I have often felt that misogyny has been one of the oldest sins since Adam and Eve. The woman’s liberation movement has some remarkable antecedents in American history. It is remarkable how much the 20th century fight for gender rights have completely overturned thousands of years of male hegemony. It is no wonder why traditional religious societies across the globe fear it–change is necessary as it is inevitable.
Seducing By Scents
I came across an interesting article from House and Garden Magazine that illustrates just how much we have changed as a society over the last 300 years. It reads, “Legislation proposed in England in the 1700s: All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high‑heeled shoes or bolstered hips shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and the like misdemeanors and that marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.” —- Act of Parliament, 1670
Incidentally, one of our readers (see comments) points out that this story was originally a joke that appeared in the magazine. That is an interesting thought, but who really knows for sure?
The Humble Beginnings of Women’s Liberation
Now move the clock ahead about 100 years later . . . Abagail Adams penned one of the most famous letters of her era, demanding that the new Declaration of Independence respect the rights of its female citizens, which she unabashedly says:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give tip the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” 
—-Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818), Letter to John Adams, [March 31, 1776]
John Adam’s Fear of “Petticoat Despotism”
Her husband John Adams replied:
I cannot but laugh…We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight. 
Back to the Future: The early 2oth Century Debate Concerning Women’s Suffrage
It is remarkable that the world has changed so much over the last 250 years. Some of you might be surprised to know that back in the 1915 many Orthodox rabbis opposed the right for women to vote. Woman’s suffrage proved to be a very divisive issue among American Orthodox Jews. Some rabbis felt that a women’s place is in the home. The rabbis feared that society will become corrupt should women invade the institutions of political power.
Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ben Tzion Uziel pointed out that there was nothing in the Torah to forbid women voting. However, other rabbis argued, it’s against tradition—a woman’s place is in her home. Let the men worry about the politics!
Rabbi Uziel replied that in the olden days, men used to live in tents, in the desert, should we all go back to living in the wilderness just like our ancestors did? Ah, but the rabbis replied. If we give women equal rights to vote, they will want more freedom tomorrow, and who knows where that will lead to?
And That was Only the Beginning . . .
In a way, those early 20th century Orthodox rabbis were right.
An interesting debate has been developing in the Orthodox Jewish community. And that is the issue of Women’s “Prayer Groups.” Some have taken offense to women having “Minyanim” because only men can have Minyans.
Outraged by the growth of Ortho-feminism, a Queens-Long Island council of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the event symbolized a larger, possibly dangerous trend – the growing acceptance of women’s prayer groups.
Its action this month to ban groups such as the one in Hillcrest that hosted the bat mitzvah has shocked hundreds of observant women worldwide and a number of Orthodox leaders, elicited at least two letters urging reconsideration, and caused one leader of the rabbinical council to resign. Continue reading “From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism””