How did Golda Meir rise from crushing poverty to become a world leader—one whose handling of the 1973 Yom Kippur War cemented her reputation as Israel’s “Iron Lady”?
In 1898, the mere idea that a baby girl born to a poor Jewish family in Kiev in the twilight of Russia’s tsarist regime might become a prime minister wasn’t just laughable; it was inconceivable. In that era, young women were too often trapped by insufficient education, marriage, motherhood and the daily struggle to survive to even consider such ambitions.
Golda Mabovitch, one of eight children born to a carpenter and his wife in Kiev—who as a child experienced hunger and witnessed the terrifyingly violent anti-Jewish persecution known as pogroms—beat those odds. Golda Meir, as that baby would be known to history, rose to become one of the first women in the world to serve as a head of state, steering Israel through its early, troubled decades. While headlines trumpeted her 1969 ascension as “Grandmother Elected Prime Minister,” she was much more than a babka-baking bubbeh. Years before Soviet propagandists labeled Britain’s Margaret Thatcher an “Iron Lady,” Meir earned the same title because of her willingness to wage war in defense of Israel. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister, referred to her as simply “the best man in the government.”
So, what was her path to power? And how did she prevail in a man’s world, shaping the future of an emerging nation?
Good Fortune and Great Timing
Luck played a big role in the young Golda’s life. One of her first memories, she later recalled, was watching her father try to barricade their front door with wood planks, in response to threats of a looming pogrom. Fortunately, the hooligans never arrived.
A few years later, in 1905, Golda’s father moved the family to America, opening new opportunities for her. Above all, she would later write, the anger she felt over her father’s limited options to protect his family from violence developed into a “profound instinctive belief that if one wanted to survive, one had to take effective action.”
Finding Her Purpose, and Voice
Her activism began in her new home in Milwaukee at the age of 11, when she organized a fundraiser—renting a hall and planning a public meeting to raise funds for new textbooks for poorer children. By her teens, she was an avid Zionist, believing in the need to reestablish a Jewish state in Palestine, their ancient homeland. When a local synagogue denied her permission to talk about the cause at a forum, she didn’t give up. Instead, she stood on a bench outside its doors and delivered her message as congregants left the building.
When her parents pressured her to forgo high school, marry a much older man and take a secretarial job, she refused—and fled their home. While living with her sister in Denver, attending school and immersing herself in Jewish politics, she met her future husband, Morris Myerson. She agreed to marry him on one condition: They would emigrate to Palestine.
Moving to Palestine
“I believed, absolutely, that as a Jew I belonged in Palestine,” Golda later wrote in her memoir, My Life. “I knew that I was not going to be a parlor Zionist.” Palestine, then an Ottoman territory, was occupied mostly by Arab peoples. But since the late 19th century, European Jews fleeing persecution steadily immigrated there in hopes of establishing a state.
When Golda and Morris left America in 1921 to become part of Palestine’s fledgling Jewish community, they joined a kibbutz, or agrarian commune. Initially, her “American ways”—using a tablecloth and ironing her clothes—drew scorn from fellow kibbutzniks. She eventually won respect and admiration for her hard work planting almond saplings and breeding chickens. Ultimately, the kibbutz became Meir’s political springboard, when the group chose her to represent them to the labor organization Histadrut, a driving force in the formation of the Israeli state.
Rising in Politics, Sacrificing Family
Since childhood, Meir fought to pursue her goals and not be limited by traditional women’s roles. She clashed with her parents to pursue an education. Later, after her husband insisted they leave the kibbutz, she felt unfulfilled as a traditional wife and mother, trying to make ends meet in Jerusalem. So, when a friend offered her a job in Tel Aviv with the Women Workers Council, she jumped at the opportunity—even though Morris refused to move and would only visit on weekends. (The couple formally separated in the late 1930s, but never divorced.)
Her new job propelled her up the political ladder, bringing increasingly important roles, such as being the Jewish observer at the 1938 Évian conference convened to discuss the plight of refugees from Adolf Hitler’s Germany. As Meir rose, she sacrificed time with family. “There is a type of woman who cannot let her husband and children narrow her horizons,” she wrote in her memoir.
Building a Network—and a Nation
Meir’s ability to construct alliances proved crucial as she ascended within the Labor Zionist party. By 1934, she headed the political department of Histadrut. She also held a series of increasingly responsible jobs within the Jewish Agency, a powerful Zionist organization, in the run-up to Israeli statehood. She served as its spokesperson in dealing with the British, which governed the region after taking power under a post-World War I mandate.
When the British arrested virtually the entire male leadership of the Jewish Agency and charged them with illegally smuggling Jewish Holocaust survivors to Israel in defiance of limited quotas, Meir stepped in to become the organization’s de facto head and oversee the final details of the campaign to end Britain’s mandate. In 1948, when the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into two independent Arab and Jewish states, Meir leveraged her ongoing ties to the U.S. to raise $50 million from the Jewish community there, money vital for buying the weapons needed to preserve the new state of Israel. Ben-Gurion later said she “got the money to make the state possible.”
Ben-Gurion naming her the “best man” in the fledgling government sidestepped her real achievement. She was, in the words of Boston University law professor and Meir biographer Pnina Lahav, the only woman in the room, a pioneering female leader who prevailed despite persistent, deep-set misogyny—from colleagues, adversaries and the press.
The Path to Prime Minister
Her first formal role for the state she’d helped build was as ambassador to the Soviet Union—the successor state to the tsarist regime her family had fled decades earlier. Elected to the Knesset (Israel’s legislature) in 1949, she went on to serve as Labor Minister, where she pushed through job and housing programs for new immigrants as well as Israel’s pioneering maternity leave policies.
In 1956, Ben-Gurion named Golda the country’s foreign minister, making her the first woman in the world to assume that role. The tradeoff? She would have to alter her surname from Myerson to something more traditionally Hebrew: Meir.
The newly renamed foreign minister did things her own way, flying coach class on diplomatic missions and entertaining foreign visitors in her kitchen. But she also learned to advocate for Israel while forging new alliances in regions like Africa. She refused to abide by racial segregation edicts when visiting the country then known as Rhodesia; other shamefaced dignitaries followed suit.
In 1969, after uniting two competing wings of the Labor Party, she unexpectedly emerged as her country’s first female prime minister.
Managing the Yom Kippur War
As tensions with Arab neighbors intensified, Meir quietly made repeated diplomatic outreach to Egypt, all rebuffed. In the fall of 1973, a national security crisis erupted when intelligence sources reported Syrian and Egyptian troops mobilizing for a joint attack on Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar’s holiest day. Seeking to regain territory lost in the 1967 war, they struck simultaneously on two fronts: Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula and Syria in the Golan Heights.
Heavy early losses from the surprise attack, along with American heel-dragging on sending military aid, led to intense political pressure to declare a cease-fire. Instead, Meir approved aggressive moves to improve Israel’s negotiation position and held fast until reinforcements arrived and Israel gained the upper hand.
Meir’s resolute leadership during the 19-day Yom Kippur War won her the title of “Iron Lady.” But the war also led to her resignation only months later. The public blamed her for the death of some 2,700 Israeli soldiers in the conflict, losses that cast a pall over the military triumph. Although the Labor Party won the next election, Meir herself wasn’t able to form a new government, and ceded the reins of power to Yitzhak Rabin.