The surging popularity in the last 40 years of women wearing tallitot has grown as a direct result of the spread of a movement called “Jewish Feminism”. In the United States, the movement can be dated back to the 1970s. The main issues that caused women to form this movement were the exclusion of women from minyans, the lack of ability to function as witnesses and initiate divorce, and –of course – the exclusion of women from time-bound mitzvot, such as wearing tallitot.
The early 70s saw a flurry of articles critiquing the role of the woman in contemporary Jewish society. A group of New York feminists in the conservative movement presented a document they called the “Call for Change” that demanded that, among other things, that women be allowed to perform the time-bound mitzvot (including the wearing of the tallit). With time, the demands outlined in the “Call for Change” eventually came to pass.
Now in types of Judaism besides Orthodox, women can be ordained as rabbis and cantors, can read from the Torah in front of a congregation, are counted in minyans, participate fully in religious observances, and perform the time-bound mitzvot to their choosing. In Orthodox Judaism, this issue of women performing time-bound mitzvot is charged and complicated, and touches on many issues that contemporary Orthodox women struggle with daily.
Because of the sheer visibility of the tallit, wearing a tallit became an initial symbol of Jewish feminism. By changing the appearance of tallitot – adding color, wearing more feminine fabrics such as silk – women were able to claim the prayer item as their own. The simple issue of wearing tallitot raises many more important questions about the role of women in Judaism: Is the appropriation of male symbols an effective way to demonstrate equality? Should women participate in the same rituals as men? Should women create their own rituals, just as they have created their own tallit designs?
Today, in most liberal Jewish communities, there is no longer a strong connection between wearing a tallit and Jewish feminism, as wearing a tallit has become the norm for both genders.