The best part about being in a sea of 400,000 people at the Women’s March in New York City on Jan. 21 was the recognition that I’m not alone. There are a hundred million or more Americans who feel like I do about the march’s key issues. In fact, on many of those issues we are in the majority. That our political establishment does not reflect the will of the people is the great challenge we face in the coming years.
I marched for both personal and professional reasons. Professionally, part of my role as executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism is to identify and activate around those moments of convergence between Judaism and secular humanism. I felt strongly this was one of those moments.
Judaism has always valued respect and dignity. While historically those values have been applied unevenly (to use a charitable word) particularly to women — and still are to this day in sectors of the Jewish community — those baseline values in our tradition can and should be built upon.
During the march, Myrna Baron of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism told Haaretz, “As Jews, we have a moral obligation, when we see injustice, to speak out.” A disproportionate number of the great feminists in history have been Jews, and I don’t believe that is coincidental.
Humanism, the idea that people are responsible for solving human problems without expecting divine intervention, holds among its highest values the equality of all people. Women’s rights are central to its ideals. Ours is the only movement with a foot firmly planted in both Judaism and secular humanism.
The march was also highly personal. Though not a woman myself (full disclosure), I try to be an ally. I’ve learned a bit about what it means to be a good ally to marginalized populations, including to shut up, listen, and follow rather than insist on leading. I was happy to follow what was an amazingly large, organized, and peaceful protest.
Aspiring allies can also talk to those within our own category of privilege about why we choose to support the cause. So, to my fellow males I ask, do you call yourself a feminist? If so, have you taken a deep dive into what is still holding us back from full gender equality, as a society and individually?
The obvious answer for why men march is because “I have a wife,” “I have a mother,” “I have a daughter.” While I am lucky enough to have all three, and of course I march for them, it’s more than that. I don’t want to benefit at the expense of someone else’s disadvantage, oppression, or suffering.
It’s tough to convince people that they have an unfair advantage when life doesn’t feel fair to them to begin with. Ours is a culture where everyone feels persecuted, even rich white male presidents.
You may hate your job, but a woman doing that same job would likely make 20 percent less. Perhaps it doesn’t look that way — you may know of women in the same position making the same money or maybe even more money — and that’s the challenge of seeing yourself in the larger picture and believing statistics (a.k.a. actual facts not “alternative facts”).
Fear is a great motivator for continued inequality, and economic fear is particularly motivational these days. But the economy is not a zero-sum game. The U.S. population doubled since 1950 yet unemployment is not 50 percent. Let’s envision the gains our economy will make when women are equal participants and share equal power in society.
Ours is a culture where everyone feels persecuted, even rich white male presidents.
Equal pay is tied to the many larger sociological issues around traditional gender roles. I’d like to believe Jewish men have a more nuanced relationship to strength and power, based on our people’s history. But there are plenty who do not, or who overcompensate because of that history. I know from my own personal experience that privilege is not easily recognized or accepted. It’s an ongoing process of learning and self-reflection.
I’ve come to recognize and admire the women in my life who’ve proven stronger than I’ll ever be. My grandmother, who rebuilt a family and life in America after losing her parents, all siblings, and two children in the Holocaust. How did she go on? My mother, who raised two young children as a single parent while still building a successful executive career. I still don’t know how she did it, and it’s even more remarkable to me now that I have two young children of my own. My aunt, who refuses to let her cancer battle modify her love and kindness, especially toward her grandchildren who she’s there for all the time despite enduring physical pain.
I’ve never been tested like they have, and frankly, I hope I never will be. If and when it happens though, it is their examples of strength to which I’ll turn. Which is why I know it’s an absurdity to suggest men are inherently stronger than women.
I didn’t ask to be part of a system of inequality, but I am, and I want to change it. Doing so will make the world a better place for all people, regardless of gender. The Women’s March was a wonderful show of solidarity by those who won’t let the clock turn back on the progress made these past decades, even as we recognize we still have a way to go to achieve full equality. We must learn from the Jewish experience, to expand equal treatment rather than slam the door behind us.
Paul Golin is executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (www.SHJ.org), the congregational arm for Humanistic Judaism in North America.