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A 'Win-Win' for Women

June 25, 2009 By:
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Theda Bara and Fritz Leiber Sr., playing Cleopatra and Julius Caesar

In her chatty introduction to With Strength and Splendor: Jewish Women as Agents of Change, published by the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) notes that this is a truly extraordinary time for women. Not only have doors opened and any number of barriers fallen, but women are truly in positions of power.

She points out that in 1992, when she first ran for office, there were only two women senators. "I used to say," Feinstein writes, "that 2 percent might be good for the fat content in milk, but it's certainly not good enough for the United States Senate."

The country's record on this score has improved over the last 17 years. Women now make up 16 percent of the Senate -- "that's a little more than the fat content in premium ice cream," the senator quips. And across the board, women are succeeding unlike ever before. "There are 74 women serving in the House of Representatives -- that's about 17 percent, an all-time high. Nancy Pelosi is the first female Speaker of the House. There are nine female governors and 11 female lieutenant governors."

Feinstein lists many more accomplishments of women these days and stresses again the most important fact in this much needed development: The door had to be opened -- sometimes, even forced open -- but once it's ajar, it stays that way "for all time."

One of the many commendable things about With Strength and Splendor, which is the work of V. Kogen, a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is that, in its pages, readers do meet many of the pioneering women who first tugged at those resistant doors -- individuals who helped dismantle the barriers and made the contemporary achievements of women possible.

Like many another such tribute book, there are photos of the numerous subjects (in this case, in black and white) and lengthy biographies displayed across a two-page spread. The layout is subdued -- especially in this day of full-color reproductions -- but manages to get some striking effects within its black-and-white "limitations."

What really matters anyway are the lives and achievements of these women, and they constitute an accomplished grouping. Two of them have Philadelphia ties: The very first person profiled is outgoing city District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, and about midway comes one of the most commanding figures in this city's Jewish past, Rebecca Gratz.

The latter might have been expected in any such compilation, much like Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah and a great Zionist, who is also included, and Rosalyn Yalow, one of the pioneering scientists of the 20th century (she has the distinction, in fact, of being the first Nobel Laureate in the scientific field who was born and educated in the United States). Yalow's speciality has been the use of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

There are also, of course, the requisite number of labor leaders and social-work giants, like Lillian Wald, of the Henry Street Settlement in New York, and Gertrude Weil, who worked on various fronts to cure societal ills, but is perhaps best remembered for her efforts in child welfare reform.

Less Than 'Exalted' Types

It's also heartening to see some unlikely and less than "exalted" types featured in these pages, like the singer Sophie Tucker, known as the last of the red-hot mamas, who was ranked very highly by many formidable African-American blues singers as one of their own.

And then there's Theda Bara, the "vamp" of the silent screen, who made her name during her all-too-brief movie career -- it lasted just five years -- playing not-so-nice ladies. She was often seen wearing skimpy costumes that were daring even for the pre-code period of Hollywood films, when everything was a whole lot looser.

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