She’s a confusing character in the feminist narrative. A pioneer in her field, yet so disappointingly anti-feminist. How do you label her? Should she be viewed as a hero, a villain, an accidental role model?
The life and career of Golda Myerson, or Golda Meir as she’s more commonly known, begs these questions. The touch bubbe I know from Hebrew school—Israel’s first female prime minister—is most certainly not the same Golda who rarely used her power to improve the quality of life for Israeli women. Is she?
Her position in government was, in and of itself, an act of feminism. Her story, that of a woman presented with an impossible choice between her family and her career, prompted many to re-evaluate how families with two working parents should be treated. Meir clearly faced dilemmas that so many working mothers experience, but failed to bring this issue to the political stage. Her rise to power and her influence made her an inspiration to young girls everywhere, including myself, despite the fact that women’s issues weren’t a major focus of her agenda.
Though reluctant to directly identify as a feminist, Meir was known to sometimes say things that could only be described as feminist in nature. During Israel’s rape epidemic in the early 1970s , Meir’s cabinet suggested creating a curfew for women as a possible solution. Meir replied, “but it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.” Even though Meir wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, this was a bold statement, especially at the time. This statement leads one to believe that Meir recognized the problematic nature of victim-blaming, and the injustice inherent in placing the responsibility of rape prevention on women rather than on men.
It is also incredibly important to put Meir’s story into context. She first took public office in the 1930s, a time when female leaders were rare. Her entire career in politics seemingly forced her to distance herself from her identity as a woman in order to succeed. To me, it seems as though Meir wanted to downplay her feminism and womanhood in order for people to see her as the sum of her experience and success, and not be diminished to her biological difference.
At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Meir was forced to resign after immense public pressure following a report investigating why Israel was so poorly prepared at the beginning of the war. Critics accused her of being too emotional to handle the position of prime minister, but their comments reeked of internalized misogyny. This reaction to the Yom Kippur War is likely exactly what Meir was trying to avoid in distancing herself from the feminist movements.
Personally, I love Meir. She may not have been perfect, but hey, none of us are. While furthering women’s rights wasn’t something that she focused on as prime minister, the mere fact that she held the position as a woman is important, and that makes her a role model for women and girls, like me, who want to serve in government. I aspire to emulate her while also learning from her mistakes. She likely felt like she needed to separate herself from feminism and from her femininity in general in order to succeed, and so it is the responsibility of current and future generations to ensure that women everywhere can be mothers and work, can be happy and unmarried, can be unabashedly feminist and successful. I think that’s what Meir would want.
Editor’s Note: This content was produced in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.