The Illusion of Progress, the Realities of Change

The redemption of the land, as contributing equally to the economic development which was just commencing.

When I began my university teaching career on January 1, 1950, as many women as men filled the packed rooms. Excellent kindergartens and cheap, reliable, home-based childcare made it possible for mothers to be gainfully employed outside their homes. Israeli women were, by and large, the envy of their European and American contemporaries.

Yet in 1975, when Israel marked International Women’s Year by establishing a Commission on the Status of Women, the data collected revealed a surprising and sorry state of under-privilege, disadvantage, and non-representation.

Women Members of Knesset (MK) constitute only eight percent of our legislators: Israel has not a single woman mayor or head of local authority, very few women executives and only a comparatively small number of female senior civil servants.

Israel has neither women rabbis nor—with one or two very rare exceptions—talmidot chachamot (women sages).

We are legitimately proud of having been in the vanguard of egalitarian legislation: equality of status, like equal pay, has been on the books since the 1950s. For a long time, we were also proud of that legislation which gave certain discriminatory advantages to women fulfilling their biologically unique role as mothers: fully paid maternity leave for twelve weeks, sick leave to care for a child who falls ill.

These privileges are now increasingly seen as in fact militating against equality of opportunity. The kibbutz experience has opened our eyes to the fact that, so long as it is women only who are perceived as responsible for childcare and childrearing, and so long as homemaking remains an occupation that is neither financially rewarded nor afforded social status, there will be no true equality between women and men.

Those of us who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, perceived that the women’s liberation movement then sweeping the U.S. was as relevant politically and socially to Israel as to other countries, were at that time dismissed for “importing (our) Western complexes” into the Israeli Utopia.

The legitimacy of our critical contentions is at last being recognized. The Knesset and local elections of 1984 had their own impact. Seeing women politicians swept aside, rejected or demoted as candidates for high rank on party lists, denied a position in a cabinet, reproached for raising “irrelevant” issues of equal opportunity, more and more Israeli-born and Israeli-educated women have become avowed feminists.

For 20 years and more, Israeli feminists felt like passengers on a stationary train: as we sat in our carriages poised for travel, we watched the trains alongside us move out of the station and were overwhelmed by the illusion of actually moving backwards. Now our own train has begun to move. Bearing many eager women and not a few supportive men, it launches us on our journey into the 21st century or rather most encouragingly, into the 59th.

Alice Shalvi is the head of the Israel Women’s Network, Principal of the Pelech Girl’s High School in Jerusalem, and on the faculty of Hebrew University.