Golda Meir's birthday was on May 3. Occupying a unique platform on the podium of female leaders, Golda ‘Meir’ Meyerson was the ‘Iron Lady’ before Margaret Thatcher was near reaching that memorable epithet.
Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev (1898) but spending her childhood in America, she always seemed destined to lead; before the age of 14 she led a high school fund raising campaign to pay for her classmates textbooks.
As a disciple of the vision of social justice and self-determination animating the burgeoning Labour Zionist movement, she displayed her famous mettle by demanding immigration to Israel as a precondition of her 1917 marriage, eventually leaving to work on a Kibbutz in 1921. Naturally, she became active in the Israeli Labour movement, becoming Secretary of the Women’s Labour Council in 1928.
As the Israeli observer at the Evian Conference of 1938, at which the world closed its eyes to the plight of European Jewish refugees, Golda expressed her trademark frankness, telling reporters, “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.”
In her capacity as head of the Jewish Agency, she defied pessimistic predictions in raising 50 million USD for the new State of Israel, a crucial contribution which Ben Gurion wrote “made the State possible”. Despite opposition from religious members of the Israeli Knesset who opposed a woman in power, Golda achieved significant milestones as Minister of Labour and Foreign Minister, cementing Israel’s reputation as a generous and internationalist social democracy.
At the age of 71 in 1969, Golda became the first female Prime Minister of Israel and the third female national leader in the world. Her term was not to be easy or triumphant, however. She lived up to her reputation for strength in the aftermath of the 1972 Black September massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes, forming the long lasting intelligence operation ‘Wrath of God’ to find and assassinate the leaders of the plot.
Leading a nation elated and anesthetized from its underdog victory in the 1967 war, she was forced to navigate through the emergency of the 1973 Arab–Israeli War or Yom Kippur War, in which a deeply unprepared Israel was beset by a surprise Arab attack that nearly severed its brief existence.She demonstrated superb leadership throughout the crisis, resisting calls to attack first and to use nuclear weapons, and securing the US military and financial assistance that proved crucial to the victory.
After her retirement from politics, her international and domestic reputation continued to blossom, a fact highlighted by Egypt's third president, Anwar Sadat’s demand that he deal with “The Old Lady. She has guts...” during his epochal Jerusalem visit in 1977.
Whatever one’s opinion on Golda or Israel, her presence on a list of powerful and inspirational women is demanded by her many achievements as a statesman, humanitarian, and a true, albeit unorthodox feminist. Her real legacy, like that of Thatcher, was that she helped establish the archetype of the iron-willed , powerful and political woman, combining it with her softer image as the ‘Grandmother of the Nation’ to produce a far more complex and empowered likeness of the 20th century woman.
“A story once went the rounds of Israel to the effect that Ben-Gurion described me as 'the only man' in his cabinet. What amused me about is that he (or whoever invented the story) thought that this was the greatest compliment that could be paid to a woman. I very much doubt that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in the government!”