Tag : supreme court

January 25, 2021 by

Amy Coney Barrett and Me

As the world watched Amy Coney Barrett on display in the Senate judiciary hearings, I practically heard the sound of bewilderment erupting in viewers’ heads. It’s like the noise that your Waze makes when you make a wrong turn and then she has to adjust her entire plan. It’s that scratchy sound of reconfiguring

The disconnect has to do with the realization that Coney Barrett has two sides. She is on the one hand a smart, competent career woman, and on the other hand also a voice for repressive patriarchal ideas. 

But she is hardly alone. We don’t need to go all the way back to Phyllis Schlafly to find examples of WPPs—that is, Women who Protect the Patriarchy. We have plenty of examples of women like that today. I’m not just talking about the women on the public stage like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kimberly Guilfoyle, or KellyAnne Conway, women who have dedicated their public-facing careers to being mouthpieces for patriarchal power.  

No, I am referring to a different dynamic. I am talking about women for whom the patriarchy is personal. Women who live it while defending it. An Orthodox Jewish woman, for instance, maybe the head of the brain surgery department at a hospital but accept that she doesn’t count in a minyan and her voice can never be heard in public. She may even be a brilliant musician while accepting the reality that she cannot sing in front of men, or an outstanding athlete who would never run in anything other than long sleeves and a skirt.  

I know this stance well, because I lived it. I was expanding my horizons beyond what my female ancestors did—getting an education, working, earning money, speaking out—while at the same time finding my place in the women’s section behind the partition. Keeping my shoulders covered. Participating in ritual practices where I did not count and my voice could not be heard. My head was making that reconfiguring noise but it took me a while to notice the sound, or to figure out what it was saying to me. 

It makes sense: pushing back against your community and everything you’ve ever known often comes at great personal cost. Women everywhere pick and choose our battles. Look at how liberal institutions—women included—have tried to sweep #MeToo incidents under the rug over time. All women are in some kind of negotiation with the patriarchy. None of us has fixed our worlds yet, so we all choose to shut out the noise. 

The issue Coney Barrett’s hearings evoked, though, is that the stakes are greater when women who are protecting the patriarchy enter leadership. Then, the contradiction can take a sinister turn. Religious women can use their newly acquired power to keep other women in their place.

Coney Barrett especially reminded me of learned women like yoatzot halakha, women halakhic advisers, who are breaking barriers while using their platforms to protect patriarchal Jewish practices. Yoatzot have been among the first women allowed to take a role that for generations was the domain of male rabbis—advising religious women on ritual immersion and halakhic menstrual “purity.” No matter how you try to parse these laws or how many books are written about the “benefits” of these practices, there is no way to escape the fact that they are based on ideas that are terrible for women: that the purpose of our sexual lives is to procreate, that our menstruation makes us “impure,” that there is no such thing as non-sexual physical contact between men and women, that men cannot look at their wives without wanting sex, and that women’s most intimate body care is under the purview of rabbis. For generations, women have been showing their stained underwear to rabbis to rule about whether they could have sex with their husbands. The yoetzet position brought a welcome change: women with questions about their “purity” could at least show their underwear to a woman instead of a man.  

On a closer look, though, you will often hear learned women insisting that they are not making actual rulings but merely acting as vehicles for men, the genuine voices of Jewish authority. Like Coney Barrett, they are exercising “judgment,” and “power”  but only to support a sexist structure. 

I grew up with female gatekeepers. The Rebbetzin in my post-high school seminary who taught us that head covering was a law brought down from Moses at Sinai. The teachers who monitored the lengths of our skirts, who reminded us that we were not “obligated” to pray mincha because we were just girls. The nice young teachers who, in twelfth grade, took us on an exclusive and exciting field trip to the local mikveh, to school us in getting ready for sex in marriage. As if ritual immersion is all you need to know about sex. And then years later, the local Rebbetzin who gave me “kallah classes” that traumatized me in ways I could not articulate.  

It is hard to break away from the patriarchy, but even harder when you’ve been indoctrinated by women, women who appear warm, and speak about meaning, connection, tradition, and of course God. I call this Indoctrination with a Pretty Face. 

But female gatekeepers can also indoctrinate with force. My mother aggressively groomed us—my three sisters and me—for a life of servitude as wife and mother, and as an object that was pleasing to men. It wasn’t just my clothing, my body, my face, and my food that were managed and monitored. It was also my words, my behavior, my demeanor. A girl who ate too much, who spoke too much, or who stayed seated at the Shabbat table instead of serving, was bad. A girl who challenged her father’s ideas, who ate before her father ate, or who dared get up from the table before the father declared it done, was worthy of disdain. Embarrassing.  

All this was to prepare us for marriage. “Behind every successful man is a woman” were words that we lived by. And yet, even though we were taught that women’s open ambition was ugly, we were encouraged to get an education. The same way we were told we must get a driver’s license, as a kind of protection, but we were never expected to drive. Women’s driving was considered unnatural! My father mocked women drivers, including his daughters, and would never get into the passenger seat when a woman was driving. Nevertheless, my mother ensured that we got licenses, just as she wanted to make sure that we all got a Bachelor’s degree, and even a part-time job if we insisted. It was a back-up plan, not to be confused with a career. I mean, the idea of one of the daughters becoming an independent woman was almost as appalling as becoming fat.  

Somewhere in the back of my brain, hearing all this, there were screechy sounds trying to get my attention, but they were blocked by messages that we had the secret to women’s success. Plus, once you pay attention to the screechy sound, once you start to question the premise of your way of life, well, the whole thing can come down like a house of cards.  

That is what happened to me, though the process took 30 years. 

For a very long time, the idea that this whole identity was in conflict with itself was too hard to unpack. So I took down little pieces, one at a time. Took off my hat. Started sharing roles at home. Pursued a doctorate. Made kiddush. Sat down while my husband vacuumed. Fought for agunot. Added Miriam to the Seder. Drove while my husband sat in the passenger seat.  

But the thing is—and here is where it gets tricky—even while I was sorting it all out internally, externally I was still acting as a megaphone for the patriarchy. I taught religious high school girls, spitting out the same language that today I find intolerable, rhetoric about the beauty of women’s modesty, the wisdom of the halakhic system. Once when a friend of mine shared with me that she had stopped going to the mikveh, I reacted with horror. She still reminds me of that, just for fun.  

One day in my sophomore year at Barnard, I was in a lecture hall listening to a class about gender and politics. In a discussion about the evolution of ideas about women and child care, I raised my hand and said, “But everyone knows that children need their mothers. Everyone knows that a child who grows up  in daycare is going to be messed up.” 

You can imagine the uproar. People who know me today probably don’t even believe the story. But I came from a very different place. I could have continued on my path. Perhaps had things been smoother for me, I would still be there. I think that it is very possible that I could have been an Orthodox version of Coney Barrett. One of my sisters is a yoetzet halakha. Another sister wanted to be a doctor, but did not go to medical school because she kept saying (as I did that day in Barnard) that a woman cannot be a doctor and a good mother. Sometimes I would say to her, ‘Just do it, just go to medical school.’ And she would yell back at me, ‘I don’t need any of your feminism!’ Our conversations never ended well.  

Today, we are no longer on speaking terms. It was my choice. And yet my sister’s story is also my own. The messages she got are the same ones that I got. Marry early. Have lots of kids. Be a good mother. Dedicate yourself to everyone else. Oh, and do all that while being thin, pretty, perky, happy, smiling, and servile. 

Had I not been unhappy with my life, I would have stayed in that world. I challenged what I was living with not because it didn’t make sense but because I was being emotionally and sexually abused. And even despite that, I tried to make it work for a long time.  

It is not hard for me to imagine how a woman can be both a career-go-getter and also a defender of her religious patriarchy. In fact, these personality traits may even go together well. Religious women are often good students—smart, diligent, hard workers. And not even just religious girls. It takes a lot to manage the kinds of lives that working mothers of big families manage. It’s a lot of organizing and thinking ahead, attention to detail, multi-tasking, and problem-solving. To wit, in Israel, Haredi women are considered outstanding employees. They tend to be efficient and punctual, they get a lot done in a small space of time, they do not stand around drinking at happy hour,  and they are reliable.  

Maybe it’s no wonder women like Coney Barrett go far. In places where diligence is rewarded, religious women are well suited. You don’t always need to be creative to get ahead. You sometimes need to do what is expected. That quality fits in quite well with being an obedient religious woman. Her behavior at her confirmation hearings reinforced that impression—she hardly articulated any independent thought, and maintained a resolve that enabled her to get through the grueling process without getting her hands dirty or ever sharing a single personal belief. 

At the end of the day, Coney Barrett was well-rewarded for her performance as the perfect patriarchal woman. She demonstrated a deep and powerful reason why women—even smart, thinking, self-driven women—sometimes become the great protectors of the patriarchy. And that has to do with what they get out of it. For them, the system works. Not only does it work, but it offers compelling rewards. 

You know where to go and what to do all the time. And while a house full of kids is a LOT of work, it is also at times comforting in its busyness. Predictable trips to worship are vital for so many people—less because of prayer and more because of community. Coney Barrett may love her “People of Praise” group where her highest position as a woman might be “handmaiden” as opposed to “leader” because it gives her all the same kinds of benefits that women get in Orthodoxy—community, belonging, identity, friends, structure.  

Succeeding in the patriarchy offers what Viktor Frankel argued may even be more powerful than love: purpose. Gender equality is a nice idea. But then there is what really drives us.  

Not all of our choices are consistent. I hear accusations in feminist circles all the time. You cannot be both a feminist and a mother of lots of children. Or a feminist and financially dependent on a husband. Or a feminist who gets plastic surgery. Or a feminist and mother of soldiers. Or a feminist and a Zionist. Perhaps all of us, in some way, are gatekeepers for parts of the patriarchy. Maybe it’s unavoidable. After all, the patriarchy is the very water we swim in. But in that water, we still have choices. Coney Barrett made choices. My mother made choices. And I made choices.  

Yet if our personal choices are private, once they become public stances, it is a whole different game. If Coney Barrett chooses to embrace patriarchal lifestyles—such as her participation in “People of Praise”—she has every right to be in that place. But once she is a Supreme Court Justice, then she is not just a woman in conflict. She has ironically broken a glass ceiling, but only to use her position to inflict some great harm on other women. If the Supreme Court knocks down Roe v. Wade or cancels birth control coverage, then Coney Barrett becomes a damaging agent of the patriarchy. It doesn’t matter that she happens to be a woman.  

Photo: Kai Medina (MK170101 via Wikimedia Commons) 

Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author, researcher,  educator, and activist.

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October 13, 2020 by

What Amy Coney Barrett Means for Sex Ed

Middle schoolers are not well known for being comfortable and open when it comes to talking about sex. On my college campus at Wesleyan University, I belong to a group of students working to change this. Adolescent Sexual Health Awareness (ASHA) reinvents sex-ed curricula to go deeper than what most states require. Our mission is, in part, to “empower young people to be active participants in their sexual education and to take charge of their bodies, as well as their emotional and physical health.”

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July 27, 2020 by

To Be an RBG Biographer… •

Debbie Levy, author of two biographies of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for young readers, is interviewed by her bookseller son Ben Hoffman about how she went about interviewing RBG and writing the picture-book biography I Dissent, and the graphic-novel-style biography Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice, about her research and interviewing the RBG. youtu.be/RsvMmA_b4RY

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January 10, 2019 by

Who Can Pay for an Abortion?

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.52.22 AMMoney has always made it easier for some women to obtain a relatively safe (if illegal) abortion. Talk to women who came of age in the 1950s or 60s, decades before abortion became legal in the U.S., and you’ll hear tales of someone’s flight to Puerto Rico to have an abortion. Or suspicions that a respected doctor who was a family friend might have performed an abortion in a safe surgical operating room in the guise of an “appendectomy.” Whether the details are entirely accurate in these recollections, the theme rings true: women with access to money had a much better chance of also being able to access abortions. It’s shocking to realize that economic privilege is once again the reality of abortion access in the era of today’s Supreme Court. Today in the United States, if you are a person of means seeking an abortion, you can still get one. Everyone else? Good luck.

You may be wondering how this could possibly be true. How will money be able to circumvent laws and regulations that already severely limit reproductive rights in many states, and which point to an even more Draconian future? After all, Alabama and West Virginia recently passed anti-choice amendments, North Dakota and Mississippi each have only one abortion clinic, and even New York State’s abortion laws aren’t actually that great if you look closely. In addition, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has pro-choice folks rightly alarmed—Roe v. Wade, the1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the U.S. is already at risk of being overturned. Four states (Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota) have “trigger laws” in place which will automatically outlaw abortion if Roe is reversed; many other states have similar laws that will push the procedure to the very edge of legal possibility. And just because a state doesn’t have a trigger law on the books, that doesn’t mean it’s a safe haven—only a few states, like Massachusetts and New Mexico, have specifically declared they will protect abortion rights.

For many women, today’s reality already offers a window into life post-Roe. If you have money, it might not matter if there’s only one clinic in your state, or if laws in your jurisdiction ban abortions after, say, 15 weeks. Money will enable you to drive to that one last available clinic, take the day (or more than a day) of from work to have the procedure done, rent a hotel room if you need to stay overnight, provide childcare for the kids you statistically already have, or even leave the state—or country—to get an abortion if you need to.

Without the means to access these necessary aspects of obtaining an abortion, it doesn’t matter if abortion is technically legal, because it’s so out of reach.

Cue the 70 abortion funds that have sprung up over the last 25 years. Providing the bridge between having to carry an undesired pregnancy to term and being able to terminate the pregnancy, abortion funds are nonprofit organizations that offer financial and logistical help to women seeking an abortion. Some funding groups exclusively provide assistance in paying for the abortion itself, others cover the practical aspects of obtaining one (travel, childcare, translation services, etc.) in their purview, and some include funding for both. For women who rely on support from such abortion funds in order to get abortion care, what happens if Roe is legislated out of existence? What happens to abortion funds’ funding in places where abortion becomes illegal?

The answer: they become even more indispensable. “If abortion does become illegal in Alabama, we’ll simply set up relationships with clinics out of state and assist callers with funding for their procedures and travel, childcare, etc.,” says Amanda Reyes of the Yellowhammer Fund. “We already provide practical support in this way to several of our callers, so it will just become part of the regular process for assistance. I also imagine that funds in different states will probably coordinate state-level and regional volunteer support networks where folks can assist with rides and shelter if there isn’t funding for hotels and more.”

In fact, the rest of us may turn to the people who run abortion funds to learn how to navigate a world where abortion rights are on the edge of not existing. “Long term, abortion funds aren’t going anywhere,” confirms Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “We are the experts in helping remove barriers for people accessing abortion, and that work includes culture shift as well as protecting and supporting those who self-manage their abortions.”

In Kentucky, only one abortion clinic remains, the EMW Women’s Center in Louisville. EMW Lexington location was shut down in January 2017. Marcie Krim is the executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network; in addition to its Trans Health Program, its abortion fund offers financial support for transportation, lodging, childcare, and other expenses. The fund’s 50 volunteers already drive people out of state, often to Illinois (four hours, round-trip), and also get women to Colorado and Maryland, where abortion care is available later in pregnancy than it is in the rest of the country.

If Roe goes, Krim says, “expenses will rise significantly.” But, she clarifies, they’ve already gone up, not just because of the closure of the Lexington clinic, but also because of abortion restrictions, like a 24-hour waiting period and the parental consent requirement for those under 18. Both these restrictions can mean the difference between ending a pregnancy in the first trimester and the second, when the procedure becomes more expensive. “The more laws,” Krim says, “the longer people have to wait for their abortion.”

She relays the story of a teenage girl she was driving to the airport for an abortion. “She told me, “Before I found you, I was going to try to do this myself.”

“We know that Roe has never been a promise for abortion access,” says Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). While the idea of Roe being revoked is definitely disturbing, “those realities are what we’ve been navigating for decades.” The average abortion fund, she says, has an annual budget of $76,000, and only 29 out of the 70 abortion funds in the U.S. have a paid staff member, meaning they are primarily volunteer- run. “Currently, it’s middle-income white people who volunteer, and we want… to make sure that the people answering the phones reflect the identities of the people who are calling.” Hernandez adds that in 2017, out of the 150,000 calls being made to abortion funds, only 30,000 requests were funded. “Abortion funds need five times the amount of money they have,” she says. “This is an unprecedented time, and we need unprecedented resources.”

Where in this opportunity for action can we find the Jewish community? What support might be forthcoming from Jewish sources, particularly in light of the fact that Jewish law mandates saving the mother’s life over saving the fetus? My search for rabbis with discretionary funds who would be eager to donate some of that money to abortion funds, or to people in their own communities in need of abortion, came up empty. (I’m not ready to say they don’t exist, just that I couldn’t find them.) That’s because while abortion rights may be a talking point in Jewish circles, the financial aspect has yet to fully penetrate, activists say.

“I don’t hear mainstream, social-justice-oriented Jews talking about abortion access,” says Leah Greenblum, the Chicago community director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. She also funds abortion via her work with the Midwest Access Coalition (mac), a practical abortion fund, which provides assistance with an abortion’s ancillary costs. “It would be a nice thing if rabbis made themselves knowledgeable about what resources exist—do research, keep up with laws, barriers, listen to organizations like Planned Parenthood, naral, Guttmacher—and took their cues from them,” says Greenblum. “We can’t just be passive, we have to talk about abortion and how it’s interwoven with race, class, gender, geography, health- care.” Greenblum says that her AVODAH coworkers have been supportive of her work with mac, and after an October 2018 article Haaretz included her in a profile of American Jewish women working to expand abortion access, a rabbi in Chicago became a regular mac donor. “If, as Jews, we’re interested in true liberation, abortion has a place in that,” she says.

The action—or inaction—of Jewish men can tell us a lot about how seriously they take the concerns of Jewish women, like access to abortion, and ultimately, bodily autonomy, says Rabbi Ruti Regan.

Regan notes that during the Kavanaugh hearings she saw many Jewish women attending protests, but not a lot of Jewish men, or major Jewish organizations. “If we took Jewish women seriously as Jews,” she says, “we would see things like Kavanaugh’s appointment and assaults on reproductive justice as a threat to the community and not ‘just’ to women.” She adds that during those fraught days, she heard condescending lectures from Jewish men urging Jewish women not to “freak out” and to remain civil, “as if nothing catastrophic was happening, and women were expected to just get over things.”

The truth is that Jewish tradition runs counter to that patronizing “deal with it” sentiment, says Regan, giving us a spiritual framework to mourn our past losses collectively. But in order to regroup going forward, “we need it clear that we value Jewish women’s lives.” Her question for Jewish men as we march into this uncertain future for reproductive autonomy goes beyond financial matters. She asks if men are ready to recognize the deeper social value of standing up for women’s lives: “Do you still think women are human beings when defending them would cost you something?”

Chanel Dubofsky writes fiction and non-fiction in Brooklyn, NY.

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September 20, 2018 by

Sorry Brett Kavanaugh: Religious Women Use Birth Control

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Before the big story of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings switched to an alleged attempted sexual assault from his youth, he had already earned women’s groups’ ire: he quoted a right-wing religious talking point, calling birth control “abortion-inducing.”

I’ll share a secret with you: that argument pushed by groups like Priests for Life, the group Kavanaugh quoted during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings last week, has nothing to do with the reality of what religious women do. They use birth control.

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April 12, 2018 by

A Prayer for RBG’s Long Life —and Our Pursuit of Justice

On February 1, 2018, the pews of the synagogue in Washington, DC were packed. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg —known to some her of her adoring fans at the Notorious RBG — was about to be interviewed at Adas Israel Congregation by the Forward’s editor in chief, Jane Eisner. Rather than introducing the speakers in a traditional way, Kathleen Peratis brought both Eisner and Ginsburg on stage and proceeded to read this prayer. Written by Abigail Pogrebin in response to an invitation from Lilith, it is a paean to the longest-sitting Jewish Supreme Court justice, and an articulation of the hope that she — and her presence on the court — provide. 

At a time as disquieting as this,

When so many of us feel deflated, shaken,

worried for our future,

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

When we almost can’t remember what it’s like to go a day without name-calling, without lies, harshness, or callousness.

When we’re nostalgic for those halcyon years of complete sentences, dignified statesmanship, acts of empathy,

We still look to you, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—yeshiva-girl-turned-legendary-justice, RBG icon, fighter for the powerless and wronged.

May you go from strength to strength because you have been ours.

May you live many more years because you make the world brighter, fairer, kinder….Because we need you.


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July 2, 2014 by

Your Guide to the Hobby Lobby Case and Its Crushing Consequences

Thousands of women may now face restrictions on access to contraceptives. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thousands of women may now face restrictions on access to contraceptives. (Wikimedia Commons)

Curious–or confused–about the fallout from Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby, a case decided this week by the Supreme Court with potentially massive consequences for women’s health in the United States? Here’s a Lilith-curated roundup of articles on the subject, discussing consequences for religious minorities (including Jews); Ruth Bader-Ginsberg’s dissent on the ruling; and the fallout for women’s reproductive (and medical) choices in the United States.