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As a Woman, Finding My Voice

As a Woman, Finding My Voice

In academia and work, I kept feeling silenced. Surprisingly, it was people in the Orthodox Jewish community who took me seriously.

by

I felt a wave of panic. Was there something wrong with my voice? Every time I spoke, there was no acknowledgement from my fellow students, all male, around the table. This went beyond mere rudeness; it was like I wasn’t there.

As a political science major, I was used to being outnumbered by men, but this was ridiculous. “I think…” I began, as the group talked over me. “Except for…” I asserted, as nobody listened. It was as if I didn’t exist. For one eerie moment, I wondered if the statements I was trying to make were audible at all.

As I got used to hearing men dominate discussions over the years. First in college, then in graduate school, and later at times at work, I’d feel utterly invisible, ignored as the conversation swirled around me.

I wondered if my ideas would receive a warmer reception of they were voiced by a male?

It knew I wasn’t an academic superstar; maybe my arguments and thoughts really lacked merit. Yet I wondered if my ideas would receive a warmer reception of they were voiced by a male? Would discussions about such seemingly gender-neutral topics as foreign trade policy or human rights agreements sound better coming from a man? I was left with an uncertainty: was I ever good enough?

My unease followed me throughout my years in academia. Overt sexism was rare, but it existed. I remember one fellow Ph.D. candidate, who was recently divorced, bursting into tears as a male colleague teased her, saying he’d always insist on calling her by her former, married name. It was hard to imagine anyone insulting her male tormenter, widely lauded for his academic brilliance, that way.

As I made my way through college and grad school, preparing for an academic career, I also was undergoing a personal journey, becoming interested in Judaism. And it was there, surprisingly, that I found people who took me seriously and listened to me. The Orthodox Jewish community, which I’d grown up hearing was hopelessly old-fashioned and sexist, became the place where I could most authentically be heard.

The first time I glimpsed a black-hatted, black-coated rabbi, I assumed he thought he was better than me, that he’d barely give me the time of day. I was visiting his synagogue, experimenting by attending an Orthodox service, and he and his wife surprised me by inviting me to join their family for Shabbat lunch. We chatted and I remember the spark of surprise as they listened, really listened. What did I think of the service? What had motivated me to visit the synagogue? What were my impressions? I thought back to some of my professors, men (almost always men) whom I greatly admired: none had ever listened so intently to what I had to say.

In Jewish settings, I began to feel that what I said mattered. Nobody was waiting until I drew breath to cut in with a more clever point, nobody tried to score a rhetorical advantage by demolishing my arguments. The respectful discourse was refreshing and I drank it in thirstily.  

I was amazed at the value the Jewish community placed on discussion and debate, not as displays of one-upmanship, but to deliberate and understand.

I was amazed at the value the Jewish community placed on discussion and debate, not as displays of one-upmanship, but to deliberate and understand. Like the lively debates in the Talmud, people felt free to express differing views but with respect and a common goal of advancing wisdom.  

The first time I attended an Orthodox bat mitzvah celebration, I was surprised to hear the adult guests seriously discussing the points the bat mitzvah girl had raised in her speech.  No matter that the bat mitzvah girl was a child or that her speech wasn’t on an very high intellectual level, her views were welcomed and respected.  This was the intellectual environment I longed to be a part of.

Later, as I pursued a career, I found that the self-confidence I was gaining from living and learning in Jewish environments helped me find the strength to no longer tolerate being silenced in the workplace.

When I found myself in an academic conference, surrounded by other women who said they could never discuss their children or other “female” pursuits such as cooking at work lest they be seen as less serious than men, it was my exposure to strong female educational opportunities in my Jewish community that enabled me to protest. Women still deserve respect when they embrace their feminine sides, I insisted. In my voice I could hear the echoes of the Jewish women I’d seen who ran Jewish charity programs, Torah learning classes, and a host of other projects that were respected within their Jewish communities.

When a person I considered a professional mentor cut me down, dismissing my work history and belittling my abilities in mocking tones, it was the self-confidence I’d gained in Jewish settings that gave me the strength not to believe the mentor’s insulting assessment of my abilities.  

I love that when I enter a Jewish class, when I mingle with people in my Orthodox synagogue, when I sit down with others at Shabbat meals, I know my voice and my views will be welcomed and listened to.  After so many times of feeling silenced in academia and work, I’m grateful for this wonderful feeling of security that I wish more women could share.

October 22, 2017

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 7

(4) MESA, October 23, 2017 1:31 PM

There are still far too many instances of Jews mistreating others. They wear the costumes and talk the lingo, but they don't care about what the Torah teaches us about treating other people. Thank you Dr. Miller for sharing your experiences. People need to know that THIS is how true Torah Jews treat others.

(3) Nancy, October 22, 2017 8:01 PM

To commenter Rachel

Ugh! You have proven that sexism is still rearing its ugly head in 2017. These men need to be told to lose their disrespectful attitude. (Yes, I can be that direct when necessary.)

(2) Alice J., October 22, 2017 6:22 PM

Disabled not always heard

I thought it was interesting about this article that the woman speaker thought she was finally being heard and respected in an Orthodox setting.
Maybe a lot had to do with the fact that she is a Ph.D. and so-called "normal' person and with more status than most.
I found a different "welcome" whenever I tried to add my two cents to most discussions at Orthodox Shabbos tables. I found my comments were either ignored or listened to "politely" but then never really commented on or taken seriously.
I felt due to my being single and disabled and not having a lot of money, I was not as valued as others at the table.
There were only a handful of (families) I went to the entire time I have been in this Orthodox Jewish community (since 1981) where I felt totally welcomed and not judged as "different' and "less than". There were literally only a handful of families who have made me feel like I was as normal and accepted as them.
I think the problem of older singles (especially women) and disabled people who do not have a lot of money not being totally accepted in the Orthodox community needs to be addressed--now.
Would someone please step up to the plate and write an article or articles about this elephant in the room?
Thank you.

Nancy, October 23, 2017 11:31 AM

To commenter #2 Alice

Have you read the book A life not with standing? It was written by Chava Willig Levy, and I highly recommend it. She is a baby boomer who has been in a wheelchair since childhood, due to her polio diagnosis. She is FFB and her life experiences knocked my socks off!

(1) Rachel, October 22, 2017 4:47 PM

Not always true in Orthodox circles

I'm glad the author has not had some of the experience I've had with Orthodox men. On several occasions my opinions have been derided or ignored. I lack a formal Jewish education and do not offer opinions on Jewish subjects. However, when I share information on subjects that I know in depth such as my field of law, literature, politics, government, and history, on a number of occasions I have been dismissed.

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