Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Are You Sure You’re Entitled to That?

Formal Hall at Newnham College, Cambridge

Last summer, I worked with the Montefiore Endowment, London and Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem on a course for fourteen young, mostly Anglo-Jewish potential leaders. Two of our many inspiring sessions were run by Tsuri Schoffman of PresenTense, an organization that helps equip social entrepreneurs with the innovation skills now associated with Start Up Nation.


elevator 2An idea we all loved was the Giving Circle: a group of friends or people with common interests agree to pool their resources and make regular donations to collectively agreed charities. In fact, we loved it so much that we decided to start our own Giving Circle. Last week, Rachel proposed Tzedek, a UK-based charity dedicated to alleviating world poverty, as our cause of the month. I went to the Tzedek website to make my donation, and was amused to find ‘Lord’ on the drop-down list of titles for potential donors.

On reflection, though, I decided there was nothing funny about it. One might wonder why titles are required in the first place but, since they are, clearly donors should be given the full range of titles from which to select. (If anyone from Tzedek is reading this, I recommend replacing Reverend with Rabbi, but I’m sure you have your reasons.)

Titles convey information deemed significant by the society using them about the people who bear them. By definition, titles differentiate, and like most types of differentiation, they are value-laden. For example, English-speaking countries give women the option to indicate their marital status by their choice of title (Miss or Mrs). Indeed, until the introduction of ‘Ms’, women had no alternative. Men, by contrast, are unable to indicate whether or not they are married by the title they choose; unmarried adult men can’t call themselves ‘Master’. This difference between men and women reflects social values, not natural order.

For most of my life, I didn’t care about titles (though Ms always sounds like a putdown — see the talkback in my blog last week). But that’s changed. My name is Diana Lipton and I’m married, but I’m not Mrs Lipton. My first husband, Peter Lipton z”l, passed away. I chose to keep his name, but I’m no longer his wife. ‘Mrs Lipton’ is thus misleading.

Luckily, I have a way out of this conundrum: I can call myself ‘Dr Lipton’. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s one thing for me to use Dr, and quite another to persuade others to use it. My late husband, Peter, was ‘Professor’, as is my husband, Chaim. If I had a shekel for every envelope I’ve opened in the past twenty years addressed to Professor Peter and Mrs Diana Lipton, or Professor Chaim Milikowsky and Mrs Diana Lipton, I could make a very large donation to Tzedek!

Most people writing to us are well aware that we both have professional titles, but apparently, one is enough. And it’s never mine. I’m Mrs on bills, travel documents, hotel registers, place cards at many weddings and functions … the list goes on. More upsetting, at least one student in every university class I teach here calls me Mrs, even though my syllabus includes my qualifications to teach the course (for my students, not for my sake).

Last Shabbat, a graduate student at Hebrew University joined us for dinner — along with one of America’s first female neurosurgeons, currently on sabbatical at Pardes! The graduate student told us that her female PhD supervisor is known (not by choice) to many students as ‘Professor Elisheva’. How often do students speak about ‘Professor Moshe’, I wondered? It sounds like kindergarten role-play from the 1960s: I’ll be Nurse Susie and you be Doctor Sam. As others have pointed out, ‘Hillary’ is an example of a similar phenomenon.

I don’t take it personally that people don’t acknowledge my qualifications, and that’s the precisely the point. It’s nothing personal that the title I earned with as much effort as my two husbands earned theirs is so often overlooked. It’s a reflection of gender values and assumptions in the countries in which we interact. In the UK, US and Israel, as in many other countries, qualifications are worth more when awarded to men than to women.

This inequality has broad implications. Women face higher hurdles when it comes to professional recognition, appropriate salaries and, as we saw recently, even as sellers on eBay. And then there’s the battle being waged over what to call Orthodox Jewish women who qualify in the same or a similar course of study that would entitle a man to call himself Rabbi.

The resistance to using women’s titles may also explain why it can be harder for women than men to speak about their accomplishments. I’m in the final stages of writing and editing a Torah commentary on food. Here’s a sneak preview of the cover:

Forbidden Fruit Final CoverThe commentary includes short essays on food in each parasha, written by 52 different academics and Jewish educators. Half the contributors are women (that was unplanned). Last week, one of them, a close friend, sent me an edited version of her essay. She had shortened her biographical details, she said, omitting references to the universities she’d attended and the prizes she’d won; she was afraid of bragging. I replied that it was up to her, but I hoped she’d put them back. In my experience, men who don’t mention their qualifications and accomplishments are assumed to be modest. Women who don’t mention theirs, are assumed to be unqualified and unaccomplished.

My friend’s fear of bragging reminded me of a conversation I had with the Principal of the Cambridge women’s college where I was Admissions Tutor. My job included overseeing the undergraduate selection process and encouraging applications. Encouraging seventeen-year-old girls to apply to a women’s college was not trivial, even though Newnham was part of Cambridge university and all lectures were co-ed. Some students who ended up coming felt second-class. The brightest and best, they mistakenly thought, went to mixed colleges.

Every academic year started with a big dinner for the ‘freshers’ (new students) in the college dining hall. The Principal gave a formal welcome. She was a brilliant woman, but these speeches were rather generic: Your future is ahead of you, make the most of your time here, and so forth. I wanted our new students to feel pride in their particular college.

Formal Hall
Formal Hall at Newnham College, Cambridge

After a couple of years, I plucked up courage to speak to the Principal: Onora, you’ve recently appeared on a list of the 50 most powerful women in Britain, and you’ve just been made a Baroness for your contribution to Philosophy. In your welcome speech this year, please tell our students about your accomplishments; let them bask in your reflected glory, and feel pride in their college. Diana, she replied, you’ll never persuade me to boast.

Onora chose not to speak about her achievements because she was modest, a virtue instilled by her seriously illustrious family. But there was a time in Newnham’s history when women were not given the choice to be modest. Even thinking about the story I’m about to tell makes me emotional.

The Cambridge Mathematics department, one of the world’s finest, has a distinctive way of announcing its degree results. All the final year undergraduates assemble in a large university hall, and their names are read out in ascending order, corresponding to their exam results. The student who comes top in the year is designated ‘Senior Wrangler’, which sounds strange, but carries huge prestige in that world.

The first Cambridge women’s colleges were founded in 1869 and 1871. Female students pursued the same studies and took the same examinations as male students, but they were not awarded university degrees until 1948. In 1890, the highest result in the final year university Maths exams was achieved by a Newnham student called Philippa Fawcett. But since the university did not award degrees to women, she couldn’t be Senior Wrangler. The person reading out the list of results mentioned neither her name nor her historic achievement.

Phillipa Fawcett

Last week, Vice-President Joe Biden and Dr Jill Biden were visiting Israel. On International Women’s Day, Sara Netanyahu took Jill Biden to visit Studio of Her Own, an art gallery for religious women in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of SanMartine in the Katamonim. (An exhibit of their work just opened at the American Center on Keren HaYesod.) A colleague sent me a YouTube video of the visit.

A young religious woman is talking about her work. At 1.18 minutes, Sara Netanyahu poses what seems to be a question with an obvious answer. Looking at the paintings on the wall, she asks, So you’re a painter? Inadvertently or otherwise, Mrs Netanyahu presented this young woman with a wonderful opportunity. Yes, she replied, I’m a painter. Not, I paint a bit in my spare time. But, I’m a painter. Not, this is what I sometimes do. But, this is what by qualification and commitment I am entitled to call myself: a painter. We can all learn from her.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.