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Let’s talk about sex (or gender)

July 12, 2009 – 12:37 am9 Comments

stepford_wivesBy The Hasid

The Jewish community of Australia is a strange beast, both forward-thinking and “traditional”.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in the role and status of women: we’re simultaneously feminist and bound by conservative gender roles. It’s a strange experience, especially when you’re an idealistic teenager not quite able to ‘sit’ comfortably with contradiction. To wit: the modern-Orthodox school I attended championed the rights and achievements of women in the secular world (the academic expectations placed upon us were certainly equal to those of our male peers), yet we were virtually ignored in prayer services and religious instruction throughout our high-school years. To be blunt, I felt like a second-class citizen, as did much of my female cohort. But that’s for another post.

It does, however, provide a nice segue into into the topic du jour: women’s auxiliaries (of synagogues) and Parents’ organisations (of Jewish schools). Namely, their organisational and fund-raising habits, which – though very important financially – seem to be a complete throwback to another era. Let me be be clear – I am not in any way disparaging the women who dedicate huge chunks of time, money and effort into fund-raising activities, on top of the demands of work and family. I tip my proverbial hat to them and acknowledge how their hard work contributes positively to the Jewish community. And yet, the whole ‘scene’ – the manner in which these activities are organised and presented – gives me the irrits.

Case in point: last week I came across an invitation to the Yavneh Parents’ Organisation’s annual hostess function, to be held on Monday July 20. The event itself sounds really interesting, featuring guest-speaker Joanne Fedler – a best-selling novelist, feminist and women’s-rights activist. Brilliant, I thought. Sounds fascinating. But then, on the back of the (hot pink) invitation, I read that the event was a women’s only function.

“Hostess” function? Hot-pink invitations? Women’s only? Seriously?

What about Yavneh fathers who would also like to contribute to fundraising efforts, or at least hear Ms Fedler speak? What is with the arbitrary segregation of sexes for non-religious, social events? It’s like old-school sexism disguised by a thin veneer of women’s empowerment. One could, I think, safely assume that the women in attendance will be well-educated, open-minded, and – to varying degrees – supportive of feminism as a means of eliminating sexism and breaking-down traditional, socially-constructed gender roles. Which makes the whole thing even more bewildering, like there’s some sort of collective smothering of feminist sensibilities happening for the sake of fund-raising and maintaining ‘tradition’. It just screams Stepford Wives.

I do not mean to single out Yavneh for criticism in this area. Most other Jewish dayschools and synagogues have similar events throughout the year. I’m sure they’re equally backward and painful. (The NCJWA, however, I see as quite distinct, as its mandate is specifically women-oriented; whereas there is nothing specifically women-oriented – at least that I can discern – about a parents’ organisation or a shul.) I just happened to chance upon the Yavneh invitation, but one could easily substitute Yavneh for Scopus, King David, Mizrachi, or any other Jewish educational/religious organisation.

So, can someone please shed some light? Surely I’m not the only woman who attends these events reluctantly and with a sense of deep discomfort? Surely I’m not the only one bored to death by luncheons, gender-segregation and the reinforcement of silly stereotypes?

Speak up, sisters and brothers of Israel.

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  • WA Veteran says:

    I’m no “sister,” but it’s certainly food for thought.

    I was not really aware that these kind of women’s only (business hours) functions were still commonplace.

  • Bruce says:

    I’m no brother of Israel – but this type of continued observance of clearly outdated beliefs will hold back good people and deny organisations the benefit of their contribution. It’s yet another clear example of a religion ruled over by a bunch of grumpy old men who think women should be relegated to the kitchen with two sets of crockery and cutlery.

    Time for a change.

  • WA Veteran says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I’m not sure this is a religious issue, nor even necessarily an issue unique to the Jewish community.

    I guess I’d need to know if this goes on at other parallel institutions in the wider community, such as independent schools of a similar socio-demographic.

  • Red says:

    Having been a parent at several of our Jewish day schools, I am sure that the King David School would NOT have a “women” only function. When my children were in primary school, parents could help with reading, or semi fundraising such as tuck shop and uniform shop.
    I don’t recall any luncheons at King David, but in principle, if there are sufficient attendees who are able to donate some money and hear a good speaker, then why not provide the intellectual stimulation and raise funds at the same time? Unfortunately most parents do work either full time or part time, and I think that it would be difficult to get paying audience at a lunch time function.

    On the other hand, the Jewish Museum runs an annual fundraising luncheon with a drawcard speaker. I don’t know how many people actually attend (as I have always been at work), but there is a long list of donors on the invitation. I imagine that the women attending would outnumber the men. Just as I am sure that men would outnumber women at some fundraising breakfasts run by other organisations.

    “Business hours” may be a convenient time slot for some speakers.
    The fact that most of the paying audience may be female at such functions is more likely due to the historic (but now diminishing) role of women as the home-maker, but the availability of these functions does not in itself cause the stereotyping.

  • tay says:

    Yavneh parents association has a large audience some of whom prefer a mixed function and some of whom prefer a segregated function. Therefore the organisation offers a range of events catering to both crowds.
    This particular function is for women only, however there are many other functions which are either mixed or men only.

    This function is at 8:00 pm not in the middle of the day.

  • The Hasid says:

    Thanks for the correction, tay. I will edit the post accordingly!

  • The Hasid says:

    Red – for sure:
    “if there are sufficient attendees who are able to donate some money and hear a good speaker, then why not provide the intellectual stimulation and raise funds at the same time”.
    I don’t have an issue with that at all. The fundraising facility is fantastic and really important to schools. My ‘issue’ is more with the women-only aspect. Also, I am fairly certain TKDS had a luncheon a few weeks ago – photos were in the AJN. But I will confirm!

    tay – yep, this may be true for a very small minority:
    “Yavneh parents association has a large audience some of whom prefer a mixed function and some of whom prefer a segregated function.”

    The question is – why should it matter in this circumstance?
    Is the event religious? Nup.
    Does having a mixed function in any way contravene the school’s Modern-Orthodox ideology? No.
    If the event were mixed, would the women attending be expected to engage in any dubious or immodest activities with men to whom they were not married or related? No way.

    So I still don’t get it.

  • Red says:

    I have not had involvement with KDS for a number of years now, so I don’t know if it they did have a women’s only luncheon. If KDS had a women’s only luncheon it would be worse then Yavneh having one, as those families that had a preference for single-sex functions for ‘religious’ reasons would not send their children to KDS and KDS has an equality of the sexes idealogy, with women rabbis, girls doing a full bar mitzvah, and women and men being called to the Torah for auspicious occasions.

    Do you think that the parents that prefer a single sex function, where the function is a talk and presumably some discussion following, do so for similar reasons that we have principals of girls’ schools such as Lauriston, MLC, etc claim that girls do better at these schools? i.e. Do women ask more questions, and with less inhibition when they are in the company of women only? And if so, what are the implications to society?

  • The Hasid says:

    Hi Red,

    I have confirmed with a source at King David that the school does indeed have a women’s luncheon each year (it’s one of their biggest fundraisers), but men are welcome to attend and do so in significant numbers. So I guess it is a women’s luncheon in name only…? In which case, I’m not sure why it’s marketed as a “women’s event” – perhaps because the speaker is normally a woman and most of the people in attendance are women.

    It could well be that the ‘angle’ taken on this sort of event is one of women’s empowerment. Though I doubt the organisers are thinking too much about the gender issues. (And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, simply that there are more practical issues to deal with such as catering, collecting donations, etc.)

    As to your question about girls’ schools: no, I don’t believe that there’s a connection between why some parents enjoy single-sex functions and why some educators claim girls do better in girls-only schools. The former is about perpetuating (unintentionally) gender stereotypes. The latter is about how best to turn young women into articulate, empowered, educated, contributing members of society.

    My personal view is that it doesn’t make much sense, in theory, to send your child to a school where 50% of the population is not represented. Having said that, I can see that there are advantages to both boys and girls being educated in single-sex schools – apparently both do better socially and academically and are more likely to pursue studies and extra-curricular activities that are typically dominated by the other sex (i.e. girls getting into woodworking, boys electing to do choir). But that’s another post altogether!

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