Biographer: Golda Meir’s role as a female leader was complicated

Biographer: Golda Meir’s role as a female leader was complicated

Golda Meir defied gender stereotypes yet eschewed feminism, according to Pnina Lahav, author of the forthcoming book “Golda Meir: Through the Gender Lens.” Photo via Flickr
Golda Meir defied gender stereotypes yet eschewed feminism, according to Pnina Lahav, author of the forthcoming book “Golda Meir: Through the Gender Lens.” Photo via Flickr

Golda Meir, the first and only, to date, woman prime minister of Israel, had a complex relationship with her role as a female leader in a man’s world.

She eschewed the typical paths of women in the early 20th century, replacing them with education, Zionism, and politics, yet rejected the feminist movement in her later years. To the world she appeared tough, yet grandmotherly, but for decades she was a charming, “even coquettish” woman who attracted many powerful men and took great pains with her appearance. 

And, according to Boston University School of Law professor Pnina Lahav, for all her accomplishments, it was gender stereotyping as much as anything else that led to Golda’s political demise and the tarnishing of her reputation after the devastating 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The Israeli-born Lahav, who researched the Israeli stateswoman for her forthcoming book, “Golda Meir: Through the Gender Lens,” was the featured speaker at the annual Ruth and Alvin Rockoff lecture of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. She is also a core faculty member of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University.

During the March 27 program at the Douglass College Center in New Brunswick, Lahav spoke about the immigrant girl whose family left Kiev and came to Milwaukee in 1906, when she was eight. At her father’s insistence they quickly Americanized their appearance and changed their Yiddish names — Golda became Goldie. 

Goldie Mabovitch was enrolled in school for the first time. She later fought with her parents to attend high school. Her mother wanted her to take on the traditional role of wife and mother, but Goldie had ambitions to become a teacher. 

At age 15, she ran away to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Denver. It was in their living room, said Lahav, that Goldie first encountered Russian-Jewish immigrants who spoke passionately of Zionism and socialism.

It was also where she “found romantic love,” said Lahav. 

The object of her affection was Morris Myerson, a sign painter with a love of art and classical music; they married in 1917.

Lahav said that for their first date, Goldie, wanting to look “stylish and American,” purchased a red hat, which may have held its own symbolism.

“Red is the color of love, of sexual attraction, of taking control,” Lahav said. “But in the early 20th century it was also the color of revolution,” perhaps “the color of her emerging ambitions.”

Those ambitions inspired Goldie to move to pre-state Israel in 1921, accompanied, reluctantly, by her husband.

They settled on a kibbutz, and then moved to Tel Aviv with their two children, Menachem and Sarah. But, unhappy and restless, she abandoned Morris to pursue her political aspirations, reverting to her original name of Golda and changing Myerson to the Hebrew name Meir. Lahav said that as Golda Meir moved up the political ladder, “socialist Zionism became the passion of her life.”

Lahav said Meir believed “gender equality would come with time” but did push for such benefits as paid maternity leave for women.

She was helped in her rise by David Remez, secretary of the Histadrut trade unions organization and Israel’s first minister of transportation — and fell in love and had a longtime affair with him. 

Meir was also romantically involved with Zalman Shazar, who would become Israel’s third president. She was the only woman in Israel’s first cabinet and, Lahav said, among the other 11 members, “at least two” had been her lovers; there were also plenty of stories of her connections with other powerful men in the United States and Israel. 

Israel’s first prime minster, David Ben-Gurion, early on recognized Meir’s value as a “passionate, yet balanced” leader. Lahav said he also knew securing the support of the American government and the Jewish community was key to the fledgling state’s survival and that no one was more suited to the task of accomplishing that than Meir, given her upbringing and her ability to speak eloquently in unaccented American English.

She became secretary of labor and in 1956 was appointed foreign minister, becoming the only woman in the Western world to hold such a position. 

As such, she was in charge of “wooing” the United Nations, the American public, and international officials when Israel launched an attack after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal.

President Dwight Eisenhower was infuriated at not being informed beforehand; Lahav said that Meir was mindful of that when Egyptian and Syrian forces massed on Israel’s borders before the Yom Kippur War and made efforts not to alienate U.S. leaders. “She understood in the days to come that Israel would need the United States.” 

But Meir had also “internalized” what the military leaders had told her, Lahav said: that the Arabs “are always talking but never do anything” and she bought into the Israeli public’s view of the IDF’s invincibility.

Israel suffered devastating losses in the first days of the war, before a massive infusion of American military aid allowed it to turn the tide.

Afterward, the Israeli public, in grief and anger, turned on Meir, who went from an admired political leader to a “nasty old woman.” In public people shouted “murderer” at her; Lahav said she reportedly considered suicide.

The attacks were “intensely misogynistic,” focusing on her looks and included accusations that as a woman she was “too emotional, capricious, whimsical.”

The assault on her “became a parade of negative female stereotypes,” said Lahav.

Meir died in 1978. In recent years her reputation has undergone a resurrection and she is now — as seen through a lens of history and the modern view of women —recognized by many as one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders.

So much so that earlier this year, as Israel began construction on its high-speed rail system, it named its first excavation vehicle “Golda,” and issued a poster showing a caricature of Meir, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, perched on a bulldozer.

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