When Hillary Clinton returned home after her concession speech to Donald Trump, she found this letter lying on her kitchen table. It seemed to have come out of nowhere:
I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name. Everybody called me Golda, and I encouraged that. It gave me a kind of intimacy with the public, and then I could be as tough as I wanted to be. I had intended this letter to be one of congratulating you on becoming America’s first female head of government, and welcoming you into our little “club.” Instead, I am sending my sympathy on the pain you are suffering. It must be especially distressing to be defeated by someone who opposed so many of your nation’s basic values. When I think of his stance on immigration I remember how my parents, my sister and I came to America from Russia when I was 8 years old. I grew up in your country and was profoundly influenced by its democratic institutions. When I signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence, I thought of the signers of America’s Declaration and I wept with joy.
Look, I was not part of the women’s movement in my time, and some feminists today have not forgiven me. I lived in a male-dominated society and I did not want to alienate the men in my party on whose support I depended. But I always cared about women’s rights and knew from experience how hard it is for a woman to get ahead. I said often that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to reach the top. You’ve certainly worked hard at whatever position you held. I’ve been struck, when thinking about it, by how similar much of our careers were. Like you, I began by working on issues affecting women and children, and continued to do so when I became labor secretary. And when you became secretary of state, I remembered all the traveling I did on behalf of my country when I was foreign minister. Yes, I went on to become prime minister and you’ve been denied your nation’s top position. But you won the popular vote, an indication of how greatly the majority of Americans admire you.
Listen, Hillary, I, too, had setbacks. In 1946, when the British Mandatory Government imprisoned almost all the male leaders of the Jewish Agency, I became acting head of the Agency’s political department, a key post. She’s “wise and sharp,” wrote one newspaper editorial, “nevertheless: a woman.” Some years later, after our state was established, I ran for mayor of Tel Aviv. I was defeated, mostly due to the religious parties who refused to accept the idea of a woman as a municipal leader. Those slights really hurt, although I kept that to myself. The hardest time came in 1973, when as prime minister I went against my gut feelings and relied on the (flawed) assessments of my military advisers. Israel fell victim to a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria that devastated us both militarily and psychologically, although in the end we won that war. And even though our famous general, Moshe Dayan, fell apart and I held the nation together during that terrible time, I accepted the blame for what had happened, and resigned from office. To this day I continue to be criticized because of that war.
But there’s another side. I was surprised to learn that on the Internet my name appears more often than that of any other early Israeli leader. Coasters, magnets and cell phone covers with my image are popular, and events are still held in my honor. I’ve been told that I remain an inspiration for girls and young women, who see in me their own aspirations. That’s how it is and will continue to be with you, Hillary. Throughout the campaign, parents held you up as a shining example for their daughters — and sons — of what a smart, dedicated and determined woman can achieve in your country. Hearts were broken when you lost the electoral vote, but the message has not been lost. Every little girl in America now knows that, if she wants to and if she works hard, she can aim for the very highest level of leadership.
I’m an optimist. I’ve always maintained that to be a committed Jew, with our long and difficult history, one has to be optimistic. I have no doubt that someday soon a woman will be elected president of the United States. And as she begins her inaugural address, she will look out at the cheering crowds and say, “I stand here on the shoulders of Hillary Clinton and the many strong women before her who persevered in their dream.”
Take heart, my dear.
Francine Klagsbrun’s biography of Golda Meir will be published by Schocken Books in the fall of 2017.