In 1934, the Agudah secured the right to distribute a share of certificates for immigration to Palestine, from Zionist organizations that had previously controlled them. But the certificates were precious and competition for them was intense. After negotiations between various groups and the Gerer Rebbe, it was decided that only young men would be awarded certificates.
Activists from Bnos, a branch of Agudah and Bais Yaakov catering to girls, were enraged, since they had participated in the struggle to win the distribution rights.
In the course of this controversy, a Bnos leader published an angry article in the Bais Yaakov Journal, protesting the compromise as a “gentlemen’s agreement” (she used the English term) to exclude the young women.
Despite this strong language, the article insisted that Bnos was not trying to fight for “equal rights.” Rather, they were following the lead of the Torah itself, in the story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Bamidbar/Numbers 27) who demanded that they, too, be given a share in the Land of Israel, since their father had died with no male heir. It was the Torah, not those foolish fight for equal rights, that was driving their struggle.
So, was Bais Yaakov a feminist movement?
“Outsiders” might think so, but “insiders” understood it differently.
According to the understanding of “insiders” of the Bais Yaakov movement, Sarah Schenirer was just doing what was necessary to keep girls from abandoning religion, and in this pious effort she never took a step without first consulting the Torah giants of her day. She was a modest and simple woman who wouldn’t dream of “fighting for equal rights”!
I’ve also heard it said that there’s no point of talking about whether Bais Yaakov is feminist, since feminism was not a part of the cultural horizon when it emerged. Bais Yaakov was and is totally different from recent feminist iniatives—women’s prayer groups and Talmud study, women rabbis or Maharats or halachic advisors (yo’atzot halacha), or such organizations as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, etc. Bais Yaakov never looked to argue with rabbinic authorities or do anything other restore traditional Judaism.
The strongest defense of Sarah Schenirer against the implication that she was a revolutionary I have read is in an article by Rabbi Avraham Yosef Wolf (founder of the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Bnai Berak) titled “Did Sarah Schenirer Innovate in Any Way?”
As you may have guessed, the answer in Rabbi Wolf’s article was no. If she seemed to have done things that were new, it was only with great regret, and “the hope of restoring the previous situation.”
The defense of Bais Yaakov against the accusation of feminist intentions has some weak links.
Leslie Ginsparg Klein has pointed out that Sarah Schenirer took lots of steps without first consulting Torah Sages, and some of the rabbis who are regularly mentioned as having permitted Torah study for girls (most famously the Chofetz Chayim) only did so after Bais Yaakov was a well-established fact.
As for Sarah Schenirer’s alleged nostalgia and regret:
There is no sign in her writing that Sarah Schenirer considered the Bais Yaakov movement an “unfortunate necessity,” the language that is everywhere in the rabbinic discussion about it. She spoke with passion and enthusiasm about teaching girls Torah, never to my knowledge mentioning the Talmudic prohibition against it. She praised the youth and enthusiasm of the Bais Yaakov teachers and Bnos “pioneers.” Speaking of the founding of the Agudah women’s movement, Neshei Agudath Israel, she wrote of the Orthodox woman “awakening from her long sleep” and finally “stepping foot on the world stage.”
Finally, feminism was a much bigger part of the world in which Bais Yaakov emerged than it is in our own time, even if the terms are a little different: Women received the right to vote in Poland in 1918, two years before the United States, in a culture teeming with debates about suffrage, equal rights, feminine nature—more generally, “The Woman Question.” In this environment, Bais Yaakov felt compelled to defend Jewish tradition from charges of oppressing women, and nearly every issue of The Bais Yaakov Journal included an article on such questions as “Judaism and the Modern Women,” or “Rabbinic Attitudes toward Women’s Rights.”
Bais Yaakov had a complicated stance in regard to women’s suffrage.
In principle, the Agudath Israel, which oversaw the movement, was against women’s suffrage, a stance relevant mostly to kehillah (Jewish community) elections—and they succeeded in keeping women from voting in these community elections throughout the interwar period.
But the reality was that women did have the vote, and the Agudah was also a political party and had to court these votes.
Along with various secular feminist challenges, the Agudah also had to face Orthodox feminists like the German-Jewish activist Bertha Pappenheim, who demanded that the Agudah find a way to free the agunah, the woman “chained” to a missing or recalcitrant husband.
In short, there was no way for Orthodox writers and activists to ignore the challenges posed by feminists, either in confrontations with those they might consider outsiders or in retaining the loyalty of those still on the inside.
In articles that responded to feminist challenges, the writers in the Bais Yaakov Journal insisted that Bais Yaakov was not a feminist movement. In a Torah lifestyle, there was no room for the fight for equal rights, since Judaism was a religion of obligation rather than rights, and men and women alike served a higher law. These obligations were different for men and women, but this was a wise recognition of the different natures of men and women. To sweeten the pill, writers emphasized the beautiful and harmonious marriages in which husband and wife performed their traditional roles.
In short, the response of Bais Yaakov to the challenge of modern feminist was to argue for the superiority of Jewish tradition over modern notions of gender equality.
While this was the official line (and still is), there were many aspects of Bais Yaakov that strike at least my eye as feminist. The Bnos argument about their right to certificates, whether it was grounded in political theory or Torah, ended up with their victory. That very year, 1934, the first Bnos Kibbutz (as the groups preparing for immigration to Palestine were called) arrived in Tel Aviv.
But were they feminists, or rather—as they saw it—passionate and faithful followers of the Torah?
Or do we need some new language, language that can encompass both sides of this divide, that can describe this new breed of young woman with enough knowledge to mine the biblical sources for its proto-feminist moments; mobilize these traditional sources to get what they want and recognize that they deserve; ground their own fight for justice in the language of Torah and tradition?
Bais Yaakov more generally lived in some complicated and maybe self-contradictory space between tradition and feminism.
It forged alliances with feminist movements when such alliances could be strategic: It accepted the support of such avowed feminists as Bertha Pappenheim, who visited the Krakow Seminary in 1935 (just after Schenirer’s death) and consulted on vocational training. It also found support among international organizations fighting the traffic in women (known then as the White Slave Trade), many of them also suffragettes.
But Bais Yaakov kept its distance from Jewish feminist organizations in Poland, who were the dangerous rivals on the ground. At the same time, it had to compete with them, among other ways by opening possibilities for girls and young women. According to the established ideology, these served to prepare them to be wives and mothers. But in the meantime, it also encouraged them to be activists, teachers, travelers, hikers, dancers, artists, writers, and Torah scholars.