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Focus on Issues Women of Faith Ponder Women’s Power in the ’80s

There were no strident marches, no splashy banners, no flamboyant hats. But their theme, “Power and Powerlessness,” identified them as feminists — religiously-oriented women quietly determined to forge changes within their own religious spheres and on the national and international scenes as well.

A group of 100 women of many Jewish, Christian and Moslem denominations gathered here last week on the campus of Marymount College, a private independent women’s college, for the Second Women of Faith int he 80’s conference. A fourth of the delegates were Jewish women of all ages reflecting Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist viewpoints. The Women of Faith group was organized in November, 1980, and has a task force of 16 prestigious and religious leaders.

The conference coordinators were Inge Lederer Gibel, American Jewish Committee interreligious affairs department program specialist; Sister Ann Gillen, of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus; Dr. Doris Ann Younger, general director of Church Women United.

The three-day gathering’s theme was stated eloquently by Younger. “We are at an important time as women. Women are beginning to claim their power, and that means it’s a critical time for us to come together,” she said.

WOMEN IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

The issue of women’s power, or lack of it, in the Jewish community was discussed by Dr. Ellen Umansky, assistant professor of religion in Emory University. Atlanta, Ga. She stated that a recent study she conducted on women’s growing access to power within the Jewish community showed only slightly encouraging results. “Within Jewish organizations, outside of synagogue life, power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of men and shows little sign of improvement,” Umansky stated.

The conference also dealt with such wideranging issues as the “isms” victimizing women today: racism, classism, sexism and ageism; anti-Semitism and its role in international politics in the women’s movement and in the Soviet Union; and women’s struggle for identity within and beyond religious and ethnic communities.

ANTI-SEMITISM IN THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT

Discussing anti-Semitism in international politics, Sherry Frank, area director of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta, stated: “It is one of the tragedies of our times that the ‘Zionist equation with racism’ should be reinforced within the internaitonal women’s movement, and that it has grown and flourished within the pollution that surrounds the world of international politics.”

Perdita Huston, an educator who was a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1980 United Nations Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, reviewed the politicalization which occurred there and urged steps to prevent its recurrence at the next conference to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985. “We must talk to other women; become more sophisticated about international issues; and stand together against anti-Semitism, racism, apartheid, classism, and militarism,” she urged.

The participants at the conference here adopted a resolution urging the U.S. government to consult American women when preparing the agenda and appointing delegates for the Nairobi conference, and that these delegates “reflect international expertise and experience and the ethnic, religious, economic and political diversity of U.S. women.” The resolution also urged that the U.S. delegation be given “freedom to interact with other delegates within the framework of existing U.S. policy.”

SITUATION IN THE SOVIET UNION

Focusing on the situation in the Soviet Union, Gillen reported that a 1981 survey of state-controlled Soviet publications contained 1,814 negative anti-Jewish items.

“You could find eight negative items about Jews or Judaism or about Israel or related to Israel’s influence in the Middle East every day … yet not one positive reference about the Jews or Judaism, their religion, culture, or history. The image of Jews is presented as an aggressive and dangerous people, and Soviet television has been used to focus on Soviet Jewry’s immigration leaders as disloyal persons, hooligans, and CIA agents,” Gillen said.

She urged the Women of Faith to continue their dialogue in the U.S. and abroad. “We still need much more participation if we are to really build up the kind of coalition that will help to provide an escape hatch for Jews and for those Christians who want to leave the Soviet Union for religious freedom elsewhere,” Gillen declared.

URGES SOCIAL JUSTICE AND HUMAN PRIORITY

Dealing with the “isms” victimizing women today, Rev. Elizabeth Scott, director of Justice for Women of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., spoke from the perspective of a Black woman. “Racism, classism, sexism and ageism are most often viewed as domestic problems,” she said. “Daily we are becoming awared of the interrelatedness of domestic and global issues. We must now weave a global fiber for a world community based on social justice and human priority,” Scott stated.

Betty Letzig, executive secretary of the Office of Coalition for Human Development, The United Methodist Church, deplored negative stereotyping of older people in the media. “Most regrettable is the extent to which older people tend to accept themselves in such negative images,” she declared.

“As to the image of older workers, with women at the bottom of the group, the older worker is thought to have little left to give, to be accident-or illness-prone, have a high rate of absenteeism, be slow in reaction time, and faulty in judgment. To the contrary, on-the-job studies generally show that older workers are as good, if not better than their younger counterparts.”

Discussing women’s struggle for identify within and beyond religious and ethnic communities, Mary Crichlow, active in the Lutheran church and a past director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said, “Women must work together to defeat and destroy the real bane of our society: the apathy, the sense of detachment, the disinterest in the fate of our neighbor, the unconcern with one another which surrounds us all.”

CITES HOPEFUL SIGNS OF PROGRESS

Blu Greenberg, well-known feminist, author and lecturer, assessed progress made by Orthodox Jewish women in the religious community.

“For the sake of the integrity of the community and continuity of tradition, I understand that progress is often made in small stages … There has been a great deal of progress in my own community in the area of women’s learning, in suitability of written texts, in women’s prayer groups and liturgical seriousness, in celebration of rites of passage, and in genuine attempts to reduce the abuse of Jewish divorce laws. These are all hopeful signs … I prefer to look at it as a cup that’s half full and getting fuller.”

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