Inclusive Language: One Reason Why We Still Need Jewish Orthodox Feminism

Mon, 12/31/2012 - 12:00am -- JOFA

By Ilanna Newman 

 Ilanna NewmanEarlier this month, a friend sent me a video by The Factuary called “What Do Feminists Have Left?”  It argued that though we have come incredibly far in the last century, there are five things feminists in America have left to fight for: equal pay, access to reproductive care, greater media representation, an end to rape culture, and an end to microaggression.  I hadn’t encountered the term microaggression before, so I delved into its history and broadened meaning. The term was coined in 2007 by the psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce and originally was used to describe the use of racial slurs in both intentional and unintentional insults. Microaggression also refers to the derogatory use of a term for any marginalized group, even if the speaker does not intend for the use to be offensive toward that group.  The LGBT rights movement has done a spectacular job campaigning against one of the most common offenders – “That’s so gay.” 

I am thankful that I haven’t encountered many microaggressive statements against women in the Orthodox community, both among my peers at the University of Maryland and in the various communities I frequent as a Shabbat and Yom Tov guest.  However, I have experienced a different linguistic phenomenon that I will call “indirect microaggression” or “microaggression by omission.”  I have observed this failure to use inclusive language in communities across the Orthodox spectrum.  Most recently, I was a guest at a friend’s house for the first days of Sukkot and we were enjoying a large lunch full of hearty food and conversation.  Ten post-bar-mitzvah age males were in attendance, as one of them discovered with a delighted, “Hey, we can makemincha here!” 

My friend’s fourteen-year-old brother excitedly exclaimed, “Wait, we have ten people?” 

I tried not to say anything, but this sweet boy didn’t know the tumult that he’d unleashed in my mind. I told him, “Next time, please say ‘ten men,’ not ‘ten people.’  There are fourteen people in this room. Only ten can form a minyan, but please don’t forget that there are women here too.”   

The boy paused for a moment and said, “Wow, I’ve never thought about it like that before.” 

One of the male guests good-naturedly questioned my friend, “Are you all feminist-y too?”  He sounded as if he expected her to brush off my radical views and irrational protest at a commonly used phrase, especially in the yeshiva world where indeed all ten people in the room are male. 

She replied quite seriously, “I don’t pay attention as much to things like this, but I definitely agree with what she’s saying.” 

The guest was taken aback, but conceded, “I guess if it bothers you so much, we could just say ‘ten men.’”   

The men gathered in the living room for mincha and my friend and I slipped into the adjacent room with the door slightly open (though impromptu minyanim do not need a physical mechitzah, the men preferred we stay out of sight instead of merely behind them).  Though he had acknowledged why the boy’s comment had upset me, the guest didn’t see anything wrong with calling out, “Okay, now we have ten PEOPLE so we can start – just kidding, ladies.”  I spoke to the man privately afterward about why it was important that he use inclusive language.  He apologized, saying that it felt strange for him to be confronted about a phrase that he had heard and had used for his entire life, so he made the joke as a defense mechanism. 

While I accept that I cannot be counted in a minyan because I am a woman, I still want to be counted as a person.  Jewish Orthodox feminists still have so much to do if the young adults of the Orthodox world are not educated about what it means to speak with respect toward half of society.  So many Orthodox Jews speak cautiously when discussing other groups, ever sensitive about maintaining a good name for the Jews in a secular and often unforgiving world.  Yet in our own world, inclusive language is tossed to the wayside in favor of the status quo.  In an era when Israeli women are subject to hadarat nashim, the exclusion of women from public life, it is especially critical for those who condemn this extremism to speak in accordance with their values.  Not using inclusive language is just another method of subjugating women that, while certainly not as barbaric as spitting on schoolgirls, is nevertheless damaging to the Jewish goal of building a complete and loving world.   

Ilanna Newman is a senior linguistics and hearing and speech sciences major at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was a JOFA Fellow in the 2011-2012 cohort and plans to make aliyah in summer 2013.

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