Gender Inequality at YU: Men, It’s Our Problem Too
Earlier this month, in a speech delivered at the United Nations Headquarters, actor and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson launched the HeForShe campaign, a “solidarity movement for gender equality” that serves as a “formal invitation” for men to join in the efforts to end gender-based discrimination. In her speech, Watson argued that feminism—“the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”—is not just a movement for women, but one for men too. According to the campaign’s website, HeForShe’s goal is to bring “together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.”
HeForShe arrives at a moment in popular culture and politics when feminism is more present than ever before. The past two years alone have seen the introduction of multiple campaigns such as “Lean In” and “Ban Bossy,” which promote gender equality in the workplace and combat negative perceptions of women and girls. At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, pop singer Beyoncé stood proudly in front of a screen that read “Feminist” and received a standing ovation. At The New York Times, Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist”, an essay collection of cultural criticism that focuses on negative and damaging depictions of women in literature and entertainment, holds the thirteenth spot on the bestseller list. And this past summer in Congress, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill introduced legislation that would penalize universities that fail to adequately handle cases of sexual assault.
In the midst of all these feminist campaigns and accomplishments, what marks HeForShe as a particularly significant event is the decision to make men the target audience of the movement. By creating a feminist campaign directed specifically at men, HeForShe extends, and rightly so, the responsibility for the advancement of women beyond women alone, placing a direct obligation on men to help end gender-based discrimination and inequality. HeForShe urges all men to review their lives, relationships, and communities to identify the ways in which gender inequality is perpetuated and how effective solutions can be found. And a quick glance at our own community of Yeshiva University shows that gender divides and differing educational and religious expectations for women and men are alive and well.
At the undergraduate level, majors and courses offered on the Wilf and Beren campuses still fall along “traditional” gender divides. Stern College offers many courses in Art, English, Women’s Studies, and human sexuality that simply do not exist at Yeshiva College. But when it comes to STEM education—particularly in math and computer science—Stern students are not privy to the same rigor and intensity in their education that their male counterparts enjoy. In the Jewish studies department, Stern students have limited access to the breadth of talmudic and halachic study that is so readily available to male students at Wilf. And when courses in Talmud are offered in Stern, students often have to choose between taking it or a taking a secular course—a decision that no male student in Yeshiva College would ever have to make. Additionally, in the arena of religious graduate programs, RIETS continues to gleam as the “crown jewel” of Yeshiva University, while GPATS, the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study, faces budget cuts and changing curricula.
Gender inequality anywhere is unacceptable, but what makes gender inequality at Yeshiva University particularly damaging is that YU also serves as the theological and religious center for a large swath of contemporary Orthodoxy in America and around the world. RIETS is the largest program in the Americas that ordains Orthodox rabbis, and graduates from both the Beren and Wilf campuses fill religious educational positions throughout the country. If gender inequality exists both in academic and religious life at Yeshiva University, and the Orthodox environment on campus, you can bet it exists in the Orthodoxy and cultural norms that are disseminated by its graduates.
Yeshiva University needs to take action to end gender inequalities because the implicit message it’s sending young Jewish women is this: It’s fine, get a degree, but know that intellectually and religiously, your place is different because you’re a woman. Or, to quote the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “You can have ambition—but not too much.” Yeshiva University needs to create an environment where women can not only be confident that they have access to the same quality of education they would receive if they were men, but also that they have equality in the Orthodoxy that YU generates and maintains. In order to do so, action needs to be taken on behalf of the religious leadership, administrators, and students of YU. And because the gatekeepers of change at Yeshiva University—the religious leadership, administration, and Board of Trustees—are overwhelming male, the change needs to start with the men.
So, men of YU—students, faculty, and administrators alike: where do we begin?
Let’s start by simply listening to women. For too long, women have voiced their experiences of discrimination while men have chosen not to listen. And for too long, Jewish women have voiced their frustration with a system that creates religious laws and rituals without their input—and men have chosen not to listen. Perhaps last year’s tefillin crisis can serve a prime example: two young women received permission to lay tefillin and the Orthodox Jewish world vehemently condemned their actions. RIETS was quick to criticize the women and the Orthodox rabbi who gave them permission, but very few stopped to listen, to turn to the women and say: Let me hear your voice; it counts too. We need to listen to women’s voices not out of sense of courtesy or benevolence. We need to listen to women’s voices because they are equal to our own and should be treated as such.
After listening, we need to be proactive. Although we may not be women, we are profoundly affected by their presence in this world. If you don’t like the word “feminist,” that’s okay, but you should like the vision of a world where your friend, your sister, your mother, your wife, or your daughter can live in a religious and secular environment that encourages them to reach their full potential as human beings. You should want a world where women have a say in the secular and religious legal systems that create laws for them. For too long, men have been the main deciders of social and religious standards for the Orthodox community, and the time to allow women to occupy the same roles—as students, scholars, professionals, and poskim—that men enjoy is long overdue. It’s time for us to shift the way we think about women and the expectations that our society has set up for their religious and educational lives. We need to do our share by creating the space for women to thrive religiously, academically, and socially in the same way we do every day as men.
I take Yeshiva University seriously when it claims to hold the “Center for the Jewish Future.” But the Jewish Future, in my opinion, will only be a good future if it’s one negotiated and created equally by men and women. The future is not something that is abstract or far away, but rather something that is constantly constructed in the present. Right now is when we can make change. Right now is when we can make a better future.
To the administrators: let’s create a university where a student in Stern can receive the same education as a man in Yeshiva College. No one at Yeshiva University should be denied a good education because of their gender. To our religious leaders: let’s think creatively about how to fashion an Orthodoxy that moves away from a hegemony of male leadership and into an Orthodoxy where women are conversant and present in the halachic process. Let’s structure a learning program that mirrors RIETS in its intensity and scope, a learning program that will enable women to enter into the halachic world as poskot halacha. And students: on behalf of the women in our lives, let’s pressure our university into making the changes needed to provide an equal education to all, regardless of gender.
To all: let's amend Watson’s words, and gather together one half of YU in support of the other half of YU, for the entirety of YU—and by doing so profoundly change the Orthodox experience for women today. Let’s create the Jewish future of tomorrow: a brighter, bolder, more vibrant reality than the one we live in today. But when we do so, let it be a future for everyone, by everyone, together.