February 22, 2020

The Golda Meir exchange, part 2: “a female leader in a world run by men”

Francine Klagsbrun is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day and Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce. She was the editor of the best-selling Free to Be . . . You and Me and is a regular columnist for The Jewish Week, a contributing editor to Lilith, and on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, and Ms. Magazine. She lives in New York City.

This is the second part of our exchange that focuses on her new book, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (Schoken, 2017). The first part, Has Israel been unfair to its first female prime minister? is here.

Dear Francine,

Golda Meir has always been a controversial figure when it comes to the feminist cause and her attitude to the feminist movement. On the one hand, she is a global icon of female leadership – an elected female head of state in the 70s, who reached this position in a very masculine (and militaristic) political culture. On the other hand, she publicly mocked feminists and distanced herself from their cause. Your book tackles this issue:
Why then define herself in opposition to feminists? The answer lies in Golda’s personal goals. The women’s organizations—the Women Workers’ Council and the Pioneer Women—had served as her entrée into the political life of the Yishuv, the only avenues available to a woman taking her first large steps toward leadership. Rejecting feminism by ridiculing its extremes, as she did, was Golda’s way of securing the next steps as she prepared to advance in the male-dominated world of Labor politics. In this world, feminism carried little weight; even concentrating primarily on women’s concerns could be a barrier to moving ahead Golda had different objectives for her future. She aimed to be at the center of her country’s life and not in its margins, at the heart of Labor Zionism and not on the periphery. From her perspective, she could achieve her goals by sharply differentiating herself from other strong women while taking on the wider interests of the party and the movement. 
My question: What kind of insights do this book and this story ultimately present about the problems, compromises and complexities facing women in public leadership roles? Where does your narrative leave Golda as an example of female leadership?


One of the most puzzling aspects of Golda Meir’s life was why she rejected the woman’s movement of the 1970s.  She had rejected feminism earlier on her way up the ladder as she struggled to make her mark in a strongly male dominated world.  But why, once she reached the pinnacle of success by becoming prime minister of Israel, did she continue to oppose the feminist movement?

The question is particularly relevant because of the life she had led. In so many ways she seemed the most modern of women. She’d had an illegal abortion in the early years of her marriage. Later she permanently separated from her husband and became a single mother, maintaining responsibility for her son and daughter. She’d had lovers. Moreover, as Labor Minister in the 1940s and 1950s she pushed through progressive legislation that protected working women, giving them paid hospitalization when they gave birth and paid maternity leave afterward. Beyond that, she spoke often about how much more capable a woman had to be than a man in order to succeed. And she was especially fond of a story she told frequently: In the early years of the state, there had been a spate of sexual assaults and violent rapes in some of the larger cities. To counter that, the legislature planned to enact a curfew on women that would keep them home at night and thus out of danger. Said Golda: “It is the men who are doing the raping. Let them have the curfew!”

To feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, Golda Meir so appeared to represent what women were struggling to achieve that an iconic poster of her hung in many offices and homes. Below the image of a softly smiling Golda were the words, “But Can She Type?” In those days, most working women were relegated to the secretarial pool.

Golda enjoyed the poster, yet continued to reject the women’s movement behind it. There are a number of reasons for that. For one thing, she didn’t understand that the goals of the movement jibed in many ways with her own goals for women: to provide them with day care for their children, for example, so they might be freed to work outside their homes if they wished. Another source of her opposition to organized feminism was her socialist viewpoint. She aimed for a socialist society in which the needs of all people would be handled as required. Individual movements served no purpose in that vision; when collective goals were achieved they would benefit everyone, and everyone would enjoy equality.

But, although she might not admit it, overriding all other factors in her opposition to organized feminism was the simple fact that—still—she was a female leader in a world run by men. Yes, she had achieved a great deal of power as prime minister, and yes, there were male ministers who felt intimidated by that power. Yet most Israeli ministers were men (and still are) and most other world leaders were men (and still are). “She is a great woman,” Ben-Gurion once said of her, “but she is a woman.” As a woman she was “other,” no matter how high her position. Ignoring feminism, or deriding it, then, helped downplay the otherness assigned her. Even today, women leaders do not identify themselves as feminists. They may be more sympathetic to women’s movements than Golda was, but they want it made clear that they are leaders of all the people and not of any one group.

Golda had her own style of leadership. She hated the belief, repeated often, that Ben-Gurion called her the “only man in the cabinet.” She doubted he had said that, but even if he had, “what does it mean,” she asked, “that it is better to be a man than a woman?” She rejected that notion and fully accepted her womanhood. Although as a good socialist she wore no makeup, she had her nails done regularly. She cared about her appearance, choosing simple clothes that she felt appropriate to her leadership role. She also took great pride in her long hair, which she washed and brushed over and over, contemplating world problems as she did so.

She liked playing a maternal, role—if Ben-Gurion was the father of the country, she was its mother. She agonized over every military death, visiting families of the fallen regularly. She talked about her chicken soup and gefilte fish recipes at news conferences, and personally served tea and cookies to the most eminent statesmen who visited her home. She cried easily, sometimes out of emotion, sometimes to get what she wanted. And she was almost never seen without her capacious handbag hanging from her arm, whether at the opera or on the battlefield in the aftermaths of a war.

But she also projected strength, with a will of steel. She held firm on matters of Israel’s security, refusing to budge if she felt the nation threatened in any way. She turned the symbol of a kitchen—associated with women and cooking—into a symbol of power, convening her closest cabinet members into what became known as “Golda’s kitchen.” During the Yom Kippur War, she was a pillar of strength and courage, while her popular general, Moshe Dayan, fell apart.

Golda Meir refused to be identified as a “woman leader.” Like any man, she regarded herself simply as a leader, and she carried out her mission with integrity, unceasing  work, and devotion to Israel and the Jewish people everywhere, goals that  guided her all her life.