The women who asked ‘why not?’

The TV series Mrs America shines a light on the battle for women's rights in the 1970s - and the many Jewish women in the frontline.


There is a scene in the compelling TV series, Mrs America, in which several women are gathered in Bella Abzug’s home in New York and — not being Jewish — are shaking their heads with bemusement at the buffet food she has prepared. It’s every kind of Jewish deli speciality, from lox to whitefish to pickled herring to chopped liver. Well, they were egalitarian times.

It’s no accident that there is a strong Jewish element in the story-telling of Mrs America. Its creator, Canadian-born Dahvi Waller, is Jewish and won an Emmy for her work on the critically acclaimed Mad Men. She even took part in a pre-High Holy Days advisory group for American rabbis, where Hollywood writers suggested ways for rabbis to improve their sermons.

Currently gripping viewers on BBC2, Mrs America is a lightly fictionalised account of the 1970s wave of feminist leaders in the United States, and their ultimately failed attempt to secure the backing of 38 separate states to support the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. Numerous women’s organisations with alphabetti spaghetti names sprang up in that decade, and, half a century on, it’s easy to look at the campaigns with slightly mocking affection.

But dig a little deeper and the Jewish flavour of Bella Abzug’s buffet is clearer to understand. For so many of the leaders of the women’s movement — from Abzug herself, through writer Betty Friedan, lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, artist and feminist Judy Chicago, to Gloria Steinem, whose father was Jewish — were mouthy Jewish women, determined to make their voices heard across America.

This is despite — or maybe because of — the possibility that the Jewish women came from a more patriarchal society than their Christian counterparts. In the fictional version we see that Mrs America, the Republican right-winger Phyllis Schlafly, put herself forward as Middle America’s idealised version of a good Christian woman, with her six children and endless references to “My husband let me come here today…”

In contrast each of the feminist leaders is presented in their own right, without the “crutch” of a man to validate their opinions.

Where did it come from, this desire by Jewish women to express their longing for equality of treatment under the law?

Friedan, Abzug and Bader Ginsburg, if not Steinem, all came from traditional Jewish homes with a clear idea of their identity. Importantly, they all went on to further education. The core aspiration of their immigrant families was that their children, whether sons or daughters, should have an education and the possibility of a better lifestyle than their parents.

Each of their life stories is fascinating. Betty Friedan, fabulously portrayed in Mrs America by Tracey Ullman, was the author of the 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, credited as the book that changed the lives of so many women in America. It posed the central question of feminism: instead of “why?” it asked “why not?” Why should women not become lawyers, doctors, writers, or whatever they pleased?

Friedan was urgently smashing a hole in the glass ceiling that many of her contemporaries barely recognised was there. Gloria Steinem read the book and went on to co-found the influential Ms magazine, where subjects that had rarely been publicly discussed, such as abortion or sexual identity, found a home.

A co-founder of the magazine was another Jewish woman, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, today a writer and activist. Pogrebin, who became Steinem’s biographer, has a wonderful anecdote about her: “A famously soft touch, she once sat next to a man on a plane who said his daughter worshipped her and asked if she’d make a surprise appearance at the girl’s batmitzvah. The half-Jewish non-believer said yes.”

Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in 1921 in Peoria, Illinois. Her parents, Harry Goldstein and Miriam Horwitz Goldstein, came from Russian and Hungarian Jewish families; but there weren’t that many Jews in Peoria and Friedan later said she had suffered discrimination at her high school. When her father’s jewellery shop closed because he was ill, her mother started to write for the society page of a local newspaper, and the idea of what was possible outside the home lit a flame in young Bettye’s heart.

As a teenager, Friedan became active in both Marxist and Jewish groups, and wrote later that her “passion against injustice originated from my feelings of the injustice of antisemitism”.

Six years after The Feminine Mystique, she and her husband Carl divorced. He said: “She changed the course of history almost singlehandedly. It took a driven, super- aggressive, ego-centric, almost lunatic dynamo to rock the world the way she did. Unfortunately, she was that same person at home, where that kind of conduct doesn’t work. She simply never understood this”.

Bella Abzug, née Savitsky, was a similarly stroppy Jewish woman, a successful politician who first made her name as a civil rights lawyer acting on behalf of Black clients. She started out asking “why not?” when she was told by her family’s Orthodox synagogue that as a woman, she couldn’t say kaddish for her father, who had died when she was just 13. Bella wouldn’t take no for an answer and famously attended synagogue every day in the year after his death; she went on to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary while at City University New York, later obtaining her law degree from Columbia University.

Abzug was a long-time member of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, where I’m willing to bet she learned debating skills, and became one of the best-known and most flamboyant Democratic members of Congress. She was an instinctive politician and networker: with Steinem, Friedan, and the Black politician Shirley Chisholm, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has only a fleeting role in Mrs America, came from equally tough roots. Affectionately known — relatively recently — as “the Notorious RBG” for her sustained refusal to back down, the one-time lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union became an associate justice of the US Supreme Court, and was, for a time, the only female judge. Pretty good for a woman who was once asked by the dean of Harvard Law School, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”

Today, thanks to the courage of RBG, Steinem, Friedan, Abzug and a whole host more, that question is not only shocking but it is unthinkable that it should be asked. Mrs America suggests, perhaps wrongly, that the ERA failed because of the sustained and often simplistic opposition of Phyllis Shlafley and her cohorts of frequently ill-educated right-wing women. In fact, though it was a pity the ERA never made it into law, a generation of in-your-face women — many of them Jewish — effected a sea-change in Western attitudes.

It became not only possible, but mandatory to ask “why not?” It’s a question answered by the young campaigner Malala Yousafzai, determined to get an education despite the attempts of the Taliban to kill her. And answered by Oprah Winfrey, who emerged from a poverty-ridden childhood, complete with sexual assault, to become one of the most powerful women in global television. It was answered by one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Mo Mowlam, and the woman who was the driving force behind the 2012 London Olympics, Tessa Jowell.

This week, we learned that Canadian rabbi Menachem Karmel told a group of young observant girls that the reason their pictures could not appear in Jewish newspapers was because “you weren’t meant for the spotlight, you aren’t meant for public display”. The feminist revolution, led by Jewish women, means that in the 21st century, attitudes such as the respected rabbi’s are for the Dark Ages.

Thanks to Friedan, Steinem, Abzug, and hundreds of others, women all over the world have aspirational role models. No-one is saying that the battle for equality is won: it plainly isn’t, yet. But the route to equality is now well-established. The #MeToo movement could not have happened without the campaigns of the 1970s. We owe a debt of gratitude to those women. Long may their descendants continue to say, why not?

Mrs America is on the BBC on Wednesdays, and available on iPlayer 

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