Of all the many varied battlegrounds in the modern struggle for social justice and human rights, the fight for gender equality—equal rights for all, regardless of sexual identity—has been arguably the most transformative and successful. It began more than a century ago with a seemingly simple premise: the liberation of women—that is, empowerment and equal rights for the half of the human race that was unfree.
In the last generation, though, it has come to include a much broader reexamination of the role of gender in society, of categorizing people and defining their rights and privileges according to their sexual identity.
The progress of the struggle for gender equality is paradoxical. While it has had the most sweeping impact on human society of any social revolution in the past century, it remains perhaps the most fiercely contested battleground of human rights: it is the only category of human rights that continues to encounter principled, outright opposition, based on a world view that rejects the very idea of equality of gender. It can move dramatically forward on one front and yet suffer almost breathtaking reversals on another front at the very same time. Such has been the case in America in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as gay rights and marriage equality for same sex couples have moved forward in state after state, while assaults on abortion rights have advanced with furious energy, often in the same sections of the country, leaving women’s access to the most basic health care hanging by a thread.
The assault on women’s rights is rising in the international arena as well, as activists learned at the United Nations in March 2013, where the Commission on the Rights of Women faced a concerted effort by conservative Christian and Muslim delegates from countries such as Poland, Iran and Egypt to block resolutions that seemed boiler-plate only a decade ago. The counterattacks involved not just reproductive rights but even such presumably consensus issues as rape and violence against women, both of which are being redefined in some societies to reinstate certain traditional male privileges that were thought to have been consigned to history.
In addition to the American and international struggles for basic human rights for women, gays and others, Jewish progressives have their own tasks to win and defend equal rights within Judaism and the Jewish community. Most wings of American Judaism have seen great advances in the past generation in gender-equal rights and practices, and yet the major institutions that govern Jewish communal life remain bastions of male privilege, seemingly impervious to the changes in the pews and even on the pulpits.
The fight for Jewish women’s equality reaches even to the the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where women have been routinely and repeatedly arrested for the simple act of praying at the most sacred site in Judaism. In Israel, the sight of women being arrested for praying has touched even women and men who had little previous connection to religion or prayer. American Jewish progressives are often admonished that Israel’s internal problems are not their business. That can hardly be said of the Western Wall. If, as conservatives say, the Western Wall belongs to every Jew everywhere, then the struggle for equal rights in Israel is every Jew’s struggle.