What would Golda Meir have said about the male vs. female presidential showdown shaping up in her former home country? The redoubtable Israeli premier, who served from 1969 to 1974, was not one to mince her words, and we can only imagine how tart they would have been observing the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
While billionaire businessman Trump presents a choice unlike any that has ever faced the Israelis, Clinton’s presence in the race does bring up parallels Golda might have found intriguing.
Just what would Golda have made of the fact that it has taken this long for a major American party to choose a woman candidate? The prejudice that still prevails — from women as well as men — has to be acknowledged and taken into account as election day comes closer. Would she understand it, or be disgusted, that a woman with almost as much experience as she brought to the prime minister’s office still gets criticized for the pitch of her voice and the color of her pantsuits?
In Golda’s case, gender seemed to be a non-issue. No one seriously doubted her intelligence or her strength, and the media of the day didn’t question her fashion choices or her hairstyle. No one ever accused her of playing “the woman card,” and she never did take up the cudgels as a feminist. Had she done so, her impact might have been more far-reaching, but it might also have limited her popularity at the time.
But, like Clinton, she was a grandmother, and strong as she was, the public loved to see her traditional side. Cabinet members and foreign dignitaries got used to meeting in Golda’s kitchen, enjoying her baking along with her no-nonsense opinions. One of her most famous quotes, though it appears to be apocryphal, states that there would be peace only when the Arabs learned to love their children more than they hated the Jews. Even if she never said it, it reflected how she had come to be seen — as a fearsome maternal figure.
She had a tough time in office. It was she who ordered the Mossad to hunt down and assassinate those who massacred the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and, of course, she had to deal with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Her will to lead was eventually eroded by the internal conflict that came after that, but even then, few thought that decline in power had anything to do with her gender. She retired the next year, and died four years later at 80 of lymphatic cancer.
For all her lack of interest in gender politics, it might also have puzzled Golda to see that four decades later no other woman has followed her in the top slot. Tzipi Livni, as vice prime minister and minister of justice, came closest. Despite Israel’s early reputation as an egalitarian society, with its gun-toting women soldiers and tough kibbutznikot, it has adhered far more than expected to male/female roles.
But then other countries that had female leaders years ago — like India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — have also failed to follow up with others. Britain only now has its second woman prime minister, Theresa May, almost 26 years after Maggie Thatcher left office.
So, we can guess, Golda would have told us to stop with the “woman” talk. Whether it reassures you or depresses you, the full impact of Clinton’s “smashing the glass ceiling” will take more than a presidential campaign — or four or eight years in office — to establish.
But it’s still hard to imagine that the little girl born in Kiev and raised in Wisconsin, who rose to become Israel’s fourth prime minister, wouldn’t cheer the breakthrough.