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Jewish Women in the Footsteps of Wonder Woman

August 27, 2017 | by Chayi Hanfling

Growing up surrounded by only girls enabled me to develop my self-worth independent of the admiration and judgment of boys.

When I first read about Wonder Woman's birthplace, the mythical island of Themyscira, I was quite intrigued. The depiction of an island of feminine paradise where brave and strong women could dwell with no male oppression or restrictions seemed at once like a far-off fantasy and at the same time, strangely familiar. It occurred to me that it reminded me of my own childhood, in the observant Jewish community and it helped me to understand more deeply what was so powerful about this lifestyle.

To say that I grew up in a female-centered life would be a huge understatement. I have seven incredible sisters and a very strong, wonderful mother. I went to all-female schools my entire life up until college. Men were barely on my radar. Aside from my father, one brother and the occasional rabbi who taught us, my life was filled to the brim with girls and women.

When I started working with young Jewish college students from mostly secular backgrounds and even moved with my young family to live in the midst of it all, I started to notice a theme in my conversations with my female students. They struggled to sustain healthy friendships with other women. Most of them agreed that it was just easier to be friends with guys and free themselves from the undercurrents of jealousy and competitiveness that existed in their relationships with female friends. There were conversations about the obstacles they faced in pursuing certain careers that were considered to be "male-oriented".

There were discussions about the sexualization they faced at a young age and the pervasive sexual harassment that came from many and often unexpected places. I empathized greatly with their pain and struggles and then searched back into my own life experiences to see if I could connect my experiences with their own and felt that increasingly I was unable to. I started to look at my "all-female" childhood in a new light.

Growing up in that all-girls haven, we were figuring ourselves out without the constant input of guys that would make us doubt, judge or criticize ourselves.

Being friends with girls wasn't just an option, it was the only option. My friendships with them were beautiful and healthy and lacked the undercurrents my students spoke of. Yes, there was drama; life is never just sunshine and roses. But the drama was innocent and it lacked the particular issues that seemed to arise in co-ed environments. Growing up in that all-girls haven, we were learning and growing and figuring ourselves out without the constant verbal and nonverbal input of guys that would make us doubt, judge or criticize ourselves.

In the most critical years of our life we were able to develop a self-definition and self-worth that was independent of the admiration, esteem, affection or judgment of boys. We were able to develop friendships with girls that were free from these worries and insecurities as well. We had the room to breathe deeply and spread our wings.

I never thought that math or science was a guys’ thing. All my math and science teachers were women. The students who excelled in math and science were all girls (obviously). There was no “preferred” gender to compare ourselves to and no expectations to battle. We led our own prayers and sang and danced. The vast majority of my Jewish studies teachers were also women. No matter what my passion, no matter what I chose to pursue in either secular studies or Jewish ones, my teachers, role models and inspirations were all women.

I never got the subtle and not-so-subtle messaging that the hard sciences are really a man’s domain. I was spared the pressures, the sexualization and frequent harassment that are the average young woman experiences growing up today.

I wonder if we have, with good intentions, set up a society that restricts and hurts women.

For most of my life I didn't know this was out of the ordinary and simply took it for granted. But with vantage point of time and being more exposed to a world so different than the one I came from, I've gained a deeper appreciation of growing up surrounded by women.

When people hear about my gender-segregated childhood, they often raise their eyebrows in a mixture of judgment, pity and wonder (Was it hard? Was it lonely? Did you feel oppressed?). And I also wonder. I wonder if we have, with good intentions, set up a society that restricts and hurts women. I wonder if there is perhaps a better way. I wonder if they know what the power of the feminine is when it exists unencumbered, unrestricted and vibrant. And I wonder if they know that Wonder Woman’s birthplace is in reach. Perhaps it is closer than we think.

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