Pinchas – Feminism Yesterday and Today

Most social progress is made as two steps forward and one step back.

Our family spent two nights last month at a hotel outside Grand Canyon National Park. Our room was decorated with framed, black-and-white photos of frontier explorers at the Canyon. What amazed me about those photos were the women – they were all wearing long, voluminous skirts down to the ground. Can you imagine trudging across the wild west in a long skirt? 

This is the 4th of July weekend.  When I think about the people who founded this country and shaped its history – the people to whom we owe our life of exalted freedom –  they boggle my mind.  Their audacity.  Their vision. Their cruelty. Their endurance. Especially the women, who did it all in long, heavy skirts.  How did the average woman feel about those restrictive skirts?

This is also the Shabbat when we read the first of two installments of the story of the daughters of Tslophchad: Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtsah.  Life for women in the 1st millenia or so BCE was even more restrictive than in the 18th and 19th centuries CE. Among the many, many, many restrictions placed on us – women could not inherit land. But Tslopchad died with 5 daughters and no sons. And so the 5 sisters banded together, to argue their case before the most powerful men in their world. 

Look at the verbs used to describe them bringing their case (p. 925-6, Numbers 27:1-2):

וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד

The daughters of Tslophchad drew close

The language suggests a hesitancy, a preliminary stepping forward before they stand to speak:

וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

They stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, before the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting…

Notice how the word “before” keeps repeating.   They were young women – none of them was married yet.  How did they feel, the only women in the space, standing there with Moses, and Aaron’s son Eleazer, and all the male chieftains staring at them?

Jump to verse 4:

לָ֣מָּה יִגָּרַ֤ע שֵׁם־אָבִ֙ינוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בֵּ֑ן תְּנָה־לָּ֣נוּ אֲחֻזָּ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽינוּ׃ 

Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” 

Notice how careful they are not to upset the patriarchy too much. They are simply trying to preserve their father’s name, and only because he has no sons. In case we missed the point, the Talmud (Baba Batra 118b) says about them:

 שֶׁהָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת אִילּוּ הָיָה לוֹ בֵּן לֹא דִּבַּרְנוּ

They said, ‘If (our father) had a son, we would not have spoken up.

And the Talmud liked that. It is one of three reasons given for the assessment that…

בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד חַכְמָנִיּוֹת הֵן דַּרְשָׁנִיּוֹת הֵן צִדְקָנִיּוֹת הֵן

The daughters of Tslophchad were knowledgeable, they were good interpreters, and they were righteous. 

 God apparently liked their approach, too. He sent back a positive verdict (jumping to verse 7):

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

 The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.

These impressive young women won a victory — albeit a limited one. Their precedent only applied to daughters with no brothers. And even their personal victory was rolled back somewhat, just nine chapters later, when their clansmen seemed to wake up to what just happened and tried to sabotage them.  “Hey, these women might marry into another one of the twelve tribes, and then their sons would belong to their father’s tribe, and our tribe would lose that land.”  Moses and God conceded.  If the daughters want to inherit their father’s land, they will need to marry within their tribe.  We’re not ready to disrupt the foundational structure of the tribes as patriarchal systems of inheritance.  We’ll just carve out a little exception for exceptional women.

I believe the Torah is accurate in its insight about humanity.  Most social progress is made as two steps forward and one step back.

I learned this week from an Atlantic article by historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, that in 1851 a young feminist named Elizabeth Smith Miller invented an outfit called the “Freedom dress”, which later became known as Bloomers.  Miller was very clear how she felt about those long skirts. She wrote an essay about it 40 years later. Here’s what she said:

While spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction … suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured … Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy, exasperating old garment.

Other suffragists were delighted to get on board: Amelia Bloomer, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all tried the new outfit. But they were ridiculed on the streets, and the Freedom Dress did not last long. Here’s a bit more from Chrisman-Campbell’s article:

 Though Stanton later recalled that she had felt “as joyous and free as some poor captive who has just cast off his ball and chain,” her young sons didn’t want to be seen with her…Her older sister “actually wept,”…Her husband, Henry, a New York state senator, had discovered that “some good Democrats said they would not vote for a man whose wife wore the Bloomers.”…After two years, she gave it up…“Had I counted the cost of the short dress,” she told Miller, “I would never have put it on.”

Eventually, the suffragists adopted a strategy much closer to the daughters of Tslophchod. They began to look as feminine, and unthreatening, as possible, so they could make progress on their highest priority issues.  

One more passage from the Chrishman-Campbell, because I find it so striking. She closes her article with a quote from another article about Susan B. Anthony, dating to 1905:

“the figure of Miss Anthony was simplicity itself,” The Philadelphia Press reported. “That bonnet, with the kind blue eyes beneath it, those spectacles, that plain dress and quaint red shawl, and, above all, that sweet, gentle voice, spelled ‘mother’ as plainly as the fine word ever was written. Not a hint of mannishness but all that man loves and respects. What man could deny any right to a woman like that?”`

Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?  You take one step back and two steps forward enough times, and you really do, eventually, make progress.   

But 1905 was not that long ago, and thousands of years of tight gender roles have shaped our attitudes in ways that we are not even aware of.

I was reflecting on all this recently with a close friend, Kam Moler, who is a professor of physics and Vice Provost at Stanford.  She told me that about 10 years ago she was approached by researchers at Yale to participate in a study on implicit bias. She has been so successful in her own career, in a highly male-dominated field, she was sure that implicit bias really wasn’t as big a thing as people claimed. So she agreed to participate, mostly because she wanted to show that physics is much more friendly than people think. She and 126 other senior scientists were each given a resume to review.  The resumes were identical, except for the gender of the applicant.  By a large margin, if the applicant had a female name she was less likely to be hired.  If she was hired, she was offered a lower salary. 

Here’s the kicker – it made no difference if the person reviewing the resume was male or female. 

In other words, the women scientists in the study were just as biased against other women as were the men.

Now Kam knows:  implicit bias is real, and she is experiencing it both as subject and as object.  We all are. Implicit bias is not about men against women, or whites against blacks. It’s about deep, subconscious messaging, built over generations, that we are still sending each other all the time without even realizing it.

One of Kam’s much older colleagues confessed to her that  many of his contemporaries consider a woman who does physics like a dog who can talk.  She doesn’t have to do it well, it’s just impressive that she can do it at all. 

Shocking. Until you realize that most of them never met a female physicist until their own careers were well underway and their implicit attitudes had largely been shaped. 

As I reflected afterward on the conversation with Kam, I had a flashback to a moment of leaked implicit bias in my own life. I grew up in a community in which only men could be rabbis. When I myself was in my fourth year of rabbinical school, a new woman joined the faculty of my program. Her name was Rabbi Tova, and when I saw her name on the course listings I had a moment of confusion. “Tova, that’s a woman’s name. But she’s a rabbi.” As soon as the thought crystallized in my mind, I realized what it was. I was training to be a rabbi!  My implicit bias was so deep in there, it was just funny. 

Sometimes I want to rage at Moses, that he wasn’t ready to rip up the tribal structure and let ALL children inherit their parents’ lands. I want to be furious at the many generations who could not accept women dressed in anything but restrictive skirts. I want to be disgusted at ourselves, that we still respond to maleness, to whiteness, to height, to broad shoulders and broad temples, to certain shapes of the cheekbones and chin, fullness of the smile – and let ourselves be fooled that these traits signify competence.

But I’m not sure that anger is going to change much.  Not with attitudes that are so deeply inculcated, and so pervasive.  In fact, if we get too angry about it, we likely just put up defenses that make it harder to change.

It’s the 4th of July.  We can celebrate how tremendously far we’ve come, without losing sight of the enormous work yet ahead.  Change doesn’t happen overnight – not for issues as complex as sexism.  But, on the other hand, change doesn’t happen at all without intention.  It will not happen unless we commit to the struggle of recognizing biases in ourselves and working to overcome them.   To stop and listen to people whom we initially overlook, to make space for different kinds of leadership.

And what do you do when you are the object of the bias?  That, too, is work – figuring out when confronting the issue is likely to be effective, and when it’s best to work around it.   Like the daughters of Tslophchad, who did not try to take down the whole system at once.

Immediately after the daughters brought their case, God told Moses to go up to the mountain and look out at the promised land. Moses would not be entering the land himself.  The placement of the two stories is not coincidental, says Rashi.  Moses setup the five daughters to be the first Israelites women to own land, but he himself would not be present to see their achievement fulfilled. 

That symbolism resonates in every generation. Elizabeth Smith Miller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony – none of them lived to see American women get the vote. And, I very much expect, none of us will live to see the United States of America fulfill it’s ideal of seeing all human beings as truly created equal.  But we can help bring the next generation two steps closer.

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Independence Day!