What My Dad Taught Me About Feminism

Judith Rosenbaum’s father didn’t preach about being feminist, he lived it, and it is through his example that Judith learned what a truly egalitarian partnership looks like.

I call myself a second-generation feminist, and when I do so, I’m thinking of my mom. A pioneer of the Second Wave, a path-breaking women’s historian, and a general all-around fearless leader, my mom raised me to be assertive, to love women, and to view the world through a gender lens.

Since my mom’s death a few months ago, however, I’ve also been thinking about what it meant for my dad to be the partner of a strong feminist for more than 40 years, and what I learned from him about gender roles. On the surface, my dad is in many ways a typical dad: He likes to make bad jokes, he taught me to drive, he helped me with my chemistry homework, he still thinks of himself as my personal tech advisor. And in some ways, his relationship with my mom was typical of their generation: She cooked dinner every night (he cleaned up), she was in charge of our schedules and daily needs, she managed their social life.

But at its core, my parents’ relationship was quite radical in a few significant ways. First of all, their primary connection was intellectual. Both intensely smart and cerebral, my parents were obviously turned on by each other’s minds. Though there was much else about which they did not agree, they clearly shared a deep mutual respect for each other’s intelligence. While my father may have sometimes wished for a slightly more traditional wife—someone who would care more about decorating the house, or just generally take a slightly more deferential stance (I don’t think the word deferential could EVER be used to describe anything about my mom)—he admitted that he could never be married to anyone who was not his equal in intellect and ambition, and that these characteristics trumped all else. For someone who came of age in a time when it wasn’t uncommon for women to be described as going to college to get an “MRS” degree, my dad’s deep valuation of my mom’s intelligence and scholarly accomplishments was remarkable.

Furthermore, my dad was deeply committed to my mom’s career. He not only took great pride in her professional success, he made personal sacrifices so that she could further it. Most strikingly, in the mid-1980s, when my mom had been offered a tenured professorship at Yale University—the first woman ever to be hired for a senior position in Jewish Studies—he left his own prestigious job so that the family could relocate for her position. This was a particularly bold move because my mother had recently been treated for a brain tumor, and the doctors thought her long-term survival was unlikely. (Thankfully, they were wrong.) My parents’ friends counseled my father against the move, telling him he was giving up his own professional stability and risked being stranded alone in a new city with two kids for what might likely be a short-term situation for my mom. He was determined, however, to enable her to pursue this opportunity, despite the circumstances.

Truthfully, though I was old enough at the time to understand the situation and what was at stake for my dad, I never thought much about it. Growing up in my parents’ house, I took for granted that my mom’s career was worth prioritizing, and it didn’t occur to me that few men then (or now) would be willing to put their wives’ careers above their own. Though I’m now embarrassed that I was so oblivious to my dad’s extraordinariness in this regard, I take my blindness as a sign of how successfully and naturally my dad supported my mom. Without explicitly talking to me about feminism, equality, and gender roles, he modeled for me this important aspect of egalitarian partnership and taught me what a feminist partner looks like. Sometimes, it’s the unspoken messages that are loudest of all.

Judith Rosenbaum is a feminist historian, educator, and writer, and director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive. She is a founder and blogger at Jewesses with Attitude and is currently working on an anthology that explores contemporary redefinitions of the “Jewish mother.” She lives in Boston with her husband and their hilarious and high-spirited five-year-old twins. You can find her on Twitter at @jahr.

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