Modern lessons from a revolutionary feminist

Modern lessons from a revolutionary feminist

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Pauline Hahn at her home. Photo by Joel Aronson
Pauline Hahn at her home. Photo by Joel Aronson

Pauline Hahn fled the sexism of the theater industry and became a feminist. 

A child actor who grew up in the Yiddish Theater, originated several roles on Broadway including Dixie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and starred in the film “Too Young to Love,” she described a harrowing world of endless sexism, harassment, and rape by agents, directors, the press — even a writer for the Folksbiene Theater — that eventually soured her on the industry. “It was a dangerous world. I thought it was only in the theater. Of course, it was everywhere.” 

By the time Hahn left the business, she’d already had more than her share of Harvey Weinstein-type experiences.  

“I realized when a girl child turns into an ingenue, it’s a whole different world,” she said. 

She enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1963 where she began to develop her own ideas about feminism. She thought DH Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” was “awful,” and that students shouldn’t be reading it, she recalled. Armed only with the abuse she’d faced as an actor, and the then-recently published H.R. Hayes’ “The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil,” she started leading what amounted to an informal women’s studies class, comprised of students and faculty. 

The tipping point came when someone from that group brought her to a mysterious meeting at the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan. Four women were in attendance, including Kate Millett, author of “Sexual Politics,” and Shulamith Firestone, who wrote “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.” It was an early meeting of what would become the National Organization for Women. 

When they walked in, she recalled, Millett called out, “I’m writing sex politics.” Hahn was smitten. She came to more meetings, became a core part of the group, and eventually served as floor chair and press spokesperson at the First National Congress to Unite Women in 1969.

On Nov. 5, Hahn will speak about her experiences as a pioneer in the second wave of feminism, entitled “Evening Tea with a Revolutionary” from 6-8 p.m. at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, where she is a member. The talk is free and open to the public.

In an interview with NJJN at Adath Shalom, the Hackettstown resident recalled some of her experiences during those days, and addressed larger questions including what makes a revolutionary, and how she approaches feminism. A short woman, with curly gray hair, and dressed conservatively in a black pantsuit, she holds tight to her principles: She still doesn’t believe in marriage (although she was married, briefly), and bristles at any hint of misogyny in Judaism.

She has her own bitter memory of being chased out of the men’s section of her Lower East Side synagogue at the age of 10, where she had loved sitting with her father. “There’s nothing I can do,” her father told her, when his peers complained. “I walked out and didn’t go back for 40 years. I was excommunicated for being female,” she said.

After reading Torah for the first time in July, she said she made sure to shake the hand of the gabbai, who, in her mind “represents the men who chased me out.” Even seeing the matriarchs included in the opening verses of the Amidah, but on a page following a version without them, she seethes, “It’s hidden so men will not be offended that women exist.”

Like all stories, Hahn’s is complicated. She shied away from the limelight after her early years and so there is little to document her role among feminism’s second wave. But her memory fills those gaps.

Of that first congress, she said, “As far as I can tell, every single woman there thought she was the only one [who had feminist ideas without the language to express them.] It was explosive. Absolutely explosive.”

Of Millett, she said, “She was the smartest, most brilliant of all of them.” “Them” of course, included the likes of Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, and Robin Morgan, as well as Millett and Firestone.

She called those days “heady times” when “Everyone was writing, and everyone was thinking,” and there was a kind of lecture circuit at universities. She remembers one in particular at The Cooper Union. “I don’t think I made many friends that day. In a radical feminist atmosphere, I said, essentially, ‘We can line every man in the world against a wall and force them to say that we’re equal. But, it won’t be true. We’ll only be equal when we produce a Mozart.’” 

She added, “For a little mouse, I must say I’ve always had a big mouth.”

And she recalls the protests — not just the women, but also the men, she said, “You’d see the men line up and shout, ‘What you dykes need is a good lay.’”

Despite the obvious animosity coming from men, Hahn disagreed with those, like Ti-Grace Atkinson, who lived by the slogan “Don’t sleep with the enemy.” Instead, she said, “I dreamed of everyone being inclusive, not a political party. A lot of hostility came into the movement. People wanted to do things out of hatred. I was not into that. I didn’t like what was happening.”

Disappointed and disillusioned, she finished a master’s degree at NYU and left the country. Over the years she has spent time in Vienna, Rome, India, Israel, and a Palestinian village. She has taught in universities, including The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Vassar College, and the County College of Morris, and she continues to write and voice her opinions. 

She believes the cultural center of suburbia is Dunkin Donuts. She loves that her daughter’s friends are making up their own names rather than taking their husbands’. She delighted to see men carrying daughters on their shoulders at the January women’s march in New York City. “That’s a signal difference” from the 1960s.  

And she muses, regarding current issues in Judaism, “If a man feels a woman [sitting] next to him in shul will sully his mind, then he has a sullied mind.”

She chides herself for not looking the part of a revolutionary — for not having purple hair, for wearing “matronly” suits, for not having a beard; for not being brave enough, optimistic enough, or confident enough. But armed with a “sense of truth that is unperturbable,” she said, “Let’s call me a Revolutionary-in-Training. I hope to be much more of a revolutionary before I die.”

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