AbstractsWomens Studies


I nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious prescriptions had important implications for the position of women in Jewish communities. Generally, it was recognized that, through their children, women molded the character of the whole nation, so their roles as mothers were of paramount importance for the whole society. They were, after all, responsible for perpetuating Jewish heritage. Still, paradoxically, they were legally and socially inferior to men. Americanization of immigrant women, as Jewish reformers understood it, entailed acquiring American gender identity, which had strong implications for women’s domestic activities. Middle class Americans defined their world in terms of distinct, clear-cut feminine and masculine categories, and the cult of True Womanhood was set as a model to follow for the middle class aspiring Jewish immigrants. However, during the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth the lives of middle-class women underwent a significant alternation. Changing urban environment combined with numerous technological and social changes brought changes into women’s lives and transformed the views of feminine propriety. Gradually, women were expanding their sphere of activity, and the image of independent and self-reliant “New Woman” appeared in 1890s. However, for many especially older generation Jewish immigrant women it was difficult to determine and follow the new correct pattern of female behavior. As Wilson notices, Jewish women were caught in conflict between the expectations they were to fulfill. On the one hand, they were expected to be wife and mothers, and, by loyalty to Judaism and commitment to home and family, perpetuate the Jewish heritage. On the other hand, they wanted to assert the American part of their identity and their growing desire to participate in the outside world exposed at-home-wives to a great deal of criticism from Jewish communities. Women were not content with living their lives through the expectation of their husbands and sons, who used religion as an excuse to marginalize them socially, and many, especially young women actively supported the new gender identity of a “New Woman” ;the ideal that offered liberation and lifestyle choices. However, the traditional gender ideals seemed very little reconcilable with the new modern world of socioeconomic reform, and many women struggled with building a stable and cohesive sense of self that would fit into both so distinct cultural frameworks.