention - and are, I would argue, doing those many things so that the men in their lives have the luxury of attending the aforementioned committees.

Those women who do venture into Committee Hell often take one exasperated look and decide: Not for me. Life's too short.

Life has changed for women - Jewish women included - since Trixie Barwell's day. Not enough, though. Most women expect to have a working life, married or not; few women in the modern Orthodox world have the patience to challenge the endless constitutional minutiae that prevent women assuming the lay leadership of synagogues; and even fewer women are prepared to settle these days for the kinder, küche und kirche role which is apparently what the male leadership still expect.

So I wish Laura Marks luck. But with no women at the helm of any of the big five Jewish charities, and no woman directing the Board of Deputies, and, dare I say it, only one woman on the board of the JC… she has an uphill struggle.

Jenni Frazer is assistant editor of the JC

    Last updated: 10:31am, April 1 2011