Jewish Feminism: Perspectives from the Australian Jewish community

Our series of blogs based on articles published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal continues with Suzanne Rutland’s analysis of Jewish women in Australia.

The role of the Jewish woman is encapsulated in a famous Hebrew proverb, beginning: ‘A woman of value who can find? Her price is far above rubies!’ Sung every Friday night by the man of the household as part of welcoming in the Sabbath, Ashet hayil represents to some the forward-looking approach of Judaism to women in biblical times when a woman was considered by most other cultures as a mere chattel, incapable of learning. To others, it represents the traditional approach to women that designates an inferior position to her, ascribing only the role of wife and mother. The present-day debates about its significance incorporate the contemporary controversies about women and Judaism.

Dr Fanny Reading, 1922. Image via National Council of Jewish Women of Australia.

This debate about the role of women and traditional Judaism remains very much part of Judaism in contemporary Australia. When I wrote my article in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal in 2002, I sought to explore five key questions. In reflecting on this article 15 years later, I will focus on how women sought to raise the status of Jewish women, both within and without the community. I then consider some more recent developments. Finally, I discuss how the history of Jewish feminism in Australia compares with the general history of Australian feminism.

Before the 1920s, Jewish women largely either acted as helpmates to their husbands or were engaged in philanthropic endeavours. In the field of charity, some quickly made their mark. Founded in 1844, one of the earliest Jewish charitable organisations was the Sydney Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent and Maternity Society. It was the second women’s organisation formally registered in Australia; it continued to function until 1981. Similar developments occurred in the other colonies where Jewish communities formed.

Early efforts to more formally organise Jewish women came with the creation of the Council of Jewish Women (CJW), formed in Sydney in 1923 after Dr Fanny Reading was inspired by the words of visiting American Zionist emissary, Bella Pevsner. Founded to educate and involve women in communal endeavours, its initial ideals, which have continued to dominate its philosophy, included: loyalty to Judaism; support for Israel; the interests of women and children; and service to all worthy Jewish and non-Jewish causes in the fields of education and philanthropy. The CJW proved to be a vehicle through which Jewish women can express their views and make their influence felt in a largely male-dominated community. By the late 1920s, interstate branches had been established. The first interstate conference was held in 1929, leading to the creation of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

For many Jews in Australia, the CJW’s founder, Dr Reading, became a household name. Reading had a flair for organisation. In 1923, she was described in the CJW’s minutes as ‘a dreamer of great dreams with the courage to implement them even in the face of strong opposition’. With her boundless enthusiasm, energy and idealism, she activated Jewish women in Sydney and throughout Australia for over half a century. Like her feminist colleagues of the interwar years, Reading was concerned with the grassroots mobilisation of women. The concept of the maternal welfare state appealed to Jewish women of this period. Her concern with social welfare was summed up in the message she wrote personally by hand on every conference program:

And the best of all impressions to take back from this Conference to your states, your cities and your homes is, that the Council of Jewish Women stands above all things for the Law of Loving-kindness.

As with other early feminists, Reading did not marry; as a middle-class female physician, she had the time and financial basis to devote herself to political and communal issues.

Council of Jewish Women of New South Wales, 1929. Image via State Library of New South Wales.

In the late 1960s, the NCJW experienced a significant change when, following the election of Mina Fink, its national office moved to Melbourne for the first time in 44 years. After arriving as a young 18-year-old bride from Bialystok, Poland in the early 1930s, Fink worked untiringly as her husband’s helpmate assisting Jewish immigrants. Following her husband’s death, she devoted her efforts to raising the status of women. Fink acted as a bridge on feminist issues between her pre-war generation and that of her daughter, who represented the new attitudes of professional women in the 1970s. However, radical feminism did not appeal to most Jewish women, for whom home and family remain a priority.

The NCJW continues to be active today, with a focus still on women and the family. One key new project is Mum for Mum, where trained volunteers who are mothers themselves assist mothers from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. To date, women from over 50 nationalities have been assisted. This program has proved empowering for both the volunteers and the recipients. It is an interesting development, reflecting how the original aims of Dr Reading have been translated into the contemporary context.

Independent Order of B’nai B’rith membership certificate, 1876. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

However, professional Jewish women still feel that they need empowerment within the Jewish community. In Sydney, this led to the formation of WomenPower in 2005, an organisation with the aim of promoting leadership through skills training and networking. Operating as an independent group until 2017, WomenPower became a chapter of B’nai B’rith, a worldwide Jewish service organisation. This provided it with an umbrella administrative structure. Previously, B’nai B’rith had separate lodges for men, and chapters for women. This is now considered an outdated structure and is, in fact, no longer the case in the broader organisation. Yet, the women of WomenPower still feel the need for a separate organisation to assist them to develop leadership skills.

In Melbourne, a program called Project Deborah was launched in 2014 to assist Jewish women (with at least five years professional experience and under the age of 50) with professional development, capacity building, access to mentors and boards, networking opportunities, and engagement with communal organisations. Founded by Jackie King, its underlying rationale is to prepare women for engaged leadership in the Jewish community. It has held various workshops in the period to 2016.

How do these developments interact with the broader Australian feminist movement? Women of European descent may have been enfranchised through the Franchise Act of 1902, yet they still had a long way to go. In her book Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism (1999), Marilyn Lake argues that there have been more than two waves of Australian feminism – women’s suffrage and women’s liberation. Lake believes that the interwar years, a period of mass mobilisation and non-party approach, was a significant third wave in the history of Australian feminism, one largely ignored by earlier feminist historians. Jewish women did not play a key role in either Australian suffrage movement or 1970s feminist activism, yet a significant confluence of concerns existed in the middle phase of the interwar years.

Dr Reading was deeply involved in fighting for women’s equality. Together with Nerida Goodman (née Cohen), the second woman to qualify as a barrister in New South Wales, Reading worked with Jessie Street on issues such as equal pay – only granted in 1967. Another key feminist in this period was Ruby Rich-Shalit (Street’s campaign manager during her 1940s parliamentary campaign as part of the Women for Canberra movement). Melbourne’s Julia Rapke was also involved in these efforts, as well as being involved in fighting for full equality for women both within the Jewish and general communities from the 1920s onwards.

More recently, Jewish women have been less active in Australian feminism, although there have been some key figures such as Eva Cox. For many Jewish women, the traditional values of family are still important. As reflected in my own family, this appears true for the current generation. My daughter, a mother of three young children who has just turned 40, works part time in a high-powered consulting position with CBA, but has chosen to focus on her family until her children grow up.

Despite significant advances over the last few decades, Jewish women in Australia do not enjoy full equality with their male counterparts. Women still bear the major responsibility for home and family, their traditional areas in Judaism. Since most take these domestic responsibilities seriously, full equality remains elusive. In addition, power and community leadership rest with those with money, who are mainly men. Efforts to foster women’s participation in leadership roles can nonetheless be seen with WomenPower and Project Deborah. Perhaps the next generation of women will come fully into their own in Jewish communal leadership.


For the full article, see: Suzanne D. Rutland, ‘Perspectives from the Australian Jewish Community,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 11 (2002): 87-102.


Suzanne D. Rutland (OAM, Ph.D.), Professor Emerita, the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney, is a renowned Australian Jewish historian. Suzanne is the author of The Jews in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Her latest book, with Sam Lipski, Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and Soviet Jews, 1959-1989 (Hybrid Publishers, 2015), was joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Australian History.


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