When Lilly Rivlin was a master’s student in international relations at the University of California, Berkeley, her department head told her she would have been a candidate for a teaching-assistant job, but that since she was planning to marry and have children, the position was being offered to a man instead. The following day, Rivlin recounts now, she began organizing Berkeley students, both male and female, to change the situation on campus.
That incident occurred in 1962. In the years that followed, Rivlin became an active figure in the so-called “second wave” of feminist activism (which focused on equality in the job market and society in general, as opposed to voting and property rights, which were the principal objects of the first wave). She not only demonstrated, protested and took part in a number of organizing efforts. And so she began filming.
Over the years, Rivlin created a number of documentary movies, some of which dealt with the feminist revolution. The most recent of them, “Heather Booth: Changing the World,” is now being aired on the Public Broadcasting Service, in the U.S. The movie will be screened in the Women’s Wage Peace Tent on June 25th at 6:30pm and the Jerusalem Cinemateque in Jerusalem in August. Date to be set.
Rivlin, 81, has lived in the United States for most of her life, but she was born in Jerusalem, to a family that by then had been there for seven generations. One of her cousins is none other than Reuven Rivlin, longtime Knesset member from Likud and currently Israel’s president. When she was 8 years old, in 1945, she emigrated with her parents to the U.S. At 17, she came to Israel on the Machon Le’madrechi Chutz Laretz. In 1963 she married an Israeli and they lived in Jerusalem for several years. At the time she also opened a discotheque, called Pop-Up, in the city.
“That was after I had already studied and been an activist at Berkeley. I didn’t tell my friends there about the discotheque, I didn’t want them to know that I had done such a thing,” she laughs. Later on, in the United States, she also worked as a journalist, writing for such periodicals as Newsweek, Ms. and The Washington Post.
Feminist activist Heather Booth, the subject of Rivlin’s new work, was a member of the Jane Collective, an underground women’s medical group in Chicago. Known officially as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, the group functioned between 1969 and 1973, which is the year of the historic Roe v. Wade ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined that women had a constitutional right to abortions.
The film is the third in a trilogy of Rivlin’s films about pioneering feminists of her generation. The first of the three films, from 2010, “Grace Paley: Selected Shorts,” was about the acclaimed writer and activist Grace Paley. That was followed in 2013 by “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women,” about the novelist and co-author of the first “Women’s Haggadah,” in 1975. When E.M. Broner and other activists held the first feminist Passover seder in her New York apartment in 1976, it was revolutionary (the participants included Gloria Steinem, who is interviewed in the film); today women around the world hold seders of this type regularly.
Rivlin has made other films, but she is proudest of this trilogy, each of whose parts tells fascinating stories about the struggle for human rights in America in the second half of the 20th century. First and foremost, this is the feminist struggle, but the work also encompasses resistance to racism, anti-war activity, among other causes.
More than once, watching the films, I was struck by the similarities between Rivlin herself and her subjects. True, agrees Rivlin, adding, “After I made the film about Grace Paley, someone on some panel said to me: ‘Don’t you think that you’re actually making films about yourself?’ And it’s true. I make films about what I know.” In her life and her films she fulfills the feminist slogan “The personal is political.”
You and your friends have chalked up tremendous achievements. And now, after all those years, a person like Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, with all that implies. Had you been asked, half a century ago, how the status of women would look in 2018, what do you think you would have replied?
“When you’re an activist, you don’t think, you just do. I would be happy had we achieved more. For example, if Hillary Clinton had been elected. I think that what’s most important is that we achieved recognition of the fact that women’s rights are human rights. We have achieved that, almost. Not everywhere in the world, but in America we have. On the other hand, Trump’s election is terrible for America. How can the MeToo movement operate when the president himself is a predator?”
How does one resolve this dissonance?
“Dissonance is a part of the human condition. I haven’t studied why 43 percent of women voted for Trump. The partial answer is likely to be that there are women who still do what their husbands want, they’re dependent on them.”
The conversation with Rivlin takes place mainly in English, but she knows Hebrew and is aware that in her mother tongue, the word for “husband,” “ba’al,” also has the meaning of “owner.” She is also aware of her own privileges. “I’m lucky that I could do what I want,” although she says it helps that she is both stubborn and has felt passion about her work.
Rivlin sees the MeToo movement as a milestone for the feminist struggle, but at the same time, she agrees with quite a number of feminists of her generation, that, “When it comes to MeToo, we have to be very cautious. We have to maintain dialogue between women and men. Not to distance men from the discussion.”
Nobody is saying that there’s no need for dialogue, but you know, there’s the famous saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
“We’re bringing about a revolution through our activity. We don’t have to be well-behaved, but there must be dialogue. I agree that a struggle is necessary, and the struggle continues. Always. I mean that we have to talk to one another. It’s become too much. I don’t want to cut off the discussion with men.”
Regarding violence and harassment, says Rivlin, when a woman isn’t interested in a man, she has to make that clear very firmly.
So it’s the woman who’s responsible, not the man? There’s also socialization: Girls and women are educated to be pleasant and not aggressive, while we smile at a “mischievous” boy.
“So you – both men and women – have to fight that.”
According to Rivlin, in Israel, women are still related to as sexual objects to a large extent, certainly in billboards, for example. But isn’t that something we learned from America, I ask her. Nonetheless, responds Rivlin, the exploitation is less blatant in the U.S., and she offers a possible explanation: “In every imitation, there’s exaggeration. I saw that when I lived in Israel too.”
In addition to her feminist activity, but also combined with it, Rivlin has a substantial record of activity for promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. She says that in the past she visited Damascus as well as Egypt and Jordan, years before Israelis could enter the latter two countries. In 1990, she conceived of and shot the photographs for the book “When Will the Fighting Stop: A Child’s View of Jerusalem,” about Jerusalem through the eyes of a 6-year-old boy living there.
Today, of course, the end of the fighting seems more distant than ever. And in fact, regarding the present situation she sees things realistically: “The problem is political will,” she says. “Neither side wants this conflict to end.”
In her 2006 film “Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace” she portrayed Israeli and Palestinian women who are working to solve the conflict between the two peoples.
Do you believe that if women lead the process there will be a greater chance for peace?
“Yes. I’ve always believed that women can make peace. Just as the activists of Women Wage Peace say today, it’s not a left-wing viewpoint. For both the right and the left, peace would be a good thing. Until people understand that, it won’t work. I always thought that women were more aware and can communicate better than men. And in my experience that has also proved itself.”
But it will take a lot of women, she adds. But, she adds, one woman, like Tzipi Livni, or several women, is not enough. “The way I showed in my films is that women must organize. If we organize, we can change the world. If we don’t organize and go out, nothing will happen.”
Political differences with her cousin
In her 1984 film, “The Tribe,” Rivlin looked at some of these same issues at the level of extended family. Which leads to her famous cousin, President Rivlin. It’s impossible to ignore the difference between her opinions and those of the longtime Likud politician. Various belligerent protesters today may perceive the president as “left-wing,” but to one who remembers Rivlin’s long years as a MK for the right-wing Herut and Likud parties and as a supporter of the settlement enterprise, that can sound like a joke.
Did their political differences affect their relationship? “Yes, we had a very serious quarrel, I stopped talking to him for seven years,” reveals Rivlin. “But I’m not sure that he noticed,” she adds with a smile. That was almost 30 years ago. “I called him and told him that I was lobbying for the Women of the Wall,” she says, “and he yelled at me. He said: ‘You’re just a provocateur.’”
But today, that’s water under the bridge. The Revisionist ideologue has become a statesmanlike president, with moderate and liberal views, including on the stalled plan to improve women’s access to the Western Wall. And he and his cousin Lilly have reconciled personally, thanks, she says, to the help of Avshalom Vilan, a former Meretz MK.
And what does the cousin from American think of President Rivlin today? “I think that the nice thing about him is that he continues to learn and develop,” she replies. “I see that the position, the term as president, is shaping him just as much as he is shaping it. Somebody said to me: You and Ruvi aren’t so different. I’m not president, of course,” she laughs, and then becomes serious:
“His respect for the Other makes a big impression on me. In America they sometimes don’t understand him, so I tell them about his father,” she says, referring to Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, her uncle, who translated the Koran and “One Thousand and One Nights” into Hebrew from Arabic. “When I was in kindergarten, I used to say that he was my father, I worshiped him as a child.”
Coming back to the failed attempt of Hillary Clinton to become U.S. president, Lilly sees the silver lining: “At least we reached the moment when a woman ran for president. We got there. Next time it will be easier. Think about that compared to what I told you earlier about the department head in Berkeley who said to me, ‘Miss Rivlin...’”
It’s true. Today, probably no woman earning an M.A. would be denied a job as teaching assistant on the grounds Rivlin was in 1962. And still, we are witness to the gap between the high percentage of women with advanced academic degrees and the percentage of women in executive jobs and with high earnings.
Some people will say that it’s partly due to their choice. Some will say that we have to turn the entire pyramid upside down, so that we don’t take it for granted that it’s more important to be a female CEO than to be a full-time mother. These are definitely legitimate arguments, if we ignore the not-so-minor financial implications.
Whatever the case, the “two steps forward, one step back” pattern is still relevant. We are definitely no longer in 1962, thanks to women like Lilly Rivlin and many other fighters, but the distance traveled since then may be less than we would like to think.
Lilly Rivlin is part of the PARTNERS FOR A PROGRESSIVE ISRAEL SYMPOSIUM which is completing its meetings this week.