As we mark International Women’s Day, it is important to celebrate Jewish women throughout history who have championed human rights.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or RBG) was appointed to the US Supreme Court in 1993, the second female ever to hold such a position. Prior to this, RBG was a notable advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights, winning multiple victories arguing before the Supreme Court. She went on to serve as the Director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980. A new film entitled ‘On the Basis of Sex’ depicts her first case, which led to the end of legal sex-based discrimination.
Bella Abzug was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, in New York, 1920. After being rejected from Harvard Law School because of her gender, Abzug graduated with a law degree from Columbia University. Abzug defended Willie McGee, an African American who was convicted of raping a white woman, despite receiving numerous threats from white supremacists. Abzug helped to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and served in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977, where she introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress. Abzug fought constantly for civil rights, and women’s rights in particular. Ed Koch, a former US representative, insisted that “the women of the world, not just the country, owe her a great debt. She was their champion.”
The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (‘the 35s’)
In 1971, news reached Western Europe and the United States that a Russian Jew, Raisa Palatnik of Odessa, who had applied for permission to leave the Soviet Union, had been taken into custody by the Soviet secret police. The news triggered mass protests, predominantly led by ordinary Jewish women. The organisation they founded, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, known as ‘the 35s’ after their founding membership, became an international force credited by some as contributing to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. For close to three decades, the 35s campaigned to heighten public awareness of the inhuman denial of freedom of religion and movement to which millions of Jews living in the USSR were subjected. Other Jewish communities worldwide emulated the British 35s, with the Los Angeles 35s being a particularly impactful sister organisation. The 35s exemplified how people cooperating could achieve seemingly impossible goals. In 1989, the USSR opened the borders for Jews to leave the Soviet Union. Mere months later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
Simone Veil was a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, who later became the French minister for health and was responsible for legalising abortion in France. Veil was so instrumental in pushing through the legislation that it became widely known as “la loi Veil”, the Veil law. Veil was born to a Jewish family in Nice, and was not allowed to attend the local school because of her religion, while her architect father was not allowed to practice. After World War Two, Veil initially worked as a magistrate, and in 1970 she became the first female secretary general of the council of the magistrature. She served as the president of the European parliament in Strasbourg from 1979-82, was made an honorary dame in 1998, was elected to the Académie Française in 2008 and received the grand cross of the Légion d’honneur in 2012.
Helen Suzman, the South African born daughter of Jewish Eastern European immigrants, was a feminist, human rights and anti-apartheid icon. Suzman was one of 12 MPs who formed the Progressive Party in 1959, an openly liberal party which believed in rights and qualified franchise for all. After a 1961 election in which all other Progressive MPs lost their seats, Suzman served as the sole Progressive MP and voice of the oppressed until 1974. Between 1991-3 Suzman acted as the president of the South African Institute for Race Relations, served on the commission overseeing the first democratic elections in 1994 and then became a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission. Suzman was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the United Nations Human Rights Award (1978) and the Medallion of Heroism (1980).