No Candy Store, No Pizza Shops, No Maxi-Skirts, No Makeup”: Socializing Orthodox Jewish Girls Through Schooling

Winter 2016

Source: The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth Volume 9, Number 1


For American Orthodox Jewish girls, Bais Yaakov schools became the primary location of socialization. School administrators clearly articulated curricular learning as secondary to the primary goal of socializing girls to embrace Orthodox Jewish roles and observances. In the 1960s–1980s, disturbed by new trends in society, school leaders imposed new rules and policies, redefining proper Orthodox girlhood. They emphasized modest dress, and restricted coed fraternization and popular culture. Girls engaged in this socialization process and expressed agency in different ways. This resulted in the creation of a hybrid American Orthodox youth culture. While at times they resisted, ultimately girls accepted the values and observances school leaders advanced.

The history of Bais Yaakov girls tells a new story that complicates the narrative of Orthodoxy, gender, and religious education. It shows that education was the primary means by which the dictates of male rabbis were distilled to girls. Considering that rabbinic and school leaders emphasized observance, such as modest dress, in a way that was very gendered, girls and women experienced the religious shift to the right differently than boys and men. Their voices and experiences provide much-needed new perspectives. Furthermore, it shows that this socialization was not a unilateral process. Whether they accepted what they were told or resisted, girls were actively engaged.

Indeed, by strengthening school rules and teaching values, Bais Yaakov school leaders succeeded in changing girls’ behavior and ensuring their commitment to their religious community. While girls were sufficiently aware of the religious socialization happening in school to critique it, the values did speak to them, as evidenced by their general adherence to the messages they received from school leaders. On the whole, Bais Yaakov students chose to accept and adopt the stricter standards and values their schools promoted, and that can be considered an expression of agency as well.

Even in this controlled environment, students found ways to effect some change in the structure of their lives. Students protested and expressed cynicism towards the religious changes imposed upon them. They actively engaged with the socialization process, which resulted in school leaders adapting their expectations in line with the realities of their student body. Finally, girls crafted a hybrid youth culture and found ways to express it within a highly regimented society—even within their schools, the institutions designed to ensure their socialization into community norms.

Updated: Mar. 30, 2016