Sisterhood Blog

Why Shouldn't Feminists Be Happy?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images // A smiling Gloria Steinem.

In a recent column, the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti takes aim at our culture’s fixation on the happiness of women.

She argues that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether or not feminism makes women happier because happiness is not the point.

After all, a social justice movement seeks justice, not contentment. The truth is a little unhappiness is good for the soul — and the movement. When I started Feministing, it wasn’t because I was happy: it was because I was frustrated. There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies.

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Was Jill Abramson Pushed Off 'Glass Cliff'?

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images

The media world, and particularly its women, were scandalized by the abrupt ouster of former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first female to hold the position, and her replacement by Dean Baquet, who as of yesterday is the first African-American in the spot.

It was a sudden and rather undignified announcement for Abramson, and immediately suspicions arose on Twitter that the story was an example of the Glass Cliff, in which women get promoted to top leadership positions when companies are already in dire straits — which leads them to take the fall right off the cliff if things don’t improve, or even if they try to shake things up. The question immediately surfaced: would Abramson’s “leadership in the newsroom,” her alleged fatal flaw, have been tolerated if it was Jay Abramson instead?

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Mothering My Jewish Mother

By Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer

Last week, a few days before Mother’s Day (and my mom’s birthday, which always falls at the same time of year), I stood on the street near Morningside Park in Upper Manhattan with my mother, venting and kibbitzing. I was on my way home from work, she had biked up to say hi. I was cranky, she was eager to see her daughter. It had been a warm day but a breeze was beginning to blow in, and she looked at me. “Let’s keep walking,” she said. “You’re getting cold.” “I’m fine,” I replied. “Mom you’re getting cold! Just say it!”

“Fine,” she said. “But it would make me feel better if you zipped up your sweatshirt.”

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Tova Mirvis's 'Visible City'

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

Like the new high rises that dominate the skyline of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tova Mirvis’ third novel, “Visible City,” is both a paean and a lament for a world contained within one neighborhood. It is also a book that brilliantly unfurls connections that overlap and intersect between strangers and lovers. The arresting first scene sets up those relationships as the reader meets Nina, a young stay-at-home mother, who peers into her neighbors’ windows late at night while her husband Jeremy toils away at a midtown law firm.

Using her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars, Nina observes Leon and Claudia, an older couple, who are seemingly content to read side-by-side on their sofa every night, and their daughter Emma whose relationship with her fiancée is unraveling before Nina’s eyes. In Mirvis’ well-crafted story, these characters will eventually interact in person and come to know each other organically.

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Born Behind Bars

By Sarah Seltzer

Courtesy of Terry Gydesen

When Deborah Jiang Stein was a young woman, already smarting from feelings of being an outsider as a multiracial adoptee in her intellectual Jewish family, she discovered the documents that revealed the truth about her background: She had been born in prison, to a heroin-addicted mother.

After years of lashing out at her adoptive family — “every molecule in me is packed with rage” — she plummeted into her own addiction and self-destructive behavior. Finally she went on a searing journey to find out the truth about her early years of life. All this is chronicled beautifully in Jiang Stein’s memoir, “Prison Baby,” published by Beacon Press. This is a revised and significantly developed version of her previously self-published memoir, “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus.”

“I’m headed home. My mother country, prison,” she writes in its pages.

For Jiang-Stein, confronting the truth, as painful as it was, led to a lessening of pain and a freedom from her “emotional lockdown.” Now a mom herself, she works as a writer, speaker and advocate for women and girls in prison, particularly incarcerated moms. Her current project is pushing back against a new Tennessee law that could criminalize pregnant women who use drugs. She corresponded with the Forward’s Sarah Seltzer about parental patience, family secrets, Jewish values and why she thinks that more Jewish groups should get involved with prison reform efforts.

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Paying Tribute to Mom — With Kale

By Laura Harari

The author and her mother // Courtesy of Laura Harari

This Mother’s Day, I’m getting creative with my flower arrangement. I’m filling it with kale. Not only does it top the list of the trendiest vegetables of 2014, it is also a tribute to my mother: a slim, tall, Jewish Sofia Vergara, who was way ahead of her time. She was a passionate advocate for kale in the 90’s, long before it was used as both an appetizer and a centerpiece at this year’s Oscars Governors Ball. Back then, my mom made a convincing case for the green leafy power vegetable, in all its antioxidant, iron, and high-fiber glory.

As her fluffy-haired, Brooklyn-accented, Jewish daughter, she had me involuntarily trained as a miniature health snob. Before I was old enough to read, my mom had me memorize the three evil ingredients to avoid at all costs: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), hydrogenated oil and the devil incarnate, sugar. And that was all aside from having to look for the OU on packaged goods as we ate a strictly kosher diet. I recited my mother’s crazy health-food mantras like a well-trained organic-eating parrot. When my nursery teacher offered me a can of Coca Cola, I asked: “Did you know Coke can take the paint off of a car?”

I soon got tired of being the obedient nutritious daughter. I’d dream about the day I’d be old enough to live on my own and be free of the shadow of sugar-guilt that followed me around. I pictured my future self skipping through my local supermarket, the sound system blasting Aaron Carter’s “I Want Candy” while I threw heaps of chocolate, cookies and cereal into my shiny red cart. I’d finally understand what it feels like to be free. Maybe I’d even become the sixth Spice Girl. They’d call me Candy.

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My Mamme — She's Everything to Us

By Frimet Goldberger

Frimet Goldberger and her mother at her wedding // Courtesy of Frimet Goldberger

When I close my eyes and try to picture my childhood, I see my mamme steering a 12-quart boiling pot of peaches compote. The peaches arrived in a box, all eight pounds of them old and already rotting, costing a grand total of 5 dollars. The grocery down the hill from Satmar Drive, the street we lived on, would reserve these for my mother and another select few women who intimately understood the value of frugality. She sat on the grey and pink vinyl kitchen chair and meticulously cut away the rotten parts, sliced the juicy yellow peaches in half and threw them into the biggest Farberware pot we owned.

The woman I call mamme is the family’s everything. She is the woman who carried 12 children and birthed them without a fuss. Mammy is the woman who insisted, much to her daughters’ chagrin, to buy last year’s shoes, never caving to the societal pressure us girls imposed on her. Hers are the hands that held me when the plastic surgeon stitched me up, twice; the hands that walked me to my chuppah, shaved my head the morning after, and carried my son to his bris fifteen months later.

My mamme is the woman who always boasts a freezer-full of babkes and rugelach my friends and I would often steal when we played in the basement. She is the woman who sits at the sewing machine late at night, weaving her steel wool-like fingers, rough from years of cooking and housework, through the needle and the hem to mend her daughters’ skirts and her grandsons’ pants. She is the woman who used to spend every Thursday scrubbing floors and dusting furniture because she could not afford to hire a cleaning lady. She is the woman who makes the crispiest challah and the meanest apple strudel with homemade levelesh teig, or flaky dough, and distributes them to her married children.

My mother is someone I would always go the extra mile to please. Nothing gave me greater pleasure as a young girl than hearing her repeat verbatim what my teachers reported at PTA. Knowing she was proud of me — her daughter — even if she never verbalized the sentiment, meant the world to me.

Mamme is the epitome of stoicism. She has not had an easy life, by any stretch, yet she is one of the strongest women I know.

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Should Monica Lewinsky Be Mad at Feminists?

By Elissa Strauss

Getty Images

In her already widely dissected 4,300 word Vanity Fair essay, Monica Lewinsky takes aim at the feminists of the late 90s.

She says she found no support from the women’s rights crowd back then, and when they did respond to the situation she appeared either as a punch line or a scapegoat. No one seemed to think much about whether she was exploited, or about the undeniable double-standard at play. Bill Clinton emerged, after a few bumps and bruises, a rock star; Lewinsky, a scarlet-letter branded harlot who still struggles to get work today.

When the asked whether the scandal might have been affecting Gore’s run for presidency, the ever-tactful Betty Friedan told the Los Angeles Times:

What is that? I can’t stand the way you media people just trivialize everything. It’s the campaign for the president of the United States… . What is your concern with some little twerp named Monica? What has she got to do with the presidential election? That just disgusts me.

Barbara Ehrenreich called the aftermath of the scandal “The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis.”

Others, like Maureen Dowd painted her as a looney bimbo, and others like Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe (who doesn’t have the tidiest of a feminist record herself) also didn’t have much in the way of words of support for her, all the while they gushed about adorable Bill.

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Happy Mother’s Day To the Mother-in-Law I Never Knew

By Dorothy Lipovenko

Mela Mietkiewicz, the mother-in-law of the author // Courtesy of Dorothy Lipovenko

At the top of a staircase, a pious Jewish family in pre-war Europe gazes out from a series of framed photos. A boy of bar-mitzvah age stands with two older sisters, faces too young to be so serious. Seated between their parents is another sibling of 11 or 12, sporting a chic bob with full bangs, her dress finessed with a cowl neckline and jaunty bow, fingers splayed on a book open on her lap: Czestochowa, Poland’s “it” girl.

She’s the classmate everyone wants as a friend, and many years later, the woman voted in not once, but an unprecedented twice as president of her Hadassah chapter. Indeed, had she lived to walk her eldest son to the wedding canopy, she would have been not only my friend, she would have been my mother-in-law.

Let’s face it: mothers-in-law have gotten a bad rap. Think of the mid-century stereotype, and what comes to mind is the only civilian capable, with a single phone call or visit, of raising the military’s Defcon alert. And that’s before the Borscht Belt comedians got through with her.

Even Yiddish is unkind to this woman: shviger (mother-in-law) and shnur (daughter-in-law) sound more like a vaudeville act than two women yoked by their love of the same man.

Fast-forward to the post-’60s era and the mother-in-law as a source of jokes or domestic high-jump evolved: the women they intimidated would themselves eventually face an altogether different species of daughter-in-law: the career-driven baby boomer. We kept our own names and bank accounts. The older generation didn’t quite know what to make of it, or for that matter, their sons changing diapers at 2:00 a.m.

This Mother’s Day, as always, I will feel the regret of never having met my husband’s mother. She is known to me only from pictures (a lovely Greer Garson look-alike in a passport photo) and from memories of those who circled in her orbit as a wife, mother, sister, friend. One of her contemporaries once exclaimed, on meeting me for the first time: “You are Mela’s daughter-in-law?” It was not a question so much as a declaration of the honor that was mine.

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Maternal Death Stalks Iran — and U.S.

By Elissa Strauss

Wikimedia Commons

Only eight years ago the United States ranked 6th on Save the Children’s list of best places to be a mother. Since then we’ve plunged to 31st place out of 178 countries, according to their new report.

“In the U.S., the lifetime risk of maternal death has risen more than 50 percent since we launched our first report in 2000 — from 1 in 3,700 to 1 in 2,400,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. “Today, an American woman faces the same lifetime risk of maternal death as a woman in Iran or Romania.” A woman in the U.S. is more than 10 times as likely as a woman in Estonia, Greece or Singapore to eventually die from a pregnancy-related cause.

Over the same period, the U.S. made few advances in saving young children’s lives, cutting the risk of death by 15%. Only 14 other countries made less progress.

Israel ranks 28, just three above the U.S.

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Violinist Regina Kohn Played Her Way Into America

By Chana Pollack

Forward Association

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.

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My Matchmaker Divorced Me

By Susan Shapiro

Dan Brownstein / Susan Shapiro and her husband

You would think finding someone their bashert would ensure a lifelong friendship, not a vendetta. When I was 29, my friend Valerie set me up with “Aaron,” “a smart handsome screenwriter mensch” she said I should marry. After a tumultuous off-and-on courtship, I finally heeded Valerie’s advice. She applauded my decision, danced at my wedding, then she dumped me.

Valerie’s rejection of me was painful and confusing, since she’d been a close confidante for a decade. We first met when she was a 30-year-old acclaimed filmmaker in Greenwich Village. I was a 20-year-old NYU English grad student sleeping on a futon in a one bedroom I shared with Ellen, another Midwest Jewburb refugee. I was good at typing, proofreading, editing. Interning at Valerie’s company, Ellen came home one Friday asking, “Can you work on Valerie’s screenplay over the weekend for two hundred dollars?”

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18 Years of the Jewish Women's Archive

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

When Gail Twersky Reimer came up with the idea for the Jewish Women’s Archive, just over 18 years ago, the voices and history of Jewish women could be found in few places outside of the types of libraries and archives that only academics are excited to trawl.

Reimer wanted to create a virtual archive to elevate and illuminate the stories of Jewish women whose lives — rich, productive and important as they may have been — remained largely unknown because history was being written, by and large, by men. With the exception of a few path-breakers like Golda Meir and Barbra Streisand, Jewish women’s stories remained invisible, though they have now become a whole field of study.

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Tal Fortgang's Misguided Princeton 'Privilege' Lament

By Sarah Seltzer

I’ve been watching with exhaustion the saga of the privileged Princeton kid, grandson of Holocaust survivors, who has declared via a bratty op-ed echoing ‘round the web, that he will not apologize for his privilege. White, male, and proud. Take that, ye P.C. police, young Tal Fortgang declares.

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Learning To Be Orthodox Bride From Romance Novels

By Frimet Goldberger

“When you get out of the mikveh, you should put on make-up and lotion for your husband,” the kallah teacher instructed. “He will be waiting for you.”

This was my last “kallah lesson,” two weeks before my wedding, and my kallah teacher was finally talking about sex — or at least a watered-down version of it.

Every engaged-to-be-married Orthodox girl attends kallah (Hebrew for bride) lessons before her wedding to learn about the Jewish laws of Taharat HaMishpacha — family purity. The Torah forbids intimacy between a husband and wife during, and a short time after, the woman’s menstrual cycle. A woman who is menstruating is called a niddah, which literally means separated, referring to the separation between husband and wife.

After waiting for a period of five to seven days for the menstrual cycle to end, the woman is required to keep another seven “clean days” in which she checks herself daily to ascertain her cleanliness. After the seven clean days, the woman can go to the mikveh, the ritual bath, and resume sexual relations with her husband.

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Why Women Are Gaga for Hillary

By Elissa Strauss

There’s been a sea change in the way the public feels about Hillary Clinton since her run for president in 2008. Back then we had respect for Clinton and knew she is competent and trustworthy, but we didn’t deem her worthy of the same giddy excitement as her then-competitor President Obama.

Now, six years later, we are gaga for her. We LO-OVE Hillary. The Daily Beast has a story about Hillary super-fans, women who cover their cars or bodies with her face or spend their days tracking her every move on their blogs. They might be more expressive than others, but the nearly $6 million already raised by the “Ready for Hillary” Super PAC suggests they are not alone.

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In Donald Sterling Drama, It's All About Power

By Sarah Seltzer

Getty Images // Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano

It reads better than a soap opera, the interpersonal and romantic drama that led to the exposure and punishment (a lifetime ban!) for racist soon-to-be-former NBA franchise owner Donald Sterling. All the juicy pieces were in place: an estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, who resented V. Stiviano, the younger woman hanging out with her husband. Such was her animus that she was suing Stiviano or being a “gold-digger” and seducing her way to the Sterling’s property. That lawsuit, presumably, prompted epic revenge: Stiviano’s secret tape recording of Donald Sterling’s appalling racist remarks.

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Ban Me From Driving — Please!

By Frimet Goldberger

Frimet Goldberger’s children enjoy their recent family road trip. She admits being happy to get out of the driver’s seat for good.

Road-tripping is one of those overly romanticized activities we read about and want to — no, positively have to — add to our bucket lists. Get in a car — instant Kerouac. Or so we romanticize.

Mark Twain wrote in “Tom Sawyer Abroad”: “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” To which I add, “For 18 hours, cooped up in a mid-size car with children asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ while the driver mindlessly eats chocolate and chips and bangs her head on the steering wheel to keep awake.”

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The Whole World Is Your Bubbe

By Elissa Strauss

Library of Congress

The whole world is officially turning into your bubbe.

From Iran to Russia to Japan and Romania, governments around the world are making your womb their business. Everyone is terrified because of the ongoing decline in the birth rate, which has dropped below replacement level and, if it continues as such, will lead to population shrinkage on a global scale.

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The Women Who Warned Their Families

By Sally Wendkos Olds

Getty Images

At one point in the documentary “No Place on Earth,” Saul Stermer, now 93, who, with his family, spent 511 days hiding in two Ukrainian caves and escaped the Holocaust, smiles and says, “What a mother!” No wonder. His mother, Esther Stermer, who was 75 years old in 1942 when the Nazis came to her Ukrainian village, saved her family.

During my training to be an oral historian for Steven Spielberg’s survivors of the Shoah visual history project, interviewing Holocaust survivors, I learned that it was often the woman of the family, the mother, the wife, who recognized the Nazi peril before the husband did. Too often the men dismissed signs of impending disaster, shrugged them off with the confidence that they had lived in these homes for years like their parents before them, that they had successful businesses, lovely homes, good neighbors, that this unpleasantness would pass. But somehow the mothers knew. And the families who listened to their women and left Germany or Austria or Czechoslovakia or other countries invaded by the Nazis managed to survive.

Esther was one of these women who knew danger and who dealt with it. She warned the men in her family not to register to work for the Nazis because she realized that those Jewish men who did register were never seen again. She also told her family not to obey orders to move to the ghetto, but to hide instead.

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