Challenging Gender Norms for Girls in our Community

Ma’yan’s new joint project with TrueChild.

Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of TrueChild, has spent decades challenging gender norms and examining the cross-section between gender, race and class.

TrueChild, a research and action center, promotes improving outcomes for youth by challenging rigid ideals of masculinity and femininity. Wilchins’ current project takes a slightly different course—working with New York’s Jewish community.

Funded by a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, True Child is partnering with Ma’yan to help identify and address the unique needs and challenges of young Jewish women and girls in New York City.

As the community-based partner, Ma’yan will help to conduct focus groups and interviews to develop model curricula for parents and educators. The curricula will provide a critical analysis of how feminine norms effect women and girls.

TrueChild has previously worked in many different at-risk and vulnerable communities. The New York mainstream Jewish community, however is overwhelmingly white and middle class, raising the obvious question: Why Jewish girls?

As Ma’yan learned based on its experience of working with teen girls in the New York metro area, the girls most often served by Jewish communal institutions—many of them socially, economically and racially privileged—are thriving.

Yet, these girls report getting mixed messages about affluence and achievement; they feel intense pressure to achieve academic and extracurricular distinction yet to also marry a high-status Jewish male.

They get mixed messages about anger, and feel pushed to constantly be “nice,” because individual assertion or ambition can be seen as selfish. Yet they are also burdened by anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish women as socially aggressive, wealthy and entitled. They confront beauty standards that exclude ethnically distinct physical characteristics.

Complicating the picture further, while some parts of the community go out of their way to encourage leadership among young Jewish girls, they also encounter long-standing patriarchal traditions at school, in the home, or in synagogue that make clear the cultural primacy and centrality of males.

For instance, recently, as Wilchins was leaving a group of Jewish mothers, one quietly pressed a slip of paper into her hand. It read, “older taller richer smarter.” Wilchins asked her, “What does this mean. She replied, “That’s what I was told to look for in a husband.’”

While not an at-risk population, Jewish girls are a population vulnerable to a unique set of pressures as well as the negative effects of rigid gender norms

These expectations for young women and girls, though hardly unique to the Jewish community, have unique implications within the New York Jewish world. It is also encouraging that the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago has made a similar grant to TrueChild to investigate Midwestern feminine norms, and Ma’yan’s representatives there are also partnering on that project.

In the coming year True Child and Ma’yan will delve deeper into current attitudes and develop approaches that will help young women in our community learn to think critically about rigid gender norms.

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