Sisterhood Blog

Our Rack: The History of Childbirth, and the Rise of the Girlie-Girl

By Elissa Strauss

Harper
‘Ugly Beauty’

NON FICTION

In “Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good,” Ruth Brandon tells the story of Rubinstein, a self-made cosmetics tycoon who came from a poor Polish-Jewish background, and her battle with L’Oreal founder and Nazi collaborator Eugène Schueller, who acquired her company. The book delves into their lives, and includes one particularly delicious anecdote about how Rubinstein purchased a whole Park Avenue building, after being told that she could not move in because she was Jewish. “Ugly Beauty” also takes a look at gender politics, and the ways in which they are informed by the cosmetics industry.


Medical journalist Randi Hutter Epstein takes into account both science and superstitions for her new book, “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.” The book plumbs medical advances, the shift in attitudes toward reproduction and the ethical questions that today’s high-tech options present. Hutter Epstein also looks at the way in which gynecology has been impacted by numerous taboos and cultural beliefs surrounding childbirth.

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The Attack on Lara Logan

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
CBS News’ Lara Logan.

In what can only be described as a case of terrible timing, I wrote my previous post reporting on how joyous and safe women were feeling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Egyptian protests. The post appeared only hours before CBS News made public the brutal attack on journalist Lara Logan in the square.

The description of her attack, as released by CBS, was horrifying on many levels. The New York Post reported: “‘60 Minutes’ correspondent Lara Logan was repeatedly sexually assaulted by thugs yelling, ‘Jew! Jew!’ as she covered the chaotic fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s main square Friday, CBS and sources said yesterday.”

Interestingly, the cries of “Jew! Jew!” were not in the initial description of the event released by CBS.

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On Elon's Indictment and Other Religious Leaders Facing Charges

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Several Israeli religious leaders have been in the news recently — and not for their piety. Here’s a quick roundup:

• Rabbi Motti Elon is being formally indicted for sexual offenses against two former students, both of whom were minors at the time of the alleged acts, in 2003 and 2005. Meanwhile, in what may either be an ironic twist or perhaps a meeting of the minds, Elon has apparently been teaching classes at the home of former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, who was recently convicted of rape and other sexual offenses. One cannot help but wonder what lessons they are learning together.

• Israeli police issued an arrest warrant against Kiryat Arba chief Rabbi Dov Lior for incitement because of a book he wrote that apparently advocates the murder of non-Jews. Although his supporters are furious and calling the arrest politically motivated, his detractors say that even this arrest is not enough to stop the perceived increase in racist attitudes in the religious community in Israel. This arrest warrant comes on the heels of such events as the rebbetzins’ anti-Arab dating petition, the rabbis’ anti-Arab renting petition, and the refusal of the Emmanuel religious girls’ school to heed Supreme Court directives and allow Sephardic girls to enroll in their school.

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The Women of Tahir Square

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Getty Images
Women celebrate Mubarak’s resignation in Cairo’s Tahir Square.

Any woman who has spent time in Arab countries was likely to have been particularly impressed by the strong presence of women in the Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests. Whether it is Cairo or any other Arab city, walking around unaccompanied in public is not always a comfortable experience.

But the spirit of fellowship and common cause seemed to have united those who gathered to throw off the reigns of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. And the diverse array of women in the square not only looked as if they were at home, they appeared to be at the center of the action. An Indian television station took a close half-hour look at the women of the Egyptian revolution in a short documentary called “The Women of Tahrir Square.”

The film brings the camera into the crowds, capturing pictures of women of all ages, from teens to mothers with children and babies, from those tented in long black robes, to those wearing colorful headscarves to those in thoroughly modern Western attire. The monitors in charge of checking those who entered the square for weapons were women.

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'Graphic Details' Q&A: Miss Lasko-Gross

By Leah Berkenwald

Miss Lasko-Gross

“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” is the first museum exhibit to explore this unique niche of autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women. The touring exhibit, sponsored by the Forward, features the work of 18 Jewish women artists. The Jewish Women’s Archive — its Jewesses With Attitude blog is a partner of The Sisterhood — is interviewing each of the artists about their work and their experience as a female, Jewish graphic artist.

This week’s interview is with Miss Lasko-Gross, author of “Escape from Special,” based loosely on the author’s life growing up as a Jewish girl in the suburbs, and “A Mess of Everything,” a pseudo-sequel to her first book. “Escape from Special” was nominated for YALSA’s 2008 Great Graphic Novel award and “A Mess of Everything” was named on of Booklist’s top 10 graphic novels of the year in 2010.

Leah Berkenwald: How did you get into cartooning?

Miss Lasko-Gross: Like many cartoonists I started with clumsy imitations of work I admired (Tank Girl, Akira, Love And Rockets etc.) Then moved on to self-publishing and distributing original comics, doing pieces for zines, anthologies and finally becoming a graphic novelist.

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Leah Berkenwald is the online communications specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and a contributor to its Jewesses With Attitude blog, which cross-posts regularly with the Sisterhood.


It's Still Winter, But I'm Already Cleaning for Passover

By Dorothy Lipovenko

Swept into the supermarket on a blast of cold air, my momentary fright is distracted by a tower of sparkling kosher grape and a scarier thought: “What a great price! Better stock up for Pesach.” And this was almost three months ago.

Passover casts its shadow chez-nous in the darkest, shortest days of winter. Like the fashion biz, I work at least a season ahead to prepare for the holiday.

Because a lesson well-learned is usually a hard one: got sloppy once, left too much too late, and wiped out at the seder table. Failed the sobriety test too: couldn’t walk a straight line from dining room to kitchen. Had to be revived by Passover smelling salts: a box of lush chocolates waved under my nose. Came to vowing never again to find myself on hands and knees, stinking of raw gefilte fish, scrubbing the kitchen floor an hour before Yom Tov.

A veteran of some 30 holiday-cleaning runs, I knew that nothing short of a strategic overhaul was necessary to avert future crashes.

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Making Recalcitrant Husbands Pay — Literally

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

A man withholding a Jewish divorce — known as a get — is liable for money damages to his estranged wife, according to a recent decision handed down by a Tel Aviv appeals court.

The January 31 decision dismissing the husband’s effort to overturn a 700,000-shekel [about $188,000] lower court judgment against him for withholding the get offers hope to other wives chained to dead marriages, according to some agunah activists. Others who advocate for agunot say that the case will have no impact outside of Israel. An agunah is a woman who may not remarry because her estranged husband will not give her a divorce.

The couple at the center of the recent Israeli court decision lived together for just three months after their wedding, and the husband has refused to give his wife a get for all of the intervening 16 years since then.

The new appellate court decision means that, unless Israel’s Supreme Court overturns it, it will serve as a precedent in all family law there, according to the Center for Women’s Justice, the Israeli non-profit that has provided legal counsel to the wife since 2004. The Center was successful in framing the legal issue as a matter of damages for a violation of the wife’s human rights.

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On Women, Bylines and Bestsellers

By Sarah Seltzer

Dial Press
Allegra Goodman

Last month, The Sisterhood’s Elissa Strauss wrote post called “In Magazine Journalism, It’s Nowhere Near the End of Men,” using her own survey of magazines to show that male bylines still win out in terms of sheer numbers. And now there’s some serious research to back up her personal accounting. These numbers from VIDA, an organization that promotes women in literary arts, show that in essentially every single literary magazine, book review section or literarily inclined magazine, male bylines considerably trump female ones, as do reviews of books by men.

There’s been lots of excellent discussion of this on the Internet. Laura Miller essentially said that the problem is a matter of male readers not taking female writers seriously. Meanwhile Ruth Franklin of The New Republic crunched some more data to find that there are fewer books being published by women than by men. Even worse, publishing is an industry dominated by women. A friend of mine who works in the industry says she’s been banging her head against the wall all week in the face of these numbers.

So what gives?

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Q&A: Sloane Crosley on 'Chick Lit' and Brisket

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Thirty-two-year-old writer and humorist Sloane Crosley has published two books of essays on topics ranging from what not to do in the office (bake cookies shaped like the boss) to how to attend an Alaskan wedding (armed with the definition of “scat”; it means “bear feces”). She spoke about her Jewish cred (her grandmother dated actor Zero Mostel), the backhanded compliments given by men to clever women and making readable art out of her life. Crosley’s most recent collection, “How Did You Get This Number” (Riverhead), a compilation of nine satirical essays, is scheduled for release May 3. Listen to the full interview here.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: As you tell it in the book, how does a nice Jewish girl end up at confession at Notre Dame?

Sloane Crosley: My friend who is Protestant decided that she wanted to [go]. You wait on line long enough for anything, and [you] start thinking, “I kind of want to confess.” My grandmother is going to do triple salchows in her grave because she was hardcore.

Hardcore Jewish?

Oh, Lower East Side, Orchard Street. Dated Zero Mostel for a long time. I ended up spitting out “Je suis un Jew” to the priest. It was pretty embarrassing.

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The Super Bowl–Sex Trafficking Connection

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

I have a confession to make that may or may not come as a surprise to my friends: I really do not care all that much about the Super Bowl. I would like to say that it’s because I’ve been living outside of the United States since 1993, although if I’m going to be honest, I didn’t care much about the game when I was living stateside either, nor in fact about the entire sport of football. I have a vague image of football season comfort, the kind of stay-inside warmth knowing that nothing important is going to happen out there in the world for an entire day because everyone is watching television. I often crave such moments of nothingness that are increasingly elusive in my life. But of course, for those people who actually care about the Super Bowl, I suppose my sentiment of “nothingness” is akin to blasphemy. As if I was putting down Yom Kippur or something.

Nevertheless, the Super Bowl was on my radar this year because of some intriguing and troubling gender issues that have come to the fore. For one thing, The New York Times reported with some wistfulness that this is the first time in 40 years that there were no cheerleaders at the game. It came as a bit of surprise to me that not all teams have cheerleaders (those who don’t get two points in my book, not that they are points that have any significance to football players).

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Empowering Children To Confront Disney and Despair

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

I’m feeling protective of my children. Perhaps it’s the fact that my baby, Rockerchik, turned 10 last week, that Girlchik is 11 going on 15, and that my eldest will be 17 this week. Now that his college applications are all in, I’m acutely aware that he will soon be leaving home. And I am very much aware of preparing each of them, as best I can, for the next chapters in their lives.

One of the things I am conscious of trying to give them is something I wasn’t aware even existed until I was much older than they are: a sense of their own agency. I want them to be conscious of the power that each has to make change in their lives and in the lives of others. Two stories in the New York Times this week got me thinking about that empowerment.

The first piece shows how vulnerable we are to marketing and merchandising behemoths, such as Disney, which is trying to reach the only segment of the childhood market that they haven’t yet vanquished: newborns. Now they’re targeting mothers who are still in the hospital immediately after giving birth with freebie onesies, festooned, of course, with Disney characters, to try and get them hooked.

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A Hecksher for Fashion — and an Exposé on Jews in Burqas

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Just when you thought the policing of Haredi women’s appearance couldn’t get more extreme — it does. According to Ynet, a kosher certificate for women’s fashions now exists. An ultra-Orthodox body called “the Committee for the Sanctity of the Camp” has begun supervising clothing stores offering such heckshers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula.

Here’s how it works: The merchandise of various stores is inspected for sufficient modesty by female inspectors armed with such rabbinical standards as making sure skirts are not too short or necklines too low. Afterwards, the names of those with the official stamp of approval are published in ultra-Orthodox publications, and women urged to buy there. Presumably, those retailers that do not measure up will run the risk of protests, boycotts or worse.

An advertisement taken out for the Committee states that stores that do not sell sufficiently modest clothing are “damaging our camp’s modesty” and “experience shows that there is no other way to defeat this horrible breach other than having rabbis supervise the clothes’ kashrut.”

Modest Western clothing, of course, is not enough for the small but growing cult-like group of Jewish women concentrated in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem who insist on completely draping their bodies in clothing burqa-style.

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Why Jewish Feminists Should Care About the Murder of David Kato

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Getty Images
At the funeral of murdered activist David Kato, mourners pay their respects.

While the world has been watching in nervous anticipation as the situation in Egypt unfolds, other events on the African continent worthy of our attention seem to be eluding the public eye and miss out on a much-needed outcry — especially from Jewish feminists.

David Kato, a Ugandan teacher and outspoken gay rights activist, was murdered last week in his home. This happened right after Kato won a lawsuit against a local tabloid magazine, Rolling Stone, for publishing his photo and name under a banner calling for the execution of 100 LGBT leaders. “Hang them!” the headline read.

Richmond Blake and Rafaela Zuidema interviewed Kato a couple of weeks ago, and wrote about it on The Huffington Post:

A fast talker with emphatic hand gestures, Kato launched into harrowing stories of a transgender friend who was denied medical care after being gang-raped and a fellow LGBT activist who died from what Kato suspected to be poisoning. In defiance of such tragedies, Kato made himself one of the most visible and outspoken LGBT leaders in Uganda and was unceasing in his efforts. … “There aren’t many people now who are willing to stand up and say they support LGBT rights, but I believe we can find those who are open-minded and show them this is a matter of basic human rights,” Kato said confidently.

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On Tweenage Girls Joining Facebook, Wearing Makeup

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

When I saw this blog post, about attempts by some ultra-Orthodox authorities in Israel to ban Facebook from Haredi homes because the ubiquitous social media site “greatly damages families,” I thought it just another example of the community’s ongoing effort to build the shtetl walls high enough to control people’s behavior.

Then I read this week’s New York magazine cover stories on pornography. Now, New York mag is one of Boychik’s favorite quick reads and I usually pass it along to him after hubs and I are done. But this issue? No way. Next week, he turns 17, and there is no way I’m putting this smut in front of him. The main story is about how social media are contributing to the over-sexualization of teenage girls, and how even 12-year-olds are getting bombarded with hyper-sexual, emotionally disconnected online come-ons. It’s accompanied by pictures of young women in come-hither poses in what appear to be teens’ bedrooms. That there’s a qualifier under the photos — “All models are, by the way, over 18” — doesn’t make it much better. The stories are grotesque and neither well-written nor particularly insightful, and not (attn: New York magazine editors) what I subscribe to New York for.

Bad as that was, it was compounded by the story I woke up to in the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Journal. That article on the front page is about new makeup being marketed to tweenage, and even younger, girls. It includes “before” and “after” shots of a fresh-faced 8-year-old who looks twice that old with the makeup on.

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz Takes On Bill That Would Redefine Rape

By Sarah Seltzer

house.gov
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida.

I’ve spent the week reporting on the all-out assault against abortion access that’s happening state-by-state in America right now. It’s a scary scene, demonstrating how quickly many lawmakers will move against women’s bodily autonomy once they gain power.

But on the national level, the most headline-worthy move against women has been a new bill in Congress, H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” or as NARAL calls it, “Stupak on Steroids.” which would not only strip existing abortion funding, it would redefine “rape” as forcible, leaving most instances of sexual assault in a gray area when it comes to abortion funding. In other words, the government can essentially analyze your rape to determine whether it’s worthy of abortion funding. Irin Carmon at Jezebel has an excellent analysis of why this language, even if it was accidental in intention or not really meant to be codified into law, is dangerous just in its existence. Several bloggers have started a #DearJohn Twitter campaign to draw attention to the bill (the John in question being Speaker of the House Boehner).

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'Graphic Details' Q&A: Sarah Lightman

By Leah Berkenwald

“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” is the first museum exhibit to explore this unique niche of autobiographical storytelling by Jewish women. The touring exhibit, sponsored by the Forward, features the work of 18 Jewish women artists. The Jewish Women’s Archive, which crossposts regularly with The Sisterhood, is interviewing each of the artists about their work and their experience as a female, Jewish graphic artist. Today we spoke with Sarah Lightman who co-curated the exhibit with Michael Kaminer. Her “Dumped before Valentine’s” series is featured in the exhibit.

Leah Berkenwald: How did you get into cartooning?

Sarah Lightman: Well, firstly I have to admit; I’m not what everyone would consider a ‘Cartoonist’. I make a visual diary of my life that fits more into comics than any other art form and I have found myself very welcome and comfortable in the world of comics.

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Leah Berkenwald is the online communications specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and a contributor to its Jewesses With Attitude blog, which cross-posts regularly with the Sisterhood.


Breaking the Drywall Ceiling: Israel's Contracting Pioneer

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

For the first time in Israel’s history, the Association of Contractors and Builders in Rishon Lezion elected a woman as its chair. Ofira Golomev, who is set to replace outgoing head Pini Malcha, expressed satisfaction about this development, and noted the historical significance of her appointment. “History was made this week,” she told reporters, “a radical change.”

Although women take up many administrative positions, this is the first time that a woman has held this senior position in any of the local branches, a fact that highlights just how rampant gender disparities are in Israeli working life. Golomev, an attorney by profession, works with the building department of Rishon Lezion and has been influential in advancing many building projects. She recently sat on the national committee that investigated the treatment of evacuees from Gush Katif, and she was also a member of the managing committee of the Nature and Parks Authority.

Established in 1949, the Association has 1,500 members and is recognized as the official representative of Israel’s building industry. In practice, it is a very powerful group in Israel that has a strong influence on building and construction practices around Israel.

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Gabrielle Giffords's Husband Faces a Choice That a Woman Would Not

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Getty Images
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords hugs her spacesuit-clad husband Mark Kelly in 2008.

Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, is facing a big decision: As Giffords begins a long rehabilitation after being shot in the head earlier this month, should he take the helm of the space shuttle Endeavor when it takes off in April on a two-week mission to the International Space Station, or not?

According to this New York Times story, the politician’s husband has long been preparing to captain what may be the last space shuttle flight and, were he to continue on in that role, would have to focus on intensive training from this point forward.

What fascinates me is that he’s even considering it. A woman, were she in his space-boots, would be expected to put taking care of her husband first and set aside her professional ambitions. Our culture wouldn’t even tolerate a woman’s ambivalence about it, let alone serious consideration of proceeding.

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Where’s the Concern for Women’s Morals in ‘Conscience Clauses’?

By Sarah Seltzer

A small case in Iowa seems representative of what’s happening in regards to women’s bodies these days. A woman, suffering from uterine bleeding, needed a medication to stop the bleeding. Her nurse called in a valid prescription, but things didn’t go smoothly. As Irin Carmon at Jezebel reports, when the nurse spoke to a pharmacist at an Idaho Walgreen’s, the pharmacist “demanded to know whether the patient had had an abortion, which the nurse refused due to privacy laws. When the nurse asked for a referral, the pharmacist hung up.”

It was a shocking story, and showed how many “pro-life” activists are more concerned with shaming women and feeling smug than actually saving life (although to be fair, even some who call themselves anti-abortion activivsts were appalled by the pharmacist’s callousness). While legal action was sought by Planned Parenthood, which employed the nurse, it’s not clear at this point that the pharmacist directly violated broader so-called “conscience clauses” in place in Idaho, even though the patient’s life was potentially in danger.

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Don't Let Men Get the Last Word

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

Last night, I had a real moment of despair. I found myself thinking, in order for women to thrive, we really do need, as Virgina Woolf said so long ago, a room of one’s own.

This moment took place in an unlikely venue, in a room almost of our own, as it were. It was a meeting of my local municipality’s women’s council, a volunteer political group composed of the most innovative, intelligent and hard-working women who support the professional work of the Mayor’s Advisor on the Status of Women. This should be the place where women can take charge and set a real social and political agenda. But all it took was one man in the room to dominate in order for all the women’s ideas to get lost.

When I first saw the man in the room, I thought, this is really progressive — a man has joined the women’s council to support women’s work. Last year, he presented a plan to create a sort of administrative center for women’s small businesses, or at least that’s what I thought it was. Turns out, he is merely promoting himself as all-around consultant and adviser to women looking to start a business. As self-serving as it is, it would have been okay had he demonstrated even the slightest respect for women. But he did not.

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