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Feminist studies professor describes defining decades in her life

STANFORD -- Standing before an audience in the side chapel of Memorial Church and holding a small white piece of paper on which she had condensed a list of things that "mattered" most to her, Estelle Freedman traced the defining moments of three memorable decades of her life.

Referring to a popular button and bumper sticker that urges people to "Question Authority," Freedman, professor of history and chair of the Program in Feminist Studies, told some 80 students, faculty and staff that she preferred instead to "question hierarchy." Freedman made her remarks Nov. 13 in the continuing series, "What Matters to Me and Why."


"Questioning hierarchy feels like a theme in my life," she said. "It recurs in many different settings."

Freedman said she was raised as a post-World War II American Jew in the late 1940s and early 50s and immersed in a "communal life" where her identity was firmly entrenched.

"Everything I did was Jewish, whether it was holidays, Hebrew school, youth groups, summer camp, synagogue," she said.

From her mother, Freedman learned that "you can try to forget that you are Jewish, but they will never let you forget."

From her grandfather, a Russian Jewish immigrant who idolized Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur, she learned that "you can stand up for who you are and what you believe, and you can refuse to conform to the dominant culture."

Growing up in a town where the social hierarchy was ranked, from top to bottom, as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and black, Freedman said she learned early on that "certain groups ­ in this case, ethnic and religious groups," were at risk.

"The response to that risk was not to hide and deny, but to assert, affirm and build a supportive culture that [said] that those who held on to their identities were the most respected, and they could also make very good Americans," she said.

In the 1960s, Freedman said, race became, for her, the "central problem" in American history and culture. At a Jewish summer camp she met college-age counselors who were involved in the civil rights movement, one of whom would go on to work with Bayard Rustin on the 1963 March on Washington and would travel south to register black voters in the so-called "Mississippi summer" of 1964.

"Along with Israeli folk dancing and songs, they taught us the songs of the Weavers and Pete Seeger and things that were going on in the rest of the world," Freedman said. "I learned that you have a choice about where you fit into these systems ­ you can act to support them, you can act to ignore them or you can act to try to change them."

As an undergraduate at Barnard College, Freedman wrote an honors thesis on the Back to Africa movements of the 19th century and studied history in an effort to make sense of contemporary America.

After graduating, she worked for a major national Jewish organization that brought rabbis and black clergy together to coordinate neighborhood housing and education programs in New York City. At office meetings, however, Freedman was expected to serve lunch and coffee, as the only woman in the conference room.

She left after a year and enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University.

"And then there was a moment in 1970 when the revival of the women's movement and feminism just washed over me, like a much-needed rain," she said. "It cleared the air of things that I simply could not understand, and I began to realize that there was another kind of hierarchy that was creating contradictions in my life."

Feminist literature was being mimeographed and published in hardcover, and Freedman said she remembers being "blown away" by reading "The Politics of Housework," "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" and "Loving Another Woman" ­ essays that students read as historical documents in her feminist studies classes today.

"I had implicitly and unknowingly been deeply indoctrinated in a contract that I had not consented to," Freedman said of the realization that she began to experience in the early 1970s.

"The contract went something like this: Men have access to education, authority, power, money and security as an entitlement," she said. "And women are attractive, nurturant, dependent and submissive, by which they attract men, through whom they get education, authority, power, money and security."

Deciding to opt out of that contract, Freedman said, was "the most liberating thing that ever happened to me ­ for two reasons."

"On the one hand, it meant that I, though female, could be entitled to all the goodies," she said. "I could go to graduate school, I could persist, I could get a job and I did not have to depend on someone else's financial security.

"The other side of the gender-sexual contract meant that I could be nurturing ­ or not. I could be sexual ­ or not.

"In other words, I had some choices, including the option of loving another woman. And that thing I had read about back in 1969 and 1970 and had found so frightening became a whole lot less frightening. And it meant that I could begin to grapple with what would soon become defined as my own lesbianism, a label that would have been just impossible for me to consider before breaking that contract."

While the '70s were a time of "spiritual revival and rebirth" for her, Freedman said there also was "a lot of pain and loss."

"I looked back one day and realized I had ceased to be Jewish," she said.

It wasn't until the late 1970s and early '80s, as women became ordained rabbis, that Freedman began to see some "healing roots." A gay and lesbian synagogue that opened in San Francisco in the early '80s provided another means of integration.

"The first time I went back to services after many, many years, I felt overwhelmed to tears at realizing that there was a way to make room for multiple identities in one's politics and one's life.

"I think the lesson of what I call the rebirth or revival of feminism, for me, was that you can't go back again," Freedman said.

As people question the hierarchies of religion, race and gender, she said, "You might see it's hard, and it might be painful and tearful at times, but the alternative is absolutely impossible."

As she considers what "matters" most to her, Freedman said she continues to question hierarchy ­ "not necessarily opposing all hierarchy, but questioning whether a particular hierarchy is legitimate."

"I ask myself, 'Is it grounded in mere self-perpetuation of power, or is it grounded in actual talent, ability or social usefulness?' "

-Diane Manuel-


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