Secular feminists have nothing to offer Jewish women

The feminist movement has been the key political event of many Jewish women's lifetimes. It has given us as role models women of great personal power and intellectual agility. And it's allowed us to venture into unprecedented careers and lifestyles.

Arguably, the reason so many Jewish women were drawn to feminism was that it articulated the dream of personal freedom and the mandate of political activism contained within our own spiritual tradition, as well as the larger social action vision of good works, the pursuit of tikkun olam, healing the world.

Having said that, the women's movement today is dead, lacking an updated dream that can keep hope and focus alive for the generation of young women who reject it as old hat. The forced response of feminist leaders last week to the Clinton sex scandals is only the latest proof that our daughters are right: Feminist leaders do not know what women want.

Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women, responding to Kathleen Willey's case against presidential groping, suggested that Clinton may be a "sexual predator."

Gloria Steinem, in the op-ed pages of last Sunday's New York Times, defended the chief executive as a man who committed no harassment because, unlike Sen. Bob Packwood and Clarence Thomas, Clinton can take "no" for an answer.

"Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one," Steinem wrote.

And Anita Hill, who brought the allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas, went so far as to say that her case and Clinton's were very different.

Hill said that neither Paula Jones nor Willey had made claims of suffering on the job because of the alleged harassment.

"We aren't talking about sexual harassment, at least based on the facts we have in front of us," Hill told the Associated Press.

Additionally, she said, women should look at the larger issue of the Clinton administration's policies toward women before judging his behavior.

These responses are appallingly inadequate. Ireland's answer was merely rhetorical overkill. But Steinem's tortured pursuit of a legal loophole for her president to slip through is a self-inflicted wound, one that will only inflame the Clinton dilemma in the weeks to come.

But the end has been coming for some time now. Feminist political organizations are basically irrelevant to the key issues that preoccupy women's lives: the decline of education, the problems of youth, the demoralization of community and family. They have nothing to say to us about the war between the sexes and the spiritual malaise that makes both work and home life so dispiriting today.

Many Jewish feminists, once galvanized by a national political agenda, have already fled the secular political agenda and turned for nourishment to more immediate concerns. Jewish women, once at the helm of political campaigns, are flooding into rabbinical schools, joining volunteer organizations or taking part in their spiritual communities. When it comes to today's true domestic crisis, secular feminists are as irrelevant as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Meanwhile, they have been depressingly inept at playing with the big boys even on the issues in which they have chosen to be obsessively involved. In turn, secular feminists have allowed themselves to be used as shills for other causes in the name of women's rights.

Anita Hill's case, for example, became a sensation not merely because of the scandal regarding hair on a Coke can, but so that liberals could undermine Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court nomination, already suspect on racial grounds.

Interestingly, the Thomas case may have been the first example where Jewish political interests split on female/liberal lines. At Jewish Community Relations Committee meetings, for example, communities split on the question of supporting Thomas' nomination. There was already, seven years ago, a sense that the community was swinging to the right on race relations, a fact that feminists have ignored until too late.

And while the case against Oregon's Sen. Bob Packwood on sexual harassment was convincing, the removal of Packwood demonstrated a disturbing naiveté, a willingness to eat one's own political allies. The inconsistencies in feminist approaches to Packwood and Thomas is returning today, holding the women's movement hostage.

This brings us to the Clinton crisis, in which the lack of a political strategy reveals the shallow soul of the movement underneath. There's no doubt that the whole matter is unsavory. Gennifer, Paula, Monica and Kathleen — each of the women who have come forth with stories against Clinton — has been pathetic in her own unique way. There's no victim among them.

And yet the public responds to this crisis not only with prurience. It is seeking something deeper, more lasting than a moment of titillation. The allure of the Clinton scandal is that it forces us to find a sense of balance, a way at long last to come to terms with the human frailties within the public man.

This was the role that the feminism of old — the feminism that Jewish women cherished — could have been expected to play.

America in the late 1990s is influenced more by spiritual issues than political agendas. The reason Kenneth Starr is universally loathed by the American public is that he is stalking Clinton like prey, hunting a man already mortally wounded. This is the kind of empathy that feminism was supposed to bring to the public debate, not a rewritten version of "Stand by Your Man."

The women I know are tired of male-bashing; they're exhausted from partisanship. They want something more from their leadership than a sense that the workplace is a hostile environment and that men are untrustworthy as allies. And they want to be able to denounce a man whose sexual behavior is outrageous without bringing him to ruin.

Ireland's, Steinem's and Hill's responses lack the basic candor, the willingness to call Clinton foul without going for blood. Sad indeed, for a movement whose first vision was to end politics as usual.