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Groups fighting abortion restriction in health-reform bill

WASHINGTON – Several Jewish groups are fighting a controversial measure in health-reform legislation that would have the effect of eliminating insurance coverage for abortion for millions of women.

At issue is the Stupak Amendment, a measure included at the last minute in the health-care bill passed Nov. 7 by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Several organizations — including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Congress, and the Chicago-based Joint Action Committee — have spoken out or are lobbying to make sure the amendment does not end up either in the Senate version of health-care legislation or the final bill that emerges from a conference committee.

Jewish abortion-rights activists say that many people fail to realize the effect of the measure on reproductive freedom. The issue potentially could divide liberals as they struggle to prioritize protecting abortion rights and securing conservative Democratic votes in favor of a final health-care bill.

“We strongly want to see health-care reform, but we don’t want to see women thrown under the bus,” said Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee, a Jewish political action committee that promotes reproductive freedom, separation of church and state, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Under a law known as the Hyde Amendment, public funds cannot be used to cover abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. But the Stupak Amendment would go much further, banning anyone receiving federal subsidies for health insurance — those earning 400 percent of the poverty level, or $88,000 for a family of four — from buying a plan that covers abortion.

In addition, the proposed measure would not allow any insurance plan that takes part in the new “insurance exchange” to include abortion in its coverage, even for those paying for coverage with their own funds. (The legislation would allow companies to sell a separate “rider” for abortion coverage, but advocates say it is unlikely that women would purchase such a plan for what is almost always an unplanned procedure.)

By essentially saying that insurance plans cannot segregate private funds used for abortion from public funds that are not allowed for such a purpose, opponents argue that Stupak in a number of areas contradicts government policy — which, for instance, permits public funds to go to religious institutions as long as the money is not used for religious activities.

The director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein, said that in pushing for the stricter abortion measure, religious conservatives are using the opposite argument from their case for allowing government-subsidized school vouchers to be used for religious schools. Conservatives argue that the voucher case does not constitute government endorsement of religion because a mother or father is making the choice of where to spend the money.

But in pushing for the adoption of Stupak, proponents are saying that if the government gives an individual money for health insurance, the government is then endorsing abortion if the recipient uses her insurance to pay for such a procedure.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, said that while her organization does not like the current law preventing federal funding of abortion, it was willing to abide it in order to achieve significant health-care reform.

“We understood from very early on, this vehicle is not going to be the vehicle where we’re going to fight that battle” on the Hyde Amendment, she said.

But Moshenberg called the Stupak Amendment “devastating,” describing it as “an attempt to have one religious viewpoint foisted on us legislatively and sets up the federal government to enforce it.”

Some of the opponents in the Jewish community were planning to join other organizations in a Washington lobby day Dec. 2 aimed at killing the measure.

Saperstein said a “growing uproar” over Stupak had emerged from the grassroots over the past couple weeks, with one Reform synagogue even passing a statement of opposition to the legislation at its board meeting.

Saperstein, whose organization has been an outspoken advocate for health-care reform, joined others in saying that he did not want to contemplate yet whether his organization could support a bill that also included the Stupak restrictions.

“No one knows what the final bill is going to look like,” he said. Right now, “we’re doing everything we can to fight” the Stupak Amendment.

JTA

 
 

GOP upset in Mass. raises questions for health reform

WASHINGTON – The election of Scott Brown to replace the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate has thrown the future of health-care reform into doubt.

With the Republican’s upset victory Tuesday in Massachusetts, Jewish groups backing comprehensive reform must figure out how to respond. One organization said that passing the Senate version of the legislation is the best possible outcome at this point, but others are undecided.

Brown has vowed to be the crucial 41st vote against ending the filibuster on any reform of the U.S. health-care system, dimming the prospects for passage of any kind of conference committee deal between the Senate and House of Representatives. That has led some to suggest that the only hope for health-care reform is if the House passes the Senate bill without amendments, so the Senate does not have to take another vote on the issue.

The associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Mark Pelavin, said that such a step would eliminate important provisions that his group backs in the House legislation — such as the “public option” — but “is something we could live with.”

Pelavin said that while it may not be the best possible outcome, considering the political landscape it would be an “incredibly significant step” in expanding the access to and lowering the cost of health care because it would cover two-thirds of those now without insurance.

Pelavin also said the Senate bill’s controversial language restricting the health-insurance coverage of abortion, which a number of Jewish groups have spoken out against, is “troubling.” But, he added, it’s not nearly as restrictive as the provision in the House version that would not allow anyone receiving federal subsidies to buy a plan covering abortion and would not permit plans on the “insurance exchange” formed by the bill to include abortion coverage.

Sammie Moshenberg, the director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, said the Senate language on reproductive rights is still “pretty bad” because it would allow states to decide whether abortion is covered in insurance plans and force women to write a separate check for the portion of their health coverage that covered abortion.

As for the overall legislation, Moshenberg said her organization is waiting to see how the negotiations between the House and Senate play out.

“Obviously the political dynamics on the ground have changed” and congressional leadership is “going to have to develop a strategy,” she said. “It wouldn’t make any sense for us to decide right now.

“There are things in the Senate bill that we like, and things that we don’t like.”

B’nai B’rith International also has concerns about the Senate legislation. The organization believes that the subsidies for middle-income Americans are not large enough. Also, the bill allows insurance companies to charge older consumers up to three times as much as younger customers. The House bill’s “age rating” is 2 to 1.

“It would be very difficult for the aging community” if the House decided to pass the Senate bill as is, said B’nai B’rith’s director of aging policy, Rachel Goldberg. She also expressed concern about the independent commission that the Senate bill would establish to have authority over Medicare and Medicaid spending.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and head of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said his organization would continue to work with the Congress and Senate “in favor of the parts of the legislation we’re supportive of and oppose the parts we’re opposed to.”

The umbrella group Jewish Federations of North America has declined to take a position on the legislation as a whole, instead focusing on its priorities, which include the CLASS Act — a government long-term care insurance program that is included in the Senate bill — as well as increasing coverage for the most vulnerable and protecting Medicare and Medicaid.

Daroff was one of a number of Jewish organizational representatives who suggested that Democrats might still be able to sway a liberal Republican — such as Maine’s Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins — to vote to end a Senate filibuster and thus be able to reopen negotiations with the House.

Whatever the case, Pelavin said his Reform movement constituency is still solidly behind comprehensive reform that makes health care more affordable and accessible.

“I don’t think there’s any diminution in the commitment in our community,” he said.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, though, said in a statement that Brown’s election demonstrated the electorate as a whole has “serious concerns” about Obama’s health-care proposals.

JTA

 
 

Bork turns Kagan process into fight over Israeli justice

It was an unexpected headline in an otherwise relatively mundane U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process: Bork tries to Bork Barak’s Elena Kagan with Barak card.

Like a ghost from confirmations past, failed Reagan nominee Robert Bork grabbed headlines last week when he spoke out against President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the high court. At the top of his complaint list: As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan once referred to former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak as her “judicial hero.”

Conservative bloggers quickly ran with Bork’s complaint, painting Barak as the prototypical liberal activist judge and insisting that Kagan’s praise of the Israeli justice was grounds for rejecting her nomination. By the weekend, a few Republican lawmakers were giving voice to the concerns, albeit in less absolute terms. Next, at least two GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeffrey Sessions (R-Ala.), floated the issue in their opening statements on the first day of Kagan’s confirmation hearings.

And on Tuesday the issue took center stage, as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put the question directly to Kagan — who then unapologetically affirmed and explained her praise of Barak, saying it was rooted in her Jewishness and admiration for Israel.

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Aharon Barak, formerly Israel’s top justice, recently became an issue in Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation process. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

“I am troubled by the fact that you hold up Barak as a judicial role model,” Grassley said. “He’s been described as creating a degree of judicial power undreamed of by most U.S. justices.”

Grassley quoted Barak as saying that “a judge has a role” in the lawmaking process, and asked Kagan if she agreed. Kagan responded that she did not, but also noted that Barak operated in a fundamentally different system — one without a written constitution.

“Justice Barak’s philosophy is so different from anything that we would use or would want to use in the United States,” she said.

Instead, Kagan added, she admired Barak for creating an independent judiciary in a young state surrounded by enemies.

“As you know, I don’t think it’s a secret I am Jewish,” Kagan said. “The State of Israel has meant a lot to me and my family. And — and I admire Justice Barak for what he’s done for the State of Israel and ensuring an independent judiciary.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, exercised the rarely used prerogative of rebutting Grassley, quoting conservative judges who have praised Barak.

In Israel, Barak has been subject to criticism from the left and the right, both for his expansive notion of judicial powers in upholding democratic values and for deferring to national security considerations in a number of cases involving Palestinians.

“It’s typical of young lawyers going into constitutional law that they have inflated dreams of what constitutional law can do, what courts can do,” Bork said during a June 23 conference call organized by the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life in an effort to rally opposition to Kagan in the U.S. Senate. “That usually wears off as time passes and they get experience. But Ms. Kagan has not had time to develop a mature philosophy of judging. I would say her admiration for Barak, the Israeli justice, is a prime example. As I’ve said before, Barak might be the least competent judge on the planet.”

Following Bork’s comments, liberals in the United States rushed to defend Barak and Kagan by noting that the Israeli justice has received praise as well from judicial conservatives, most notably U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. A darling of conservatives, Scalia glowingly introduced Barak in March 2007 when he was honored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (with the Supreme Court’s two Jewish members, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the audience).

In its report on the introduction, the Forward paraphrased Scalia as saying that “no other living jurist has had a greater impact on his own country’s legal system — and perhaps on legal systems throughout the world.” According to the report, Scalia went on “to celebrate his fruitful and long-standing relationship with the Israeli judge, and to affirm a profound respect for the man — one that trumped their fundamental philosophical, legal, and constitutional disagreements.”

Told of Scalia’s remarks, Bork dismissed them as sounding “like politeness offered on a formal occasion.”

At the National Review Online, Ed Whelan argued that Scalia’s comments about Barak could not be compared to Kagan’s use of the phrase “my judicial hero.”

In an e-mail to JTA, David Twersky, a veteran journalist and analyst for Jewish organizations, recalled that at a New York Sun editorial dinner at the Harvard Club he asked Scalia about Barak.

“To my great surprise, he had nothing but good things to say and said he would never second-guess Barak,” Twersky said. “So I can tell you from personal experience that Bork is wrong.”

Twersky recalled Scalia as saying, “I mean they don’t even have a constitution over there.”

The Israel-lacks-a-constitution theme has been echoed in recent days by Barak’s defenders, who argue that the different legal traditions in Israel and the United States make it difficult to read too much into Kagan’s praise of Barak.

“Kagan wasn’t saying that she would decide every U.S. issue the same way Barak would decide the same matter in Israel,” Aaron Zelinsky wrote in a column for the Huffington Post. Instead, added Zelinsky, an American who once clerked for Barak, Kagan “respected what he stood for and had accomplished, in particular the furtherance of ‘democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and justice.’”

The Orthox Union has taken issue with Barak’s record, accusing him of improperly attempting to “impose his ideological vision” on matters when Israel’s Jewish and democratic values are seemingly in conflict. But even as it reiterated those criticisms, the organization on its Washington blog dismissed Bork’s attack on Kagan, like oter Jewish groups, suggesting her praise was merely “social convention.”

“Israel gets pulled into enough disputes around the world these days, and its Supreme Court continues to spark debates too,” the OU blog declared. “Can’t Judge Bork and the rest of Kagan’s opponents find something else — and less bizarre — to attack her with?”

Both the OU and the Reform movement waded into the confirmation process, though they stopped short of taking an actual position on the nominee.

In a letter to U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the OU said it found Kagan’s record “encouraging.” It noted her repudiation in confirmation hearings of her 1987 memo, when she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, rejecting any government funding for faith-based charities providing social services.

The OU also noted memos she wrote as a domestic adviser to President Clinton backing religious freedoms in the workplace.

The Reform movement, meantime, forwarded to the Judiciary Committee members what it considered to be the most compelling questions it solicited from its membership on the website AskElanaKagan.com.

“What limits does the Establishment Clause place on government funding that flows to faith-based organizations?” was one question.

“Do states have a right to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman? What should be the Federal role concerning marriage?” was another.

Nancy Ratzan, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, issued a statement rejecting Bork’s criticism of Kagan and promised that the NCJW would continue to push its members to take action in support of her nomination.

Kagan’s Jewishness also took center stage later in the day. Graham, probing Kagan on threats to the United States, asked her if she was unnerved by the Christmas Day bomber.

“Where were you on Christmas Day?” Graham asked.

“Like all Jews,” she responded, “I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

“I could almost see this one coming,” Leahy quipped.

Then Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) jumped in: “Those are the only restaurants that are open!”

JTA

Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

 
 

Jewish groups step up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry

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Rabbis Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer and David Saperstein taking part in an interfaith summit in Washington on Sept. 7. Vince Isner

Jewish groups have stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry, with several national initiatives announced this week and supporting statements coming in from a range of Jewish voices.

In Washington, officials from several Jewish organizations took part Tuesday in an emergency summit of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders that denounced anti-Muslim bigotry and called for a united effort by believers of all faiths to reach out to Muslim Americans.

Also Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League announced the creation of an Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which will monitor and respond to instances of anti-Muslim bias surrounding attempts to build new mosques in the United States. (A preview of the announcement ran in The Jewish Standard.)

Meanwhile, six rabbis and scholars representing the Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox streams have launched an online campaign urging rabbis to devote part of their sermons this Shabbat to educating their congregations about Islam.

The efforts come in response to what organizers describe as a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment resulting from the impending ninth anniversary of 9/11 and the controversy surrounding efforts to build a Muslim community center and mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Jewish bloggers and pundits, mostly on the right, have become more vocal in opposing the center and calling for greater scrutiny of American mosques.

Among the Jewish leaders at the emergency summit was Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“As Jews, we could be nowhere else today,” said Saperstein, whose organization co-sponsored Tuesday’s interfaith summit with the Islamic Society of North America.

“We have been the quintessential victims of religious persecution … and we know what happens when people are silent,” he said, explaining why clergy and believers of all faiths need to be more forceful in speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. “We have to speak more directly to the anti-Muslim bigotry in America today.”

Leaders of the mainstream Protestant, evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Catholic churches, Muslim organizations, and several Jewish streams issued a joint statement Tuesday after their summit “to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation, and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community.”

In addition to the Religious Action Center, representatives from the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of more than 125 Jewish community relations councils and the four major Jewish streams, also attended the summit.

The National Council of Jewish Women released a statement Tuesday denouncing Islamaphobia, decrying anti-Muslim bigotry, and noting that “extremists who use Islam as a justification for their heinous acts of terrorism should not be allowed to dictate the character of the entire religion.”

The group of interfaith leaders met later in the day with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to coordinate parallel efforts with the government to combat anti-Islam sentiment.

The joint statement calls upon clergy of all faiths to denounce anti-Muslim bigotry and hate violence from their pulpits, and asserts that “leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness, and respect about other faith traditions.”

In a similar vein, Jewish interfaith leaders in an online letter called upon pulpit rabbis to use part of their sermons on Saturday to address the need for understanding Islam and perhaps to read from the Koran. Professors and deans of the rabbinical seminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, as well as the independent Hebrew College, signed the letter.

“The proposal for the ‘mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of multifaith studies and initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a main organizer of the appeal.

Organizers say a number of rabbis from various streams have indicated they will take part.

The ADL’s initiative underscores the shifting tide within the organized Jewish community.

Several weeks ago the organization generated national headlines when its national director, Abraham Foxman, came out against placing the Islamic center so close to Ground Zero. Foxman said the sensitivities of families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks should be respected.

Its new coalition is focused on helping Muslim communities that face bigotry when they attempt to build local mosques.

Foxman told JTA that within two weeks, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques will begin its work collecting details of incidents in which mosques are being challenged, determining whether bigotry is involved and, if so, whether public or legal responses are warranted. Mosques that are opposed due to zoning problems will be outside its purview.

The coalition’s charter members, the ADL said, will include a diverse collection of religious scholars and leaders, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church.

Despite creating the coalition, the ADL has not changed its position on the Islamic center near Ground Zero, Foxman told JTA.

“Our position is very clear: They have a legal right, but the location is not sensitive to the victims,” he said, noting that not everyone in the coalition agrees with the ADL position.

One Jewish observer who questions the need for special outreach to Muslims is Steve Emerson, who directs the Investigative Project on Terrorism that tracks radical Islamist groups.

Noting that the most recent FBI list of hate crimes includes many more attacks against Jews than against Muslims, he suggests that talk of anti-Muslim hatred plays into the hands of anti-American radicals.

“Given this significant disparity in real world hate crime incidents, is there truly a ‘surge of Islamaphobia’ occurring, or is it more perception generated in and by certain media in cahoots with the Islamists?” he asked.

Foxman said that defending the rights of Muslims to build mosques “does not obviate” the need to continue to monitor mosques and churches for instances in which they preach hatred.

“We have to do that as well,” he said.

JTA

 
 

You’ve come a long way, baby

Women’s work

Barbara Kaufman, former president and now program chair of the National Council Section that will host Gloria Steinem Sept. 21, said the group is “always interested in finding speakers who share the same point of view we do — pro-women, pro-children, pro-families.”

She pointed out that the Bergen County Section, with some 1,200 members, is one of the largest contingents in the 100,000-member national volunteer organization.

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Lisa Fedder

Kaufman, a Bergenfield resident who has been a member of the group for some 45 years — though she was not active during the years she pursued her own career in public relations — remembers that “the key issues in the 1960s were equal pay, still a key issue, and a woman’s right to work. In those days, men were leaders of the workforce and there were few women heads of companies.”

“Women were in a whole different place,” she said, noting that most of her peers were stay-at-home moms. But at a time when activists such as Betty Friedan were encouraging women to become more independent, “many of my friends went to graduate school and then went back to work.”

Kaufman pointed out that the history of NCJW itself reflects the changing role of women. According to the group’s website, in 1893 Hannah G. Solomon of Chicago was asked to organize the participation of Jewish women in the Chicago World’s Fair. When Solomon and her recruits discovered that participation would consist of pouring coffee and other hostess duties, they walked out.

“They wanted to become part of the brain trust,” said Kaufman, adding that today’s NCJW president, Nancy Ratzan, was appointed to the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009 by President Obama and was present for the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Despite such legislative gains, Lisa Fedder, executive director of the Teaneck-based Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, said that the issue of equal pay has yet to be resolved.

Fedder, whose agency includes a Job Search Network, said that she has not seen obstacles to women getting jobs.

“In fact,” she said, “and recent findings reflect this, it is sometimes easier for women to find work, perhaps because they are generally paid less than men for equal work.” She estimated that women earn about 80 percent of what men do.

In addition, she noted, “There are some issues resulting from women leaving the workforce for years to raise children and having a hard time getting back at the same level or higher.”

“We have also seen a lot of women who were homemakers who have been forced into the job market because of the economy. They have had a very hard time getting the skills necessary for today’s workforce and translating their activities into a résumé that will catch [an employer’s] eye.”

She said the agency’s Job Search Network, which collects and publicizes job listings, can help women deal with some of these problems through career counseling, job search coaching, support groups, and computer training.

L.G.

 
 

You’ve come a long way, baby

But women still have far to go

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Photos courtesy gloriasteinem.com

With feminist icon Gloria Steinem coming to town, The Jewish Standard reached out to area women in politics, business, and Jewish communal service. Here, each of them weighs in on women’s issues.

Now 76, Gloria Steinem has had second thoughts about posing as a Playboy bunny in 1963.

“I never should have done it,” said Steinem, who will speak in Teaneck on Sept. 21 for the National Council of Jewish Women.

An investigative journalist at the time, she became a bunny for several weeks to research the working conditions of the costume-clad women, chronicling her findings in a two-part series in Show magazine.

While the adventure put a temporary damper on her professional life — “I was taken less seriously as a writer,” she told The Jewish Standard — it nevertheless cemented her reputation as a champion of women’s rights.

Steinem said she is frequently invited to speak to Jewish groups. The writer, lecturer, and activist chalks that up to having shared values.

“I hate to generalize,” she said, “but with that proviso, I think the emphasis on social justice … has probably created a situation where Jewish women may be disproportionately represented in the women’s movement.”

Still, she added, as with all women, the amount of discrimination faced by Jewish women “depends on the part of the Jewish community they’re coming from.”

Gloria Steinem will speak at the opening meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section on Sept. 21. The event will take place at 12:30 p.m. at Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck. For more information, call the NCJWBCS office at (201) 385-4847 or visit the website, www.ncjwbcs.org.

At the NCJW Bergen County Section’s opening meeting of the year, Steinem will speak about the role of religion in women’s lives. Particularly, she said, “the extent to which religion has not been equal to spirituality, which emphasizes internal authority.”

She will also talk about “one part of history that has not fully come out — the experience of Jewish women in the Holocaust and the entirely female concentration camp, Ravensbrück.”

The mistreatment and sexual exploitation of Jewish women has not been written about sufficiently, she said.

“What we need to understand is that the sexual exploitation of women is an inevitable part of genocide. If we had understood that and had the information about this during the Holocaust, we might have been prepared for Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur.”

Steinem, who has been active in feminist and social justice causes since the mid-1950s, will also encourage attendees at the Sept. 21 meeting to learn more about their own family history.

“I have found in my own experience that the feminists in our own families are often unknown to us,” she said.

Raised in Toledo, Ohio, she was always proud of her grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, known to her as a progressive educator in the Toledo community.

“But they didn’t tell me she was a suffragist who addressed Congress,” said Steinem. “It’s interesting for each of us to look back at our own foremothers.”

She added that one of the things she has most appreciated about feminist seders is the practice of recognizing one’s foremothers and asking questions that reflect their experience.

For example, she said, “We ask, why were our foremothers sad on this night?” The answer? “Because they could prepare the feast but not participate in the ceremony.”

Despite gains made by women over the years, much remains unequal, said Steinem, adding that she will know that women have achieved full equality “when I go to Central Park and see black babies being cared for by white men who are well-paid; when I see erotica instead of pornography; and when I see more fathers who are involved in caring for and nurturing their children.”

The major obstacle to this scenario, she said, “are the systems of male dominance; the idea of a hierarchy — being born into a group where one group eats while the other cooks.”

She acknowledged that the word “feminism” has encountered some resistance, but suggested that those who are troubled by it “look it up in the dictionary.” (The American Heritage College Dictionary, for one, defines feminism as “Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”)

“The main problem,” she said, “is that the word has been demonized” by people such as Rush Limbaugh. “But more women consider themselves feminist than Republican.”

“You can’t have democracy without feminism.”

Steinem said young women today are not less feminist but are simply angered by different issues than were women of the last generation.

“They’re mad on the basis of what inequality they experience,” she said. For example, they may be upset about “no sex education in the schools, birth control not paid for by insurance, or pharmacists not filling their prescriptions.”

Often referred to as the poster child for the women’s rights movement, Steinem agreed that there are no longer recognizable feminist superstars.

“We all knew each other then because there were so few of us,” she said, explaining her celebrity. “Now there are many more,” including leading members of Congress. “We’re not as isolated.”

As for the term “post-feminist,” she called it “an invention of The New York Times.”

“It means they’re trying to declare it over. There are two stages of resistance. The first one is saying that something is not necessary — that it goes against nature. The second is to say it used to be necessary. Time magazine has said we were dead 27 times.”

Her own involvement in feminist issues was spurred by “being born female,” she said. Discriminated against as a journalist — “not given important political assignments even when I was more qualified,” being relegated instead to clothing, food, and fashions — she soon learned the value of sharing her experiences with other women, who were going through the same marginalization.

The activist still spends a third of her time on the road as an organizer and lecturer. In addition, she remains actively involved with the Women’s Media Center, co-founded in 2005 with writers/activists and Robin Morgan. According to its website, the group works with the media “to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard.”

A co-founder of Ms. Magazine, which she describes as “still the only national magazine owned and controlled by women,” Steinem said the journal is important because it covers issues “you can’t find anywhere else. It covers connections.” For example, she said, “You can exactly predict the degree of militarism [in a society] by the degree of child abuse. We don’t disconnect the human experience.”

The media are important, she stressed, because “what we see in the media shapes what we think is normal or possible.”

She’s particularly troubled by the media’s role in sexualizing women and in linking young girls’ self-esteem with physical appearance. While the Women’s Media Center has initiated a project to address this problem, Steinem said others can take action by boycotting offensive media outlets as well as their sponsors.

“We can speak out against it, and we can use it to educate,” she said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘Don’t play with a Barbie doll,’” but you can show a young girl that in real life, the doll can’t even stand up.”

She believes that some things have definitely improved. Pointing to “the power of naming,” she noted that “domestic violence,” “sexual harassment,” “reproductive rights,” and other such terms “are all new words” that have succeeded in raising awareness of these issues.

She also credits now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with “changing women’s ideas,” allowing them to conceive of a female president.

“I didn’t think she could win [the presidency], but she won in the sense of allowing people to imagine,” said Steinem.

What does she tell young girls today?

“I tell them to trust their own instincts and feelings; to do what they love; to look for the wisdom already inside them.”

While much remains to be done, Steinem calls herself an optimist. “Hope is the way we plan, look forward,” she said. “It’s important to be hopeful.”

 
 
 
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