Catfight author takes a swipe at religious inequality

What do girls with bad reputations, sisters who cat-fight and Orthodox women have in common? Their stories have been documented by feminist author Leora Tanenbaum.

And while the three topics seem disparate, there’s good reason why Tanenbaum has chosen to tackle them: She is a woman interested in learning about the experiences of other women. And more importantly, she is a woman interested in advancing equality for all women.

Leora Tanenbaum

In 1998 Tanenbaum wrote “Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation,” and in 2003 followed it up with “Catfight: Rivalries Among Women.” Her most recent book, “Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality,” takes a look at the next chapter in Tanebaum’s life, her spirituality.

Published in 2008, the book explores the obstacles that progressive women of faith face. Tanenbaum discussed “Taking Back God” earlier this month during a talk at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco.

The book covers four religious movements and includes voices from each group: evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

While Tanenbaum is part of a Modern Orthodox community in Manhattan — she attends an Orthodox synagogue, and her two sons attend Orthodox schools — she is careful not to identify herself as an Orthodox Jew.

“I don’t label myself ‘Orthodox’ because Orthodoxy withholds equality from women and gays and lesbians,” she explained in an interview before her talk, “though I believe that there is a way to extend equality to them within the halachic [Jewish legal] framework.”

Tanenbaum was quick to add that there have been vast improvements in recent years. For example, she noted that women are undergoing the same Orthodox rabbinical study as men at the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, N.Y., though they currently are not technically recognized as rabbis.

She also pointed to a movement by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance to include women in “partnership minyans.” These minyans, the first of which was formed in Jerusalem, allow women to lead specific parts of the service. Tanenbaum participates in a partnership minyan at her local synagogue.

With each of her books Tanenbaum starts with her personal life story then expands to include the individual voices of other women who have experienced similar situations.

She became interested in feminism after being sexually harassed verbally when she was a student in the 1980s at a Jewish day school in Manhattan.

“I had a negative experience which, at the time, I didn’t realize was a product of sexual double standards,” she said. “Then a number of years later I read a survey about sexual harassment in high schools, and that proverbial light bulb went off in my head.”

She called it a “classic feminist moment,” and when she realized it was a bigger political problem, she went looking for other girls and women to tell their stories — which has led to her three books.

In her research for “Taking Back God,” Tanenbaum said she found religious women are unfairly stereotyped across the board.

“I think a lot of people probably have the stereotype that Catholic nuns are very strict, kind of humorless — certainly not feminist radicals — but that is totally wrong,” she said. “I met nuns who are on the frontline of the progressive Catholic community, trying to achieve equality for women.”

Anger over hierarchy, inequality and the status quo — while at the same time maintaining a devotion to faith — is a theme that runs throughout the book.

Tanenbaum said that one of the challenges she faced while writing the book was her ignorance about the history and the traditions of non-Jewish religions. However, she did say that she learned quickly — by attending churches, discussion groups and conferences.

“Since I am an observant Jew, I thought that would pose a challenge to other religions,” she said. “I thought they would try to convert me, but [everyone] was so respectful.”

As for her own religion, Tanenbaum said reconciling her faith with her belief in gender equality is a constant struggle.

“There’s a very common belief that if we are critical of religion, the response should be to simply leave religion,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Critical thinking can lead to action, which leads to reform.”

“Taking Back God” by Leora Tanenbaum (368 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27)