Sunday, June 13, 2010

Working Women

Contrary to common belief, things are not so different from how they used to be. The ideal world of the past was not as perfect or different as many think.

Prof. Shaul Stampfer, "How Jewish Society Adapted to Change in Male/Female Relationships in 19th/early 20th Century Eastern Europe" in Rivka Blau ed., Gender Relationships In Marriage and Out, pp. 67, 69-70:

The most important fact is that a very significant percentage of Jewish women, perhaps a majority, worked in order to make ends meet.[4]They did not do this out of an ideology but out of lack of alternative. Most Jews were poor, and the income of women was often crucial to the financial well-being of a Jewish family. However, the ideal of a woman who supports her scholar-husband certainly strengthened the pattern of the working married woman and made it look legitimate and acceptable. There was no talk about working leading to the disintegration of the Jewish family. If anything, work contributed to its survival...

[T]here is no shortage of evidence that traditional Jewish society in Eastern Europe was characterized by a high level of divorce. Even a cursory reading of responsa literature quickly shows that divorce was one of the most common halakhic issues discussed. Reading through biographies of rabbis and of laymen also shows that divorce was a common experience. Rabbis married early in traditional society, and often divorced just as early. I found scattered statistical evidence for this, and ChaeRan Freeze in a recent monograph presented massive amounts of evidence that make it absolutely clear that divorce was widespread among Jews.[7] This is not evidence that Jews did not take marriage seriously or that women’s work outside the home dissolved the family fabric. There is no evidence that a Gan Eden of family life ever existed. What it does support is the claim that in traditional East European Jewish society women had relatively independent lives, though not equal rights. Under these conditions, when a woman was in an unhappy marriage, she could say to herself that if she were alone she could support herself almost as well and that her life would not be much worse for it. This, to repeat, was due to the economic role of Jewish women and to the acceptance of divorce by halakhah.[8]

[4] Charlotte Baum, “What Made Yetta Work” Response xviii (Summer 1973) pp.
[7] ChaeRan Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (Hanover nh
[8] Compare Gary Becker, Treatise on the Family (Cambridge ma 1981).

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