Note: This blog post is reprinted with permission and originally appeared on the Gender & Society blog.
by Helana Darwin
One night while I was watching Transparent, a particular scene caught my attention. The young female rabbi is explaining how difficult it is to be in a masculinized profession without losing her sense of femininity and sexiness. To demonstrate her point, she takes off her kippah (a small skullcap that is traditionally worn by Jewish men, otherwise known as a yarmulke) and proclaims “Sexy!” Then she places the garment back on her head and makes a face, announcing “Not sexy.” The other character smilingly assents to her point.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene. My thoughts drifted to all of the women pursuing rabbinic ordination at the seminary where I had just earned my Master’s degree in Jewish Studies. Most of them wore kippot (plural of kippah), like the rabbi in Transparent. Did they similarly struggle with feeling like their kippah cancelled out their femininity or sexiness? Could this possibly explain why more women do not wear kippot , despite the transnational Jewish feminist push to embrace masculinized Jewish practices? Since the 1970s, Jewish women have boldly fought for their right to full inclusion within Judaism, and yet the sight of a woman in a kippah remains rare. Why?
I couldn’t find an answer within academic databases. The vast majority of feminist head-covering research focuses on whether or not the hijab is oppressive or empowering to Muslim women who wear it. The general consensus among feminist scholars today seems to be that this is a false dichotomy; in reality, the hijab has different meanings to different women, depending on a number of factors including their nationality, parentage, local culture, and age. While this academic debate has been fruitful, it has rarely extended beyond the gender-normative case study of the hijab. This trend within the literature struck me as regrettably limited.
How, I wondered, do women who wear kippot reconcile their seemingly contradictory religious and gender scripts? Given my connections within the Jewish community, I realized that I was well-positioned to conduct this research. Indeed, within 24 hours of sending out my survey link, I had already received more than 400 responses. Additionally, I was also flooded by effusive emails, from respondents who wished to thank me for giving them a chance to clarify the meanings of their practice. In total, I collected responses from 576 Jewish women across the globe who wear kippot. I have derived two articles from this data so far. The first article focuses on the religious meanings of women’s kippah practice. It is called “Jewish Women’s Kippot: Meanings and Motives” and it is published in the journal Contemporary Jewry. The second article is significantly more theoretical and focuses on the extra-religious meanings associated with the practice. It is called “Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion,” and is in the current issue of Gender & Society.
“Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion” illuminates a new angle of the gender/religion nexus through this open-ended survey data, demonstrating how these two axes of accountability are intertwined. Jewish women have historically been exempt from the majority of Jewish ritual practices due to an anachronistic assumption that they are too busy with child-rearing and other domestic tasks. As a result, practices and customs such as wearing the kippah have become masculinized. When women assume such a historically masculinized practice, they render themselves vulnerable to gender-policing and a parallel process that I call “Jewish-policing.” According to those who hold themselves (and others) accountable to the patriarchal tradition, these women are neither “doing femininity” properly, “doing Jewish properly,” nor “doing Jewish womanhood” properly. Although some Jewish cultural fields embrace a shift towards egalitarianism, the women remain accountable to their more traditional coreligionists beyond the confines of these progressive spaces.
The women in this study utilize a range of strategies to internally reconcile the tensions between the traditional script of gendered Judaism and their egalitarian values: some feminize the kippah so as to affirm their gender-normativity while doing Judaism differently; others utilize the kippah’s masculine-encoding to do Jewish womanhood differently. However, regardless of the women’s efforts to internally legitimize their practice, they remain externally accountable to their traditional coreligionists, who perceive their practice as a politically motivated statement. In response, some women go to great lengths to discursively distance themselves from feminism, insisting that they desire inclusion within tradition rather than an end to Jewish tradition itself. Others embrace their association with feminism, using their hypervisibility to begin conversations with coreligionists about gender equality within Judaism.
These results lend new insight into how gender and religion function as mutually constitutive categories: while men can simply “do Jewish” by wearing the kippah, women are not afforded such a gender-blind privilege. Rather, coreligionists perceive women who wear kippot as automatically doing something other than Judaism, something that is inherently gendered and political—such as “doing religious feminism.” It appears that these two systems of accountability (gender ideology and religious ideology) remain inextricably linked to one another, despite evidence of an egalitarian shift within certain Jewish fields. Future research about gender norms/ideologies should consider religious background along with the more commonly included variables, given this evidence.
Helana Darwin Sociology doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University who is on the market. Her research highlights the regulatory impact of the gender binary system through a wide range of case studies. Recent publications include “Doing Gender Beyond the Binary: a virtual ethnography,” published by Symbolic Interaction and “Omnivorous Masculinity: gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture,” published by Social Currents. Learn more about Helana’s research at helanadarwin.com.