by Katie Halper

The Feminism of Camp Kinderland


Though I didn’t know the words feminism or cultural studies or film theory, I was moonlighting as a feminist film critic by the age of five. Preferring musical movies to cartoons, I would point out how films like Grease and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were “prejudiced against women.” It wasn’t until around age seven that I started using the word sexism, after a babysitter confirmed my belief that Sandy Olsson’s changing for Danny, and not the other way around, was, indeed sexist–as was the whole kidnapping of women scene in Seven Brides. When I saw Pretty Woman, I told my parents that the movie was “feminist. Not activist feminist, but feminist.” To this day, I’m not sure what I meant exactly. But I was onto something, I’m sure.

Believe it or not, neither calling out sexism nor being obsessed with musicals made me very popular at my school. In middle school, my classmates would mock my vigilance, saying “Katie, look at the chalk board! It’s sexist, right?” Or “That volleyball is so sexist, right Katie?”

Luckily, I had a place where my feminism was embraced and not rejected: my summer camp. Founded in 1923 by Jewish communist and socialist workers, most of whom were Yiddish-speaking immigrants, Camp Kinderland was a second home to me, as it had been to my mother and my grandmother.  Over the years, its politics have gotten it into trouble. It was almost shut down during the McCarthy era, and more recently it was attacked by the right wing, including Rush Limbaugh, when it was discovered that an Obama nominee had sent her children to this “extremist,” “left wing, Jewish summer camp.” The camp’s commitment to equality for women was a part of its larger commitment to equality for all, justice and fairness. Its rejection of sexism went hand in hand with its rejection of all oppressions and prejudices, whether they were based on gender, sexual orientation, race or class.

At age 11, when I went to Kinderland for the first time, I found a feminist haven. You couldn’t walk into a bunk without tripping over a copy of the book Our Bodies, Ourselves. Speaking of bunks, they are named not only after male heroes such as Pablo Neruda and Joe Hill but after female heroes as well.  Harriet Tubman, Emma Lazarus, Ernestine Rose. Kids make dreamcatchers (of course) in the Käthe Kollwitz arts and crafts shack. And when you were sick you go to the Lillian Wald infirmary. Recently, after the camp built a new bunk, the name of Audre Lorde, the lesbian feminist African American poet and activist was in the running.You know your camp is feminist when it changes the words to lefty classics. For the final verse of “I’m Sticking to the Union,” Woody Guthrie wrote,

You gals who want to be free, just take a tip from me; Get you a man who’s a union man and join the ladies’ auxiliary.
Married life ain’t hard when you got a union card,
A union man has a happy life when he’s got a union wife. 

But at Kinderland, we sang sang,

You women who want to be free, just take a little tip from me
Break out of that mold we’ve all been sold, you got a fighting history
The fight for women’s rights, with workers must unite
Like Mother Jones, bestir them bones, to the front of every fight.

While other camps play the color wars, a competitive sports tournament, Kinderland hosts the World Peace Olympics and names its teams not after colors but social movements, organizations and organizers. One year I was on the Mother Jones team and my best friend was on Ida B. Wells.

But as anyone who has taken Women Studies 101 or tried to date a feminist knows, the personal is political. It’s easy to espouse feminist ideals but often, hard, especially for men, to put them into practice. And sexist behavior wasn’t unheard of at Kinderland. Once, in a now notorious anecdote, during a 1989 Olympics basketball game a male counselor told a female counselor to get off the court and go to the arts and crafts shack where she belonged.

Macho sports-inspired slurs are surely not unique to Kinderland. But what is unique is the serious thought and policy adjustment that went into the camp’s response. The programming director, Ira Polanksy, stopped the Olympics. He spoke to the offender, the victim and the camp as a whole. He recalls that there were calls for the male counselor’s termination. But Ira explains, “You don’t fire people. You work with them.” He wanted to turn the incident into a teachable moment which would raise consciousness about sexism and the camp’s commitment to feminism. Ira and the rest of the administration decided that basketball, with its limited number of players on a team and meager engagement of girls in school and after-school classes, was too exclusive and lent itself too easily to sexism. So, Kinderland officially abolished basketball as an Olympics sport, replacing it with the much more inclusive and much less testosterone-producing and dependent game of Ultimate Frisbee.  


Upcoming screenings of Commie CampKatie Halper’s new documentary about Camp Kinderland

The Boston Jewish Film Festival 
Saturday, November 9th at 6:30 at The Coolidge Corner Theater at 290 Harvard Street, Brookline MA 02446

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival
Tuesday, November 5th at 7pm at The Gershman Y at 401 South Broad Street, Philadelphia

The Gold Coast International Film Festival
Time and date TBA but the festival is October 21-27 at Great Neck Arts Center 113 Middle Neck Road Great Neck, NY 11021

The Big Eddy Film Festival
Time and date TBA but the festival is September 20-22
The Tusten Theatre at 210 Bridge Street, Narrowsburg, NY

Tuscon Jewish FIlm Festival
Date TBA but between January 16-25, 2014


Katie Halper (writer, director, producer): Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she has taught history and Spanish) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.”


© 2011 Lilith Magazine