Does Justice Have a Gender?


With our return to sovereignty our eyes look towards the legislating body, the Knesset. We demand to find a legal way to end the injustice suffered by the Hebrew woman for generations […] and to allow neither legal nor civil discrimination (Ada Maimon). Ada Maimon, 50 Years of Women’s Workers Movement 1904-1954, Tel Aviv 1956, pp. 218-219. Ada Fishman and her brother, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman, changed their surname in 1949 to Maimon, used henceforth in this article.

Women Workers of the Land of Israel: Unite!

On a windy December day in 1920 (25 Kislev 5681), the General Workers’ Union, the Histadrut, was founded in ‘redHaifa,’ but the celebration was shunned by one woman who had taken part in the congress . Ada Fishman, later Ada Maimon, demanded recognition of the elected representation of women workers, claiming that their loyalty could not otherwise be expected. These women threatened an election war – that would unravel the fragile coalition between the workers’ parties – unless the Histadrut recognized their right to organize as women. The threat paid off, and the Movement of the Women Workers in Eretz Israel was established. Fishman’s persistent struggle to eradicate the gender blindness prevalent in the Histadrut never wavered throughout the four decades of her pre-State activity, and whenIsraelwas established, she continued to pursue her cause in the Knesset, faithfully serving as a Mapai Knesset member in the first two terms of the parliament.

The quote above from Ada (Fishman) Maimon provides a glimpse into the long years of struggle for women’s equality in Jewish society of the Landof Israel. The issue surfaced with each political change – with the start of British Mandate rule in 1918 and again in 1948 on the eve of the establishment of the State Sylvie Fogiel Bijaoui, “Women in Israel: The Social Construction of Citizenship as a Non-Issue,” Israel Social Science Research, 12, 2 (1996), pp. 1-2- but women never broke from a self image based on traditional roles, making it easier to pigeonhole them into their gender-based sphere. Hagai Boaz, “The Struggle for Women’s Right to Vote in the Yishuv: Status Quo and Social Categories,” Theory and Criticism 21 (2002), pp. 107-131 (Hebrew). Their demand for representation in the various institutions of the new State indicates their cognizance of the importance of the women’s cause in general, but also of the social and cultural divisions that were carefully preserved in the political sphere, such as patriarchalism and a lack of separation between religion and state. On the significance of gender in the political arena, see Ann Phillips, The Politics of Presence, Oxford 1995, pp. 1-5; Chana Herzog, “Women in Politics and the Politics of Women,” D. Izraeli, A. Friedman and others, Sex, Gender and Politics, Hakibutz Hameuchad 2000, pp. 310-13, 327-28, 332-34 (Hebrew). The fact that, twenty years after their right to be included in political bodies was granted (1926),they still had to fight for their place, indicates that women were yet to be recognized as equal partners. See Gidon Doron and Daniela Shenkar-Stark, From Knesset Members to Representation: Women in Israeli Politics, Hakibutz Hameuchad 1998, pp. 31-32 (Hebrew). This article focuses on the struggle of Zionist women’s Z- organizations to maintain a female presence in the political arena, by placing their representatives in the new governing institutions. They also hoped to establish a legal basis and cultural climate in the new State that were conducive to gender equality.

“A Woman in the First Jewish Government is a flag for the entire East”– David Ben Gurion

In October 1947, prior to the U.N. declaration of the State on Nov.29, the women approached the  leaders of the Yishuv and warned of a male-only political arena. They wasted no time in making their demand because a temporary governing council was being created that was to include bodies as yet without representation. Ben Gurion went further, urging the creation of a thirteen-member temporary government. Ilana Kaufman, “Political Activity of the National Institutions (1940-49),” M. Avizohar ed., Golda: Growth of a Leader, Tel Aviv 1994, pp. 224-27 (Hebrew). The question of including one woman among the thirteen was discussed at the “Mapai center”on March 6, 1948, quickly becoming a personal issue, to the chagrin of some. Ben Gurion nominated his associate Golda Meyerson (Meir), justifying his choice in feminist terms: “It is imperative that one woman be in the narrow government…and we have the right woman for this, aside from her being a woman, and this will set an example…no one will understand why a woman who is a leader and as suitable as any other person should not have this position.” Italics in the original. Mapai Center Meeting, March 6, 1948, Mapai Archives, 2-24-1948-23; M. Avizohar, A. Bareli eds., Now or Never: Proceedings of Mapai in the Closing Year of the British Mandate,Excerpts and Documents, Beit Berl-Ayanot 1989, pp.274-98 (Hebrew). Aware of the critical juncture, Ben Gurion emphasized the educational aspect of his proposal: “A woman in the first Jewish government is a flag for the entire East. Thus we state to the masses here: See, we are thus [i.e. more modern]…this is an important political flag for the entire western world.” Ben Gurion,MapaiCenter Meeting, March 6, 1948, Mapai Archives, 2-24-1948-23. As events unfolded it became clear that neither Golda nor anyone else in Mapai was impressed by Ben Gurion’s feminist fervor. But like many times in the past as well as in the future, political considerations overshadowed principles of gender equality.

On May 30, 1948, immediately after the establishment of the State, representatives of the council of women’s organizations again turned to Ben Gurion, by then Prime Minister. They requested a meeting with him “in order to establish relations with the Israeli government.” Women’s Council to David Ben Gurion, May 30, 1948, Labor Archives, b230-6-22-IV. Weeks passed without a reply, so on August 6 the women approached the cabinet ministers, “to bring to your attention the special problems that concern the women’s organizations whose solutions must be found within the framework of the State of Israel.” Women’s Council to David Ben Gurion, August 6, 1948, Labor Archives, 230-6-60-IV. The authors of this memo listed in detail the areas in which women were active and contributed to the national struggle and establishment of the State. They deliberately stressed their multi-dimensional endeavors, as soldiers in the Yishuv (common in emergency situations). For a contemporary justification, see N.H.[no full name], “Among the Female Recruits,” Dvar Hapoelet 14, 4 (April 20, 1948), p. 73; for a modern explanation, see Helena Carreiras, Gerhard Kummel, “Off Limits: The Cults of the Body and Social Homogeneity as  Discoursive Weapons Targeting Gender Integration in the Military,”  H. Carreiras, G. Kummel (eds.), Women in the Military and in Armed Conflicts, Wiesbaden 2008, pp. 29-48. and as volunteers in traditional female roles. Naming each field of activity, they made it clear that “the number of women. Women’s Council to Cabinet Ministers, August 6, 1948, Labor Archives, 230-6-60-IV [no name]. The Council of Women’s Organizations,” Dvar Hapoelet 14, 4 (April 20, 1948), p. 87; Dvora Nosovitsky, “Organization of Mothers as a Volunteer Division,” ibid., 7-8 (August 31, 1948), p. 164. On bereaved women and mothers see Ita Yanait, “The Claims of Time,” ibid., 14-5 (May 31, 1948), p. 111; B.R. [no full name], “On Motherhood,” ibid., 15-2-3 (March 22, 1949), p.58. contributing to the war effort, whether in agricultural work or industry, is high.” They mentioned the thousands of volunteers looking after the needs of soldiers and their families, cooking and operating military kitchens, organizing Shabbat and holiday events, sending gift packages on festivals. Women also provided combat support and blood donations, visited wounded soldiers in hospitals, provided leisure activities and maintained soldiers’ clubs, and hosted soldiers in their homes. Not only did they prove their dedication to the cause, these volunteers also made the supreme sacrifice, “losing their near and dear ones.”Women’s Council to Cabinet Ministers, August 6, 1948, Labor Archives, 230-6-60-IV; Women’s to the Government of Israel, Dvar Hapoelet 7-8 (August 31, 1948), p. 154; Beba Idelson, “Society in Political Life,” Dvar Hapoelet 10-11 (November 23, 1948), p. 218. The logical conclusion to be drawn from all this was that since women were prepared to do anything “to share in the burden of war and hasten the day of victory,” their claims were just, “in light of the scant presence of women in the body responsible for directing our political and public life.” Their declaration therefore represents a republican approach, whereby contribution to the State is a prerequisite for citizenship. “The absence of women in government… and in jobs of responsibility in its offices and departments” was seen as a “serious deficiency” that damaged the very “foundations of the State. Proceedings of the National Secretariat Meeting (August 18-19, 1948), in “Proceedings of the National Secretariat,” Dvar Hapoelet, 14, 7-8 (August 31, 1948), p. 172.

“The Heat of Battle” is Never Conducive to Human/Gender Rights

The race to establish the civil status of women and their representation in the political sphere brought the women to a peak of activity in the summer of 1948. Members of the Women Workers’ Movement threatened to use the ultimate weapon if their demands were not met; they called upon readers of the Movement’s newspaper, Dvar Hapoelet, to boycott the elections. Miriam Starkman-Verlinsky to the Women Workers’ Council, August 31, 1948, Labor Archives, 230-6-60-IV. See also Eyal Katvan, Ruth Halperin-Kadari and Tamar Trau-Zitanitsky, Early Women Lawyers in Israel 1930-1948, Tel Aviv 2009, pp. 22-23. The formulators of the proposal to appoint women to “political jobs” were discouraged, and so they sought legal recourse. During the month of August 1948, Miriam Starkman-Verlinsky, one of the legal counsels for the women’s organizations, was summoned to the Women’s Workers Council – the elected apparatus of the W.W.M. Miriam Starkman-Verlinsky to the Women Workers’ Council, August 31, 1948, Labor Archives, 230-6-60-IV; Proceedings of the National Secretariat September 18-19, 1948, in “Proceedings of the National Secretariat of the Women Workers’ Council,” Dvar Hapoelet, 14, 7-8 (August 31, 1948), p. 172; also “The National Test,” ibid., 14, 9 (October 11, 1948), p.191. She claimed that “a great effort will be needed in order to find an attentive ear” to the women’s demands and that “women’s share in the government, first and foremost in the Ministry of Justice, will not be denied. “Protocol of the Women’s Council, September 2, 1948, Labor Archives, b230-6-22-IV; Beba Idelson,  “Society in Political Life,” Dvar Hapoelet 10-11 (November 23, 1948), p. 218. Nonetheless, reports from the Council of Women’s Organizations in September 1948 show that the efforts to persuade the government to proportionally appoint women to political positions were not successful. Protocol of the Women’s Council, September 2, 1948, Labor Archives, b230-6-22-IV; Beba Idelson,  “Society in Political Life,” Dvar Hapoelet 10-11 (November 23, 1948), p. 218. In fact, the opposite occurred; of the thirteen-member provisional government that served from May 14, 1948 until March 10, 1949, not one was a woman. On January 25, 1949, the first general elections were held, and on February 16, 1949, the first Knesset was formed.

The excitement of the founding of the State was not lost on veteran women activists such as Ada Maimon and her colleagues. They saw their public mission as two-pronged: feminist activity, to promote gender equality and correct the injustice of historical discrimination; and national activity, to address social issues and promote a more just society. They challenged the old, accepted patterns of gender bias, and demanded that the new State adhere to the original Zionist ideal of justice and equality that its leaders so adamantly propounded. M. Jaffee, “Women at the Zionist Congress,” Ha’isha, b, 2, 1927, p. 3.

From their perspective, the fulfillment of one ideal guaranteed and assisted fulfillment of the other. In this respect, their approach to citizenship was also ‘liberal,’ based on the idea of a just, democratic and egalitarian state that guaranteed each citizen’s basic, unconditional rights.

Thus, the rise of the State and attainment of the Zionist political goal seemed to afford women an opportunity to fashion the new public sphere in accordance with their ideals. But their optimism stumbled in the face of reality. The War of Independence, as did subsequent wars, thwarted the women’s demands for normalization. The heat of battle is never conducive to the fostering of human, civil and gender rights. As we witness in Israel today, not only has the issue of political rights not provided a comprehensive solution to women’s inequality, “rooted in early days,”. Azaryahu, Union of Hebrew Women, p. 97. it has compounded it.


Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is a senior lecturer of Jewish History and Women’s Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She has recently published a comprehensive account of the history of women in Eretz Israel (Open University Press, Israel, 2014) and is currently writing a biography of Ada Fishman (Maimon) to be published in the near future. 

 English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.