Golda Meir served as Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974; as her country’s first democratically elected female leader, she broke a glass ceiling. Yet Pnina Lahav’s The Only Woman in the Room: Golda Meir and Her Path to Power is the first biography to critically examine her early life and political career through the lens of gender. Such an approach helps make sense of divergent and seemingly contradictory representations of her: David Ben-Gurion referred to her as “the only man in the cabinet” (xix), and a journalist misogynistically characterized her “as an emotional woman [who] leads the state in accordance with her private loves and hatreds” (xxv). The decades Meir spent excelling in a male-dominated public sphere led Ben-Gurion to praise her “manhood,” even though she never renounced her feminine identity.
In fact, her cultivation of “the persona of a ‘Jewish matriarch’—a wizened woman with gray hair tied into a simple bun, dressed neatly but not extravagantly, often wearing a brooch or a string of pearls” (xviii) challenged the very idea of a masculinely gendered public sphere and enraged men like the journalist quoted above who wanted women to remain in the private sphere, keeping their “private loves and hatreds” to themselves. It is the revolutionary nature of Meir’s life that proves so compelling to Lahav and impelled her to explore Meir’s life from her subject’s perspective. Believing that Meir was “mindful of her alterity, or otherness, as a member of the second sex” (xi), Lahav endeavors to show “how she understood and navigated her alterity and how she balanced her womanhood with her political ambitions” (xii).
Since her death, numerous factors have led to Meir’s vilification, impeding Lahav’s efforts to reclaim Meir as a feminist trailblazer. Despite effectively leading Israel back from the brink of the abyss during the Yom Kippur War, Meir is held responsible for this traumatic war; even though she built an effective social safety net as the country’s first minister of labor, she is blamed for the Ashkenazi establishment’s blindness to the unique plight of Mizrahi Jews; and although she faced Palestinian terrorism and endured Arab leaders’ steadfast refusal to negotiate with Israel, she is uncritically chastised for her unwillingness to acknowledge Palestinian national identity. Similarly, since Meir proved ready to compromise feminist principles to wield power, history has found more assertive feminists (like Ada Maimon) more praiseworthy, even though their principled stands marginalized them.
Lahav’s efforts at recontextualization and reclamation center on her reading of the essay “Borrowed Mothers,” which Meir wrote for The Plough Woman: Memoirs of the Pioneer Women of Palestine (Herzl Press, 1932), the first feminist volume to emerge from Zionist Palestine. In this essay, Meir raises the banner for a now ubiquitous type of woman for which she was a prototype—the working mother who enters the workforce out of a desire for self-fulfillment rather than necessity alone. Meir viewed pregnancy and childrearing as fundamental parts of female experience and she refused to renounce these experiential opportunities. Nonetheless, she felt that “a woman had a right not to be forced to suppress her own humanity” (100) if she chose to seize these opportunities. As she explained, “her nature and her being demand something more; she cannot divorce herself from the larger social life. She cannot let her children narrow down her horizon” (100). Meir acknowledged that the path she was charting was not an easy one. “Combining career and motherhood […] required Herculean powers” (100), and a woman’s “career leads to heartache, guilt at home, and stress in the workplace” (100). Yet “there was nothing wrong with wishing to be a full human being. The pain and suffering inherent in it are to be endured as part of the human condition” (100).
While neither Meir’s essay nor Lahav’s analysis directly address it, the biography shows that Meir believed working mothers and aspiring working mothers are entitled to two additional aspects of full human experience—sexual fulfillment and control over their bodies. As a teenager growing up in Milwaukee, Meir chafed at her parents’ efforts to control her life and started to act independently, as exemplified by her engagement in premarital sex. Rather than letting her budding career in Zionist politics get derailed when she became pregnant, Meir exercised her right over her body and got an abortion in Chicago, an experience that did not noticeably alter her lifestyle. Yet when Morris Myerson, whom she had met in Denver during a short sojourn there with her sister, expressed romantic interest in her, she agreed to marry him if he consented to immigrate to Palestine with her—something that would have been difficult for her to do on her own. When he agreed, the couple got married, immigrated to Palestine, and eventually had two children together. Yet one gets the sense that the couple never had a fulfilling sexual relationship, and that after their children were born, Myerson took third place behind motherhood and career in Meir’s life. Eventually, when her political career gave her the opportunity for financial independence, Meir separated from Myerson. While they never formerly divorced, Meir pursued sexual satisfaction out of wedlock and had long-lasting sexual liaisons with fellow politicians David Remez and Zalman Shazar, both of whom were also married.
Undoubtedly there were moments in Meir’s political career when she undermined broader efforts to improve Jewish women’s condition in Palestine to advance herself politically, such as when she successfully lobbied the American Zionist women’s organization Pioneer Women to share the money it raised with the Histradrut, pre-state Israel's national trade union center, rather than only using it to support the Women Workers Council’s mission of protecting and advancing women’s rights. Nonetheless, by compromising on feminist issues, Meir accrued power and advanced herself. Over time, this enabled her to circumvent strict gender hierarchies and pursue her career, motherhood, and sexual fulfillment as she saw fit—something that altered how Palestinian Jewish/Israeli women understood what was possible for them and thereby promoted more diverse gender identities. Lahav effectively tells the story of a noteworthy feminist deserving of further consideration.
Philip Hollander is a modern Hebrew instructor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
Date Of Review:
February 20, 2023
Pnina Lahav is emerita professor of law and a member of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. She is the author of the award-winning Judgment in Jerusalem: Chief Justice Simon Agranat and the Zionist Century. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
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