Golda’s Ambiguous Legacy

Why this extraordinary woman gave us Zionism without feminism

It was customary in Israel to refer to Golda Meir as “the best man in the Cabinet.”

This popular remark conveys at one and the same time the public admiration for this unique woman’s achievements and the patriarchal context of the society in which she rose to the top. For, contrary to myth, Israel is hardly an egalitarian society. The 1978 report of the Commission to Appraise the Status of Women in Israel revealed that the participation of women in all levels of public service is very low, and that it declines as the position becomes more powerful and prestigious. This unequal situation prevails in the social and economic spheres as well.

Golda, therefore, cannot be viewed as either the symbol or the product of an egalitarian society. How, then, should she be viewed by feminists? Of what significance is her career from a feminist point of view? How did she make it to the top? How did she come to be the only woman accepted as a full-fledged member of the tiny elite group of top decision-makers, the only Minister With Portfolio, the only woman Prime Minister?

Golda was first and foremost a political animal. She was exposed to politics at an early age and displayed an interest in public activities while yet a child. Wherever she went—the local Labor Zionist chapter, the kibbutz, the Labor Party—she quickly joined the inner circle of policy makers.

Was it the “iron will and bossiness” she inherited from Bobbe Golde—the great-grandmother for whom she was named and to whom she bore a striking resemblance? her extraordinary talent for organizing people and applying policy? her tendency outward—away from her parents’ home where she did not get enough attention and understanding?

Golda did not have a happy childhood. Born in Kiev, Czarist Russia, in 1898, she was the sixth of seven children in the Mabovitch family, but only the second to survive (four children died in infancy).

In her early childhood she experienced miserable poverty; overt and violent anti-Semitism; the absence of a father, who had gone to America, the “goldene medina,” to earn a living; and a tense, sometimes hostile relationship between her mother and her elder sister, Sheyna. Sheyna, nine years older than Golda, and, according to Golda “one of the great influences of my life,” was a political revolutionary. “Goldele,” by the age of five, alert and eager to understand, had already been exposed to political meetings where socialism and Zionism were heatedly debated.

When she was eight years old Golda immigrated with her family to Milwaukee. At age 11, the little girl by now known as Goldie formed an association, rented a hall and raised funds to enable her classmates to purchase school textbooks.

Goldie wanted to learn, to go to high school and become a teacher. Her parents objected: “Men don’t like smart girls.” Yet she insisted on “the right to do as I wanted,” and at age 14 ran away from home and enrolled in a high school in Denver. Two years later she returned home and soon distinguished herself—first as a local, then a national activist in the Labor Zionist movement.

At age 23, now married to Morris Meyerson, a gentle, apolitical man, she fulfilled her dream and made aliyah. Three years at Kibbutz Merhavia, four years in Jerusalem, and Golda, mother of two and separated from her husband, launched a formidable, meteoric career in Israeli politics.

The story is well known: in Mandatory Palestine she was a member of the core elite which led the Yishuv (Jewish community) to independence. She was a member of the Executive Committee of the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor), head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, and negotiator with the Mandatory Government. After Israel gained independence, she served first as ambassador to the Soviet Union, then six years as Minister of Labor, nine years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and, finally, five years as Prime Minister. Even a staunch opponent such as dovish leader Aryeh (Lyova) Eliav called her achievements outstanding and her contribution to Israel invaluable.

Golda opposed, even ridiculed the feminist movement, especially later in her life, when she was internationally known and looked to by millions of women as a role model and for moral support.

True, Golda rose to power at a time when every contribution counted, when competition was not as tight, and when the environment was much more sensitive to gender equality and more supportive of women. However, these factors should not blind us to Golda’s unique qualities, her talents, energy, and, above all, her iron will and her total devotion to public activity. Golda was not one of those mothers who first raise their children and then enter politics. Neither did she settle for a compromising balance between the call of office and the demands of family life. She was as tenacious about her career as any ambitious, determined man, devoting endless time and energy to it, and sacrificing the joys of family life as much as any man would.

Golda opposed, even ridiculed the feminist movement, especially later in her life, when she was internationally known and looked to by millions of women as a role model and for moral support. She isolated the most unpopular and radical elements of the feminist movement and presented them as representatives of the feminist philosophy. In her 1973 interview with Oriana Fallaci, she said of feminists:

You mean those nuts who burn their bras and walk around all disheveled and hate men? They’re crazy. Crazy. How can one accept crazy creatures who deem it a misfortune to get pregnant and a disaster to give birth to children?

One is dumbfounded at the distortion. Indeed, it takes extraordinary political shrewdness to strip a philosophy so, and present marginal manifestations as its core.

Why did Golda oppose feminism so vehemently? Was she really, as she asserted in the Fallaci interview, never hindered by the fact that she was a woman? One is tempted to answer with Golda’s favorite word— “nonsense.” For who learned, at age 14, that married women were not allowed by state law to work as teachers?—Golda. Who could not enter Canada because married women could not take up their own citizenship then?—Golda. Who was barred from speaking in the synagogue because she was a woman? Whose candidacy was originally rejected by the kibbutz because an American girl neither “could . .. [nor] . . . would do the extremely tough physical work . . .” and because the kibbutz’s 30 bachelors wanted single, not married women? Who lost the municipal election in Tel Aviv, as late as 1955, only for the reason that she was a woman?—Golda, and again Golda.

Throughout her career, she told Fallaci, “men were good to me.” Implied in this is the obvious: men were not as “good” to other women. They singled her out of the multitude of women. What she got she was given as a matter of privilege, not of right. Furthermore, not only did she have to join their world and play their game—she could not have made it had she not accepted unconditionally the rules of the game of the male world—but she also recognized, as she admitted to Fallaci, that “to be successful, a woman has to be much better at her job than a man.”

Golda’s sufferings because she was a woman were acute. It was Golda who had to sever relations with her parents at age 14 because she could not accept the traditional sex roles they expected of her. It was Golda who separated from her husband after four miserable years as a full-time mother and wife because “I yearned for purposeful, interesting life.” As she explained to Fallaci:

Domestic felicity wasn’t enough for me: I needed to do what I was doing! To give it up would have seemed to me . . . [a] dishonesty toward myself.

How, then could she not realize that what was claimed for herself should also be claimed for other women?

The conventional explanation is simply that her consciousness was not raised. Had she been aware of the feminist analysis, she surely would have become a feminist. Alas, she did have ample opportunity. As a teenager in Denver, she was present at endless political discussions about women’s role in society. The suffragists’ campaign for equality did not escape her attention. In the kibbutz, her female comrades presented to her the feminist conception of equality. She was aware, yet she single-mindedly, determinedly brushed it aside. Zionism and only Zionism was her cause.

This single-mindedness explains in part her blindness to feminism. Her traumatic encounter with anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia may have led her to recognize Zionism as the overwhelming cause to which her total energy should be devoted. We also know that she thought that sex inequality would be ended once Zionism materialized. For she considered socialism to be part of Zionism, and under socialism, she thought, equality would be obtained. It is well known that she recognized the hardships placed upon women by the nuclear family, and that she considered the kibbutz, with its communal services and communal child care, the only adequate answer to the Woman Question.

But there are other explanations, much more speculative, which should nevertheless be aired. The first has to do with her personal background. She grew up in a home where she was surrounded by two energetic, strong-willed and outspoken women—her mother and Sheyna. She barely knew her father until she was eight, and he was a gentle, unassertive man. Sheyna had a decisive influence upon her. She tells us that she left Sheyna’s house in Denver, where she had found shelter from home, because her sister was too “bossy.”

Maybe the indifference to feminism stems from her resentment of these strong women who so influenced her: a rebellion against the decisive personalities in her life and an attempt to show that she could do better. Indeed, she was known for her dislike of other active women—beginning in the kibbutz, where the only comrades she did not like were the women, and ending with her ferocious, relentless fight at the peak of her career against civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni, whom she drove out of the Labor Party.

Golda needed to be unique, singled out. Being one of the precious few women in politics gave her that gratification. The pursuit of feminism would have brought in many more women and made her ordinary. Note, in this connection, what she told Fallaci she would like her children to say about her: “Yes, our mother did neglect us too much . . . but . . . being what she was, she gave us so much more than an ordinary mother.” Do we hear some disdain for ordinary women, those who adhere to traditional stereotypes?

Another possible explanation which may throw light on the evolution of her attitude to feminism from indifference to opposition relates to her experiences and feelings as a mother. Golda had acute guilt feelings toward her children which became increasingly pronounced as she grew old. When they were young and needed her attention most, especially since their father was not at home, she was either preoccupied with her work or away. Golda was deeply disturbed by the deprivation she felt she had inflicted upon them, although she also felt that she could not have done otherwise. One way in which she tried to redeem herself was by carefully cultivating the image of a devoted grandmother. Her emphasis on the “natural” traditional sex role went well with her rejection of feminism. One wonders if these guilt feelings did not lead her subconsciously to use her powerful position to prevent other women from repeating her “mistakes.”

During the first six years of the State, Golda was in a key position to mold the status of women. As Minister of Labor, she aggressively pushed for and passed an impressive complex of labor legislation which consolidated the rights of workers, men and women. Indeed, this was one of Golda’s shining achievements. The legislation she passed for the protection of working women was much more progressive than any available in the West at that time. The prohibition against firing a woman because she was pregnant, the mandatory, paid maternity leave, and others enhanced the status of women.

But some of these provisions, considered from the feminist point of view, were also subversive of gender equality. The mandatory, non-optional, maternity leave; the prohibition on night work for women; the earlier retirement age for women—all designed to protect “women as women”—encouraged and institutionalized the concept of double roles for women.

This scheme made women perform their traditional sex roles at home and, at the same time, try to develop a career outside the home. What actually happened was that the incompatibility between these two sets of roles meant that women would develop a moderate, unpretentious career which would not jeopardize their traditional role too much. Women in Israel grew up to believe that this was the only legitimate way for them.

Turned off by Golda’s performance as mother and wife, Israeli women also came to equate political activity with paying a dear price in terms of family life. Didn’t Golda herself “prove” that maintaining double roles successfully was impossible?

Israeli feminists thus remain deeply ambivalent about the saga and the legacy of Golda Meir—proud of her achievements, puzzled by her rejection of feminism. Puzzled because, as far as her own life was concerned, what Golda wanted was the opportunity to be a person and to break out of traditional stereotypes and sex roles. And this is precisely what the noble, profound philosophy of feminism advocates.

Pnina Lahav is a lecturer in constitutional law at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She is presently spending her sabbatical at Harvard, where she is writing a book on freedom of expression in Israel. She dedicates this article to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Naomi Lahav, a pioneer and kibbutz number in the 1930s, who “represents those hundreds of women who upheld the cause of women’s rights and laid the foundations for sex-equality in Israel.”