In all caps, the posters read, “SEXISM EXISTS,” on the wall outside the Yeshiva University library. Printouts of anonymous sexist social media posts by YU students surrounded the bolded statement.
The display, torn down an hour after it went up on Feb. 16, was one of the first acts of the YU Feminists Club, a student group approved three weeks ago. The club has already sparked debate in YU’s Modern Orthodox campus network.
Club co-president Molly Meisels, a freshman at YU’s Stern campus, shares students’ reactions to the new club, her experience as a feminist at YU, and her plans for promoting gender equality on campus:
New Voices: How many members does the YU Feminists Club have so far?
Molly Meisels: We started a Whatsapp group, and it currently has 43 members. We just formed a board of six or seven individuals. We’re gaining a lot of traction, both positive and negative.
NV: What have been some of the positive and negative reactions?
MM: I’ve had so many, both women and men from campus, tell me how this club has been a long time coming and how the sexism that exists on the campus needs to be combatted. Especially in an all women’s campus like Stern, a club promoting gender equality is really important.
And then, negatively, there have been some vicious comments on Facebook about the club. For example, our social media manager posted on our school group about the new club, and there are people who said things like, “Oh, are your meetings going to be held in the cafeteria kitchen?” Which I expected, so it doesn’t come as a large surprise, especially in an Orthodox institution. We take the opposition in stride.
NV: What motivated you to start the YU Feminists Club?
MM: I’ve always been a feminist. I’ve always been very involved in the cause throughout high school and in my personal life. Last semester, Ailin Elyasi [the YU Feminists Club co-president] and I were talking about sexism and how we see it on campus and all around us. We started talking about how great it would be to start a movement at YU, how many people we could touch, how many people we could help. It was an epiphany moment that we could leave our mark on campus.
NV: Many campuses have feminist student groups or groups specifically for Jewish feminists. As an Orthodox institution, what unique feminist issues does YU deal with? What are the problems you want to see addressed at YU?
MM: So, specifically on campus, we just want to break the stigma associated with feminism. The institution has very traditional values.
A lot of the boys, even some girls, have say sexism doesn’t exist. But what they don’t realize is sexism is very ingrained.
Some of the boys will be blatantly sexist. And sometimes they really don’t mean to be but say things that are degrading to women or promote inferiority. They associate feminism with this crazy radical notion that women are going to walk around topless in Times Square. [Laughs]
But it’s about combatting the wage gap, it’s about our daughters and sons knowing women and men are equal… People are like, “Men and women are different. How can they be equal?” But different doesn’t mean inferior.
NV: What’s it like to be a feminist at YU?
MM: Being a feminist on a YU campus, it gets me both positive and negative attention. There are people who mock the whole idea surrounding it or say sexist comments… but it’s allowed other people to come up to me and talk about it and share their experiences. I’m sort of taking it all in stride.
NV: YU is often seen as the core educational institution for centrist Modern Orthodoxy. By engaging the YU community, are you also trying to engage the larger Modern Orthodox community?
MM: Of course we want to reach our fellow students, and it would be great if we could reach the greater Jewish community – Orthodox or Conservative or Reform – and let them know that we are going to combat sexism wherever it exists. It starts with our campus and our students because that’s who we can reach right here and right now.
NV: Tell me about the protest art the Feminists Club put up this month on the Nagel Wall, the wall outside the YU library. What message were you trying to get across, and how did students react?
MM: We were talking on the YU feminist Whatsapp group that we had, and all those negative comments were pouring onto our posts. At first, I was channeling my inner Michelle Obama and saying, “When they go low, we go high… Anger breeds anger. They just want to get to us and incite reactions.” So I told [club members], “We’ll show them we won’t take their bait.”
But it kept getting worse, and I felt like I was sort of letting them down by not taking any action. One of our board members, Racheli Moscowitz, said, “Perhaps we can make a mural of all these sexist posts.” So, what we did is, the different board members got together and we enlarged the comments under our posts and covered the names. We printed out all these comments and also comments from the Facebook page A YU Bochur Says – no one knows his identity, but he posts sexist comments YU students say.
It was sort of just this feeling of… we’re not going to take this sitting down. But we won’t react in a hateful manner. It was kind of like civil disobedience. It got torn down an hour or so later but it got a lot of traction. It did get attention. The very fact that it got torn down shows people know what we’re saying is true and can’t take it, and we’re fine with that.
NV: What’s next for the YU Feminists Club?
MM: Since we’re a brand of feminism rooted in religion, we have two goals. We’re going to hold events featuring women in different careers conquering their fields, people rising in male-dominated fields to tell our student body women can do as much as men can do. Careers have no gender.
On the other hand, we want to bring in religious feminists to talk about how you can be both Orthodox and believe strongly in gender equality.
We’re going to really try to promote the message of equality and combatting injustice wherever we see it in relation to gender.