At the Center of the Storm: Jewish Women in Politics Talk about the Issues

Jewish women in politics Talk about the issues

Bella Abzug, the Democratic former New York Representative, was the first nationally known Jewish woman politician to go public as a Jew and a feminist. Who are the women who’ve followed her?

Currently more women are serving in Congress (25) than ever before, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. There are a record three female governors and 1,176 women in state legislatures—four times as many as there were 20 years ago. Today’s most prominent Jewish women elected politicians are Brooklyn, NY District Attorney and former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman (D), Vermont Governor Madeleine M. Kunin (D), Westchester, New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D), and San Francisco Congresswoman Barbara Boxer (D). These are just the occupants of the top rung, though, in a long ladder of Jewish women who are in influential national and local offices.

What role does being Jewish play in their political lives? Do they face different challenges from their non-Jewish political sisters? Now is a good time to be asking these questions, given the number of Jewish women visible on the political scene today.

Most of these women said that it was precisely their Jewish background that influenced their desire to enter politics!

Take Governor Kunin. Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1933, she escaped with her family to the United States when she was six, losing many relatives in Germany, Holland and France.

“Because of the Holocaust I feel very strongly that I can’t go through life as an observer” explains Kunin. “We live in a time when it’s possible for Jews and women to be full participants in the political process. I feel a sense of urgency that it’s important to do so. During the Holocaust we had no choice. Now we have a choice. The old-fashioned approach was for Jews to lay low—to be invisible. The Holocaust proved that was no protection at all.”

Mara Guilianti, 44, the Jewish mayor of Hollywood, Florida, offers a somewhat different example. She grew up in Houston, Texas and attributes much of her skill and ease in politics to her experience as a youth with Jewish volunteer groups. Not only was Guilianti a very active member in her Reform temple, but she was also, from the age of 14, a committed B’nai B’rith worker. “I learned to conduct meetings, to speak publicly. I met youth from all over the U.S. and Canada, and so I learned to work adeptly with anyone. These are skills you don’t lose. It was phenomenal groundwork.”

For Ruth Messinger, an 11-year member of the New York City Council and currently a Democratic candidate for Manhattan Borough President, her political career is rooted in traditional Jewish community service, yet she’s no longer identified with it. Her family history is one of public service in the Jewish community: her maternal grandfather was the first executive director of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, both parents served on boards of Federation agencies, and her mother is director of public relations at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“I’m sure my parents’ charity work influenced my decision to go into social work” says Messinger. “I took it the next step or two. Social service seemed limited. I wanted to make broader, more systemic changes.” At age 35, after working at a parent-run community school and a college training program for low-income adults, she entered politics. “It was a logical next step. When I talk to Jewish groups, I tell them what I hope they’ll do is to move beyond charity to justice.”

The emphasis in Judaism on a structured moral code is cited by many women as a motive for their political involvement. Family Court Judge Joan B. Lefkowitz (D) of Westchester, New York, who had an” Orthodox upbringing, notes, “In Orthodoxy there’s a strict discipline that you’re adhering to all your life. As a judge you’re enforcing the law.”

Congresswoman Lowey of Westchester, whose mother was active in Hadassah and the Orthodox Young Israel sisterhood, feels that her religious upbringing emphasized that “I had an obligation to help those less fortunate.” Guilianti adds, “The idea of tzedakah (charity) has been deeply ingrained in me. I was raised to be extremely compassionate.”

This may be looking at women’s decision with the benefit of hindsight. Some traced their entry into the political arena through the side door. In many cases political careers evolved not from intentional pursuit, but as a natural outgrowth of the woman’s interest in civic issues relevant to themselves and their families.

“I got to Congress because of my involvement in the community as a mother^’ asserts Lowey. “When I moved to Florida, after I got married, I joined ORT and was vice-president of membership and special projects;’ recalls Guilianti. “But I really found my niche in the National Council of Jewish Women, which is a very political, issues-oriented group. I assumed the volunteer position of public affairs chairwoman for the State of Florida and became knowledgeable about state issues. I was president of the board of a shelter for battered women. I worked on campaigns. I got to see that there were many poor quality representatives and realized I could do a better job.”

No matter how they decided to enter politics, being Jewish and female dovetail in interesting ways for all these women. Jews as a general population are far more liberal and more Democratic than other Americans, but this is especially true for Jewish women, according to a recent study conducted by Steven M. Cohen, professor of sociology at Queens College in New York.

Giulianti contends that the fact that three of the five people on her city’s commission are women shows in public policy. “We have a sensitivity. We voted to give more money to agencies for homeless and battered women. We just started a “Youth in Government Day” where a teenager from every school in Hollywood comes to learn about government. Previously, an inordinate amount of attention was devoted to retirees and not enough to youth. In this day of gangs and drug addiction, paying attention to youth is essential.”

Judge Lefkowitz feels that being Jewish and female is a bonus for a judge. “Between my Yiddishkeit and my female intuition, I hope I make the right decision.”

But a combination of sexism and anti-Semitism can have a double impact when a politician is Jewish and female.

“Being Jewish didn’t help me at all.” says Rosemary Pooler (D) of Syracuse, New York, who ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 and 1988, losing both times. “In ’86, they ran profiles in the newspaper of both candidates—my opposition was the incumbent—and went out of their way to say I was from Brooklyn and that my maiden name was Shankman. On the Sunday before the election, the newspaper ran an editorial saying my opponent is ‘a troop leader, a small businessman. He is one of us.’ The newspapers were seriously interested in my not getting elected. Anti-Semitic letters came regularly during both campaigns. I became acutely aware that I was part of a minority that is not genuinely loved. I was a Jewish Democratic progressive woman from Brooklyn, running in Republican territory. I just didn’t ‘fit’ the district.”

Harriett Woods, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Missouri from 1986 to 1988 ”, recalls that before the 1986 election, a conservative newspaper in her area ran an editorial referring to her as “Harriett Woods nee Friedman.” They also mentioned that she was a cousin of Howard Metzenbaum. “In rural areas my opponents hung signs saying, ‘Don’t elect Harriett Friedman Woods.’ It was clearly trying to say something without just getting up and saying it. They were trying to suggest I was a secret enemy” states Woods.

Renee Unterman, the 35-year-old mayor of Loganville, Georgia, a town an hour outside of Atlanta, maintains that “being a Jewish female is like a double whammy.” Unterman underwent an Orthodox conversion ten years ago when she married. She attends weekly services at a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta. With only one other Jewish family living in their town of 3,500 people, Unterman admits “we’re definitely an oddity here.” For Unterman, anti-Semitic opposition is right out in the open. “I’ve had the Ku Klux Klan visit me. They’ve been against me from day one. I’ve received verbal threats and threatening letters in the mail.”

Unterman, who was born and raised a Catholic, says she gets her courage to stand up against Ku Klux Klan threats from her sense of mission. “Being Jewish I feel I have a goal to achieve. It’s very important to me to represent Jews well. I feel I really have to be a good role model. The people here don’t know any other Jews. I’m all they have. I have something to accomplish.”

Unterman lectures to Jewish organizations in Atlanta. “They don’t understand what is happening. Anti-Semitism is alive and well and kicking and growing. The recent election of David Duke, an ex-Klansman, to the Louisiana State Legislature, is a perfect example of what is happening. Racism is coming back. It’s the 50’s all over again. Jews should be voting for more Jews in higher up positions and speaking out against anti-Semitism.”

Even when anti-Semitism isn’t an issue, sexism alone can be a major political deterrent. For women politicians, gaining support—especially financial support— from the male Jewish community has been a challenge.

The first time she ran for a Senate seat in 1982, Woods says she “met with tremendous resistance from Jewish funding groups. AIPAC (American-Israel Political Action Committee) supported my opponent, who was not Jewish. He had a good enough record on Israel, but I was strong on Israel too. And he did not really have a good record on social justice issues.”

The extent to which sexism was a factor was demonstrated by an incident when, Woods recalls, Republican Jews sent out an inflammatory letter accusing her of being married to a non-Jewish man and of not raising her children as Jews. “I could rattle off a whole list of Jewish male candidates and incumbents who were married to non-Jewish women, and it was never even brought up as an issue in the Jewish community. If that isn’t sexism, what is?” exclaims Carol Boron, national director of Highland Park, Illinois-based MIPAC, a multi-issue Jewish political action committee that supports candidates both for their pro-Israel positions and for where they stand on social issues.

As Woods puts it, “I got it from both sides. I got it from anti-Semites and I got it from Jews who said I wasn’t Jewish enough.”

The Joint Action Committee (JAC-PAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group of women, was the only Jewish PAC to offer Woods financial assistance in that election. She lost by one percent. “I think it was a very sad example of what happens when you don’t get enough money early on to run’,’ says Woods. “I think there were a lot of guilty feelings afterward. In my second race I picked up very good financial support from the Jewish community, and I won. But the fact that I raised $4.5 million in my second race came directly from the efforts of women. The local Jewish fundraising groups are male.”

Nita Lowey, in running for Congress, encountered similar resistance. Except for JAC-PAC, most Jewish PAC’s supported her opponent who, Lowey says, was good on Israel, but not on issues like child-care. The Women’s Campaign Fund, the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus and EMILY (Early Money is Like Yeast) all supported her financially early on.

To raise money she also went to friends, colleagues, relatives. “I hate asking for money! I feel like a shnurer. But you have to have confidence that you’re doing a good job and that the people in the community have to support those who are doing a good job. Women have never been part of the old boy’s network. We have to develop our own network.”

Women and their hesitation to contribute politically was a reverberating theme among the women interviewed. “Women haven’t taken the leap to understand that their own economic plight is tied up with voting for women. It’s easier for them to vote for an incumbent or for their own party’,’ states Syracuse attorney Rosemary Pooler.

“Women don’t give as readily to politicians as they do to charitable causes. Women will give $100,000 to UJA and $100 to a politician.” bemoans Lowey. “It’s a matter of education. We have to make women feel they have a stake in the political system.”

According to a 1985 survey sponsored by B’nai B’rith Women, Jewish women are more likely than non-Jewish women to join organizations with a political focus. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into political contributions. Boron says that when she used to speak before Jewish women’s groups about the need for political involvement, she found “their leadership wants the money to go to their organization, not to PAC’s. It was never fruitful.”

Woods laments that, “what you find among women who have battled their way to the top of major businesses is that they’re not writing political checks which match their ability to give. It follows a long tradition of women not understanding the way things happen in our society. Women aren’t yet comfortable with new power. They’re afraid to use it.”

She notes that in “the old boys” network, money is raised by one man calling another. “Men understand that the next time it will be their turn to get those calls back.” says Woods. “Women don’t know the system. For women, charity is related to ‘do goodism.’ It’s the nurturing and caring syndrome, which is marvelous. But women don’t know how to plug into the network of changing the big picture, of making policy changes.”

Increased earning power among women is no guarantee of their increased political contributions to women candidates. “We find that even if a woman is financially successful, let’s say in real estate, then she makes her contribution based on the real estate industry;’ says MIPAC’s Boron. “But candidates who are good on real estate issues may be terrible on women’s issues. Women who are successful in their field don’t know their candidates are bad on women’s issues. They don’t even think to question.”

If Jewish women politicians are proud of the positions they have attained, they are also frustrated. Elizabeth Holtzman (D), the Brooklyn district attorney who in 1973 was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, says gender has been a far greater obstacle in politics than she could ever have imagined. “I was very involved in the civil rights movement in the South, where we saw dramatic results in a short time period. But the struggle for women is much harder than any of us anticipated.”

When she ran for district attorney in 1981, Holtzman, 47, recalls, “my opponent had a radio commercial in which a woman with a Jewish name said, ‘Liz Holtzman. I might like her for a daughter, but not for my DA.’ It was a very subtle, but penetrating message. It said: It’s not a job for a woman. When I think that I worked for reproductive freedom in the early 1970’s and that now the whole issue has to be fought all over again, it doesn’t even feel like we’re standing still, but rather going backwards.”

Though it’s a series of hurdles, Holtzman insists, “It’s very important to have women in government. It’s important to have a woman’s perspective for decision-making roles at every level. It’s a struggle for human dignity—for women to be able to dream for themselves, and also for men to be able to slough off the constraints of stereotypes. It’s difficult, but very important to be idealistic, to participate in the struggle for justice. It requires energy for a long time.”

Determination is key, agrees Sophie Masloff, the 70-year-old Jewish, Democratic mayor of Pittsburgh. “If you want to do something badly enough, you do it.”

Miriam Arond is a freelance writer who co-authored The First Year of Marriage (New York: Warner Books, 1987)


The key political issue now for women across North America is abortion rights, challenged both by the U.S. Supreme Court and by the Supreme Court of Canada this year.

Reproductive freedoms are an important Jewish women’s issue for at least three reasons: First, to ensure women’s rights to safe and legal abortion. Second, to ensure that freedom of religion remains in place in the U.S. and Canada. Because if the forces seeking to restrict abortion win out, Jews who follow Jewish law on matters of abortion (which says that a mother’s well-being takes precedence over that of the fetus, and never equated abortion with murder) will have that freedom of religion abrogated. Third, as an important opportunity for coalition-building with other women’s groups.

Action in the U.S. is now focused on state elections and lobbying efforts. Jewish women’s organizations with non-profit status (which means virtually all the volunteer organizations except for PAC’s) are explicitly forbidden from influencing politicians directly, but can engage in “educational” efforts.

Here is a roundup of some representative action taken by Jewish groups since the Webster case challenged women’s right to safe abortions:

• American Jewish Congress: Mailing to members and to activists on its Commission on Sexual Equality lists of legislators to contact before important votes in Congress and locally, and then circulating lists of who should get notes of thanks after they vote.

• Hadassah: Issued an “action alert” at its national convention calling on members to educate their communities about traditional Jewish guidelines regarding pregnancy and abortion and urging local chapters to join advocacy groups such as National Organization for Women, National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood.

• Women’s American ORT: President Reese Feldman annouced plans “to mobilize the members of 1,200 chapters at the grassroots level to oppose restrictive state measures.”

• National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods: President Dolores Wilkenfield has launched a “crisis campaign” to monitor state legislatures and mobilize support for women’s “freedom of choice in the matter of abortion.”

• National Council of Jewish Women: Has set up the NCJW Choice Public Education Campaign to provide information on the fallout from the Supreme Court decision—in their words, “on the legal, medical and constitutional rights aspects of abortion.”

• Women’s League for Conservative Judaism: Has urged its members to act on a local level whenever legislation is pending, and has made strong statements in favor of women’s reproductive freedoms since the mid-70’s.

• The Religious Action Center: The activist arm of the Reform movement is preparing a packet to be sent out to Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis about local legislation on abortion rights, so that they can in turn inform their congregants and lobby themselves.

In addition, Rabbi David Feldman, a scholar whose book Birth Control and Jewish Law (New York: New York University Press, 1968) has been the standard text in the field, issued a call to Jewish women: “We cannot accept the denominational view of another religion that grants equal human life to the fetus. Women must let legislators know of their concern as Jewish women. Women ought to protest any diminution of freedom of choice on the grounds of the difference the Jewish viewpoint provides.”

Reproductive rights groups who can send you information about how to monitor the situation in your own locale:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America
810 Seventh Ave.
Box 4447
New York, NY 10163

Religious Action Center
2027 Massachusetts Ave. NW Washington, DC 20036

National Abortion Rights Action League
110114th St. NW Washington, DC 20005

Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights
100 Maryland Ave. NE #307 Washington, DC 20002


What can we do to make sure more Jewish women get elected? Here, advice from the experts:

• Open your checkbook. “Women must support women and champions of women’s rights,” asserts Carol Boron, national director of MIPAC. “A candidate can’t win if she doesn’t have money. Until there’s a change in the system, women can’t expect a fair shake unless they play by the rules. Candidates who raise the money win the election.”

• Encourage women to run for office. “Politics is something Jewish women have traditionally stayed away from,” notes Boron. “It was considered dirty. Nice Jewish girls didn’t get involved.” Political involvement “has to start at the state level,” she emphasizes. “Women don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to work in the Senate.’ And we have to encourage our daughters to get involved in politics.”

Lynn Cutler, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, notes that while many of today’s women politicians became involved in politics through community volunteer work, now that over 50 percent of women are working, women have less time for voluntary activities.

The concept that many women have of themselves can also be a deterrent to their seeking political power. “The big gender gap is getting women interested in running,” maintains Susan Welch, co-author of The Political Life of the American Jewish Woman (Mew York: Biblio Press, 1984). But as more women go into law, more are going into politics.”

According to U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey, “It’s an extraordinary experience to be there where laws are made. But one of the most difficult decisions in running for office is the question: Can you deal with putting yourself on the line? We’ve been the nurturers, the caretakers. To take charge, to make the laws, is very challenging to our self-concept.”

• Get involved in PAC’s. “The bulk of our female Jewish population lives in certain states. Women in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago don’t know there is a race in South Dakota where one candidate is a champion of women’s issues and the other wants to take us back to the dark ages,” says Boron. “How are you going to know what’s going on in Wyoming, New Mexico, North and South Dakota? But your $25, when combined with $25 from 1,000 other women, can make a difference.”

Boron urges married women to make political giving a partnership. “So many women pay no attention when their husbands are writing political checks. If women made their husbands accountable for whom they are supporting, they’d be doing a service.”

• Follow up on any personal political interest. Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund in Washington, D.C., suggests that a woman who is considering entering politics — on any level — call the fund. It offers both formalized training, as well as one-on-one consultations for women candidates running for positions starting at the school board level all the way up. They’ll talk to you about your current position, your plans, how to develop a fundraising network, how to use the press effectively, how to broaden your base among your constituents, how to demonstrate that you’re fiscally savvy.

• Be aware of political seats which will be opening as a result of the redistricting coming up following the 1990 census. It will create a golden opportunity for women and minorities. Danowitz says: “Women should think like men in respect to planning ahead.”

Harriett Woods, the former Missouri lieutenant governor, suggests that just as women budget for charity, they need to budget for public policy. They need to ask themselves, “What is it worth for me to change public policy?” That’s power! It’s a social investment.