Golda Meir: Renowned Political Leader, Beloved Mother

“Wherever she went, people hailed her as a hero.” (Claybourne, 4)

First known picture of
Golda Meir 
taken in
Pinsk, Ukraine, Russia, C. 1904

    Golda Meir was an extraordinary woman who overcame a childhood of poverty and discrimination become one of the world’s most renowned political leaders.  This wise, strong-willed, and charismatic woman was a Prime Minister and leader of Israel, a teacher, a wife, and also a loving mother and grandmother.  She fought endlessly to make her dream of establishing a Jewish homeland where her people could live in peace become a reality.  Golda emerged as a brilliant politician in a world largely dominated by men.  At the same time she always took her role as wife and mother seriously and extended that role to her people.  Golda Meir’s strength, talent, and accomplishments as a prime minister, as a woman, and as a mother have made her one of the most admired and loved international political figures of all time.

It is important to look at Golda Meir’s experiences during her childhood for they had a significant impact in shaping her beliefs, dreams, and as a result who she was to become later in life.  Golda Meir was born on May 3, 1898, in Kiev,Russia.  She spent the first eight years of her life in Russia.  Golda’s father, Moshe Mabovitch, worked as a carpenter, and her mother, Blume, cared for other people’s children.  Golda’s family was very poor and as a result only three out of eight Mabovithc children, including Golda, survived past their first birthdays. The family did not have enough food, heat, and warm clothes. (Adler, 6-7).  Later in life, Meir stated that during her childhood “there was never enough of anything…I was always a little too cold outside and a little too empty inside.” (Claybourne, 6).  Golda's harsh childhood experiences led to the development of Golda's mission in life of creating a Jewish homeland.  She wanted to establish a home where other Jewish people wouldn't have to go through what she went through as a child.  If Golda had a different childhood she probably wouldn't have had the same goals in life or followed the path that she did later in life.

               Aftermath of Kishinev Pogrom in Russia, 1903.

     Life was also hard for Golda and her family because they were Jewish.  Jews were a religious minority in Russia.  Many people hated and feared them because they were different and had their own traditions.  Jews were forced to live in their own area called the “Pale of Settlement” (Claybourne, 7).   As a result Golda’s father found it very difficult to find employment.  People did not want to employ Jews and discriminated against them.  The pogroms, violent attacks and riots against Jews were the most terrifying aspects of daily life in Russia for Golda.  Jews were robbed, beaten, and killed while the Russian czar and police did nothing to stop the assailants (Adler,4-5).  Instead the czar’s soldier would sometimes join in.  These planned attacks frightened and at the same time puzzled Golda. One time when Golda’s father heard a pogrom was going to occur, he boarded up the windows to their home.   Golda did not understand why someone would want to hurt her because of her religion.  She was also angry that there was not anything more Jews could do to protect themselves.  She did not want to hide.  As a result of her frightening experiences at this early age Golda began to believe that there was a better alternative to hiding in escaping this harsh treatment of Jews. (Claybourne, 6-8)

     In 1906 Golda, along with her family, left Russia and came to the United States, where they settled in Milwaukee.  There life for the Mabovitch family finally improved.  Golda was amazed by the United States.  It was nothing like her home in Russia.  She loved it (Claybourne, 14-15).   Soon education became a very important part of Golda’s life.  She quickly moved to the top of her class and wanted nothing to interfere with her education.  A problem at school encouraged Golda to hold her first fund-raising activity to raise money so everyone could afford textbooks.  This was her first attempt to persuade people to do the right thing (Dobrin 15-18). 

    Her education meant so much to her that Golda decided she wanted to become a teacher against her parent’s wishes.  Golda’s mother and father believed Golda should find a husband.  They believed her career choice would leave her an “old maid” because they believed men did not like girls who were “too intelligent” (Dobrin, 15-18).  They went so far as to arrange a marriage for her with a man twice her age.  Golda realized she had to take control of her life after acknowledging the fact that her parents’ old fashioned views were just too different from her own.  She decided to run away and went to live with her sister in Denver, Colorado.  It was at her sister’s home that Golda would experience her first sense of independence, her first boyfriend, and a valuable introduction into the Zionist movement .   She came to Denver without any strong political ideas.  However, after listening to her sister’s friends talk about the injustices against women, workers, and Jews as well as stories about settlers in Palestine building a home for the Jews, her Zionist beliefs were greatly strengthened. She became convinced of the need for a Jewish homeland where Jews could be free and independent (Amdur, 20-26).
                                                                   Golda Meir in a settlement in Merhavia, Palestine, 1921.

While in Denver, Golda fell in love with Morris Meyerson and married him in 1917 at the young age of 19.  That same year Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, made a statement known as the Balfour Declaration.  According to this Declaration Britain favored a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  With the support of Britain many Jews set off to Palestine.  Golda and her husband were among them and left the United States on May 23, 1921.  Golda took a job teaching English, but she wanted to work on the land and help the other settlers to be capable of feeding themselves.  She and Morris joined a kibbutz, a farm shared equally by a group of people.  Golda worked hard and proved herself to be a natural leader.  Her kibbutz sent her to represent the group at conferences where the future of the Jewish settlement in Palestine was discussed among Zionist leaders.  Golda’s interest in politics grew much stronger (Claybourne, 19-22).

    In 1924, at the request of Morris, the couple moved to Jerusalem.  They both found work for the Histadrut, the Jewish labor union, that organized Jewish immigration to Palestine and trained and found jobs for these immigrants.  Golda gave birth to a son, Menachem, on November 23, 1924, and took on the busy role of a stay-at-home mother.  She spent her time cooking, shopping, and taking care of her son.  Soon after, in May 1926, her daughter, Sarah, was born.  Although Golda loved her children very much, she did not love being a housewife.  She wanted to work specifically in the movement to build a Jewish nation.  Golda had to make a choice. Later she wrote, “I had to decide which came first, my duty to my husband, my home, and my child, or the kind of life I myself really wanted.”  During this time there was trouble in Golda’s and Morris’ marriage.  In 1928 Golda was offered the position of secretary of the Histadrut’s Women’s Labor Council.

Golda’s commitment to the cause, her work ethic, and her natural political ability made her the perfect person for the job.  Golda separated from her husband because they were just too different and wanted to live their lives differently.  She decided to put her career first and took the children with her to Tel Aviv.  Her new job required her to train female settlers and helping them obtain jobs.  She also traveled a lot to places where she spoke about the Jewish settlement to other Jewish women’s organizations.   Golda formed close relationships with many powerful people in Palestine which placed her in a position of power.  Golda mixed with many other influential politicians In her travels as well (Claybourne, 24-27)

 Golda Meir visiting with H.N. Brailsford of the British Labour Party, 1930.

     Golda struggled greatly with balancing her career and her responsibilities to her family.  At the time few mothers worked outside the home.  Golda was the epitome of the “working mother” (Meir Menahem, 28).  Her own mother often told her she was neglecting her two children.  So Golda spent any free moment with them.  She would get up early and stay up late to cook for them, play with them, take them to concerts, or doctors’ appointments.  She constantly worried about whether they were being harmed by her career.  However, although she traveled a lot, and her children were sad to see her go,  they were loved and cared for like any other child with a working or stay-at-home- mother.  She believed she brought more to her children by working than if she was to stay at home.  

In My Mother Golda Meir: A Son’s Evocation of Life with Golda Meir, Golda’s son, Menahem Meir, speaks about her as a devoted and caring mother.  He described his home with his mother as “warm and well run.”  He stated that her busy political activities did not make their home any less “warm and well run.”  He explained that in the evenings his mother would give them supper and listen to them talk about their day:  “She washed, mended, scrubbed and cooked." ( M. Meir, 26)

    As a young child, Menahem did not view Golda as seeming very different from the working mothers of his classmates.   She was like any other mother.  She too worried about her children’s health and well-being.  In fact when her daughter developed a serious kidney disease she did what all dutiful mothers did.  She took care of her child even while she worked.  Even though she traveled or went out when her daughter was sick, she only did with the assurance of a doctor that Sarah would be fine and after she made adequate arrangements for her children to be cared for.  She always tried to do what was best for her children as she did for the people of her country.  In fact, she believed it would not be for the best in regard to her children if she was to end all her outside activities and stay at home.  When she was with her children, “she was really there; attentive, kind, considerate, witty and a healer of wounds” as stated by her son (M. Meir, 27).  He went further to say he never felt “second to her other interests, or that I was being neglected for the sake of her ego or personal advancement” (M. Meir, 28).  However, he and his sister did feel forlorn when Golda had to go on long trips and they were forced to say goodbye.  Menahem explained that it was not until much later when he was a grown man that he understood the multiple struggles his mother faced and all that she had sacrificed for them when they were growing up.  It was only when he became a husband and father himself and was married to a working wife that he started to appreciate the great burden his mother bore during those years (M. Meir, 26-27)  As a child whose mother traveled constantly there were times when he probably did blame her for leaving.  Looking back at his childhood, Menahem probably felt guilty for feeling that way.  Now, with a grown maturity, Menahem better understood the actions and desires of his mother and in turn is proud of her and all that she had endured.  He wanted the public to see and understand her and her actions in the same light, as well as to dispel any false or negative presumptions others may have had of her.

Golda Meir addressing Labor Party convention delegates, 1935.

    Golda Meir’s love and devotion extended to her people, the Jews.  In 1932, when Golda’s daughter fell sick, she arranged a visit to the United States on behalf of the Histadrut, to raise money and support for the Jewish settlement in Palestine.  Golda's concern over her daughters health led to Golda's new public role.  She used her time in the United States with her daughter to  further her mission in establishing a Jewish homeland. Golda was a great success in the United States.  As a result of her excellent campaigning, public speaking, and ability to raise a large sum of money, she helped further the Jewish cause.  At the same time she succeeded in establishing herself as a well known international representative of Jewish Palestine.  In 1934, after her return to Palestine, she was elected to the Va’ad Hapoel, the Histadrut’s executive committee.   This made her one of the leaders of the Jewish settlement for at that time it had no other government (Claybourne, 28-32).

  During WWII Golda Meir visited units of the Jewish Brigade.

    During World War II Golda desperately wanted to help the Jews whom the Nazis were persecuting in Europe.  Golda became very involved with undercover attempts to smuggle Jews into Jewish Palestine.  When called before British authorities Golda defended the rights of all Jews to protect themselves against attack with weapons.  The Jewish leaders were greatly impressed with her performance. In 1946 she became the leader of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine before independence. Instead of using violence to protest Britain’s attempts to stop immigration of European Jews to Palestine, she organized street protests.  She also organized peacefully, refusing to obey British laws without using violence.  She even joined a hunger strike and persuaded other Jewish leaders to join in.  Finally, in 1947, the United Nations voted to separate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.  Golda was elected to go to the United States because she had proven to be a skilled fundraiser previously.  Golda Meir raised an astounding 50 million dollars for the new Jewish state through her powerful and extremely passionate speeches. As a result Golda Meir greatly contributed through her fundraiser to the creation of the new country.  In addition, Golda Meir undertook many other secret and dangerous missions in an attempt to establish peace with the Arabs (Claybourne, 28-38).

Golda Meir signing Israel's Proclamation of Independence at the Israeli Consulate, 1948.

       In 1948 Israel declared its independence.  Later Meir wrote in her autobiography,   “My eyes filled with tears, and my hands shook.  We had done it!” (Meir, 226)  The War of Independence soon followed, and the money and support Golda had raised helped Israel’s war effort.  During this period of time Golda served as ambassador to Moscow, next as Minister of Labor, then as foreign minister, and in several other leadership positions. Golda proved she could do any job that was given to her.  When Golda retired in 1965, she still remained active in politics, and many government leaders still came to her first for advice on various issues and reported on progress to her before reporting to the new prime minister (Amdur, 66-94).

    Within a month of her retirement, Golda would return to hold her most important and challenging position in Israel’s government.  Although she had been diagnosed with cancer, she came back to politics.  The needs of her country meant everything to her.  Before she accepted the job of Prime Minister, she discussed it with her children who were now adults with their own families.  Her children were the ones who told her to take the job.  The voting was unanimous, and on March 7, 1969, Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel.  She was only the third women in history to become prime minister of any country.  Golda did not believe her gender played a role in success as Prime Minister.  She wanted to be remembered as a great politician because of her skill and ability. She did not want to be remembered for being a “female” politician.  During interviews when she was asked how it felt to be a woman minister she would answer, “I do not know--I have never been a man minister” (Claybourne, 5).  Still many feminists hailed Golda as a hero.  She was very successful and well known in a world dominated by men.  As a result she helped change tradition and paved the way for other women in attaining political power.  She also helped in validating working mothers by supporting and defending herself in having a career.  She once wrote:

        There is a type of woman who cannot remain at home. In spite of the place her children                 and family fill in her life, her nature demands something more; she cannot divorce herself from         the larger social life.  She cannot let her children narrow her horizon.  For such a woman,                 there  is no rest.(Claybourne, 46-47).

Golda Meir being given tribute by Pioneer Women/NA'AMAT

    Golda was very popular and accomplished a lot in her tenure as prime minister of Israel. Her motives for becoming prime minister were completely selfless. Her only objective was in helping her people live a peaceful and prosperous life. Golda’s workday was one of at least sixteen hours.  Her schedule was very busy and hectic.  But she loved her country and people as she loved her children. She has been quoted many times referring to the people of Israel as her children and showing her concern for the children of her country: “If there is any explanation necessary for the direction which my life has taken, perhaps it is the desire and the determination to save Jewish children from a similar scene and from a similar experience.” (Meir, 444)   Her first instruction as prime minister was to be informed as soon as the reports from any military action came in.  She said to her military secretary “I want to know the moment that the boys get back, and I want to know how they are.”  She could not bear going to sleep not knowing if soldiers had been killed or wounded.  Many nights she could not sleep (Meir, 380-390).   Her actions were one of a worried mother, who wanted to make sure the people and children
of her country were safe and taken care of.  She found the most joy in life in helping people. Golda likewise used the idea of herself as the mother of her nation and people to establish her authority. Golda Meir was a figure of hope to the people of Israel.  They looked to her in times of trouble for advice and leadership.  As a result she was able to gain support for any actions or decisions she made.  The people and children of Israel saw her as a friend and mother figure referring to her simply as “Golda” (Adler, 52).  Golda always thought of others and their well-being before hers.   Finally, still battling cancer and wanting to spend more time with her grandchildren, she retired as prime minister of Israel in 1974 (Meir, 458-461).

Golda Meir when informed she is to become Israel's next Prime Minister, 1969.

     Golda Meir beat the odds and thrived in her role as an international political leader and loving mother.  She was one of the first women to be successful in the world of politics and male power.  She helped achieve her goal of establishing a Jewish homeland and in return was hailed a hero.  At the same time she never abandoned her responsibility as a mother to her children.  She nurtured her country and people as if they were her own children.  She will forever be loved and honored for her toughness, devotion, and kindness that made her one of the greatest leaders of all time.


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