Anton Marks
Anton Marks
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Led by a woman is reason enough

Why is Labor's Merav Michaeli the only female heading a party? Here are some milestones along the rocky road to women taking hold of their right to be elected - No known copyright restrictions. From PICRYL, The World's Largest Public Domain Source

I’m a Socialist-Zionist. This means that looking at the leaders of the various parties standing for election, and their political platforms, I’m not expecting significant representation of my political views in the 24th Knesset. However, it would be unthinkable for me to not participate in the (imperfect) democratic electoral process. So, as always, I’ll be casting my vote on March 23rd.

Now, generally, my top issues that concern me at election time are stances on the strengthening of the welfare state and commitments to narrowing economic gaps, and a real desire to negotiate with the Palestinians in order to end the occupation and reach a two-state solution. Hence Socialist-Zionism. Left-wing on social issues. Left-wing on national-demographic-peace issues.

But there is something else that has struck me hard in recent days — the party which has received my vote for all of my adult life, both in Israel and in the UK, is the only party standing in the Israeli elections which is headed by a woman.

And this is enough of a reason to vote for her and her party.

The UK Labour Party has never had a woman as the elected leader of the party.

119 countries have never ever elected a woman as head of state or government, including the United States.

Israel, in its relatively short history, has once elected a woman as Prime Minister – Golda Meir was the leader of the Labor Party, and indeed of the country for five years, until a month before I was born.

* * *

Passive suffrage is a term often used to denote the right to run for office, which is clearly not the same as the right to vote. Usually, the right to vote preceded the right to hold office. Indeed, the Suffragette movement never put much emphasis on the latter, rather deeming the former as the most significant step to fight for. In this sense, The Union of Hebrew Women, established in the land of Israel in 1919, differed from most suffragist organizations throughout the world, since it campaigned for women’s right to vote and be elected to office, together with egalitarian legislation applying equally to women and men.

The women of the Yishuv exercised the right to vote and to be elected in 1920 and 1925, before their right was actually ratified. As Rosa Welt Straus, the Union of Hebrew Women’s president, put it, the Yishuv’s women fought not to gain a right but to prevent one from being revoked.

I want to share a few significant milestones on the road to women gaining the right to be elected, from the three places that I have a connection to: The Zionist Movement (including the pre-state Yishuv and the State of Israel), the UK and the USA.

  • Let’s start back in 1853, when the first woman elected was in the state of Maine. Olive Rose was elected Register of Deeds by Lincoln County and scholars believe she may have been the first woman elected anywhere in the United States. Here’s what she had to say at the time:

“Men may laugh and jeer and fume, as much as they please about this matter of ‘woman’s rights;’ they cannot escape the issue. As sure as the indomitable barons of England wrung Magna Carta from King John at Runnymede, so will the women of the 19th century extort from the ‘lords of creation,’ (who have held them in servile dependency from the beginning of the world) something like an equal share of political and social rights. Whether the doctrine of ‘woman’s rights is in the judgment of the present generation consonant with the ‘eternal fitness of things’ or not, it is nevertheless designed to gain ground, and ultimately to prevail.”

  • In 1893, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first woman to campaign for federal office. Here’s what she had to say:

“Woman suffrage means a complete revolution in our government, religion, and social life; a revision of our Constitution, an expurgated edition of our statute laws and codes, civil and criminal. It means equal representation in the halls of legislation and in the courts of justice; that woman may be tried by her own peers, by judges and advocates of her own choosing. It means light and sunshine, mercy and peace in our dungeons, jails, and prisons; the barbarous idea of punishment superseded by the divine idea of reformation. It means police matrons in all our station-houses, that young girls when arrested during the night, intoxicated and otherwise helpless, may be under the watchful eye of judicious women, and not left wholly to the mercy of a male police.”

  • In terms of the Zionist Movement, by the Second Zionist Congress held in Basle, Switzerland in 1898, women were allowed to become members and vote. This preceded universal suffrage in both the USA (1920) and the UK (1928). In January 1926 in the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel, the second Constituent Assembly, its premier elected parliamentary body, decreed equal rights for women in all areas of civil, economic and political life.

In the months before, a pioneer woman, Hannah Trager, wrote about her experiences in the pre-state Yishuv, recalling the following conversation:

“Look at the old days when the daughters of Zelophehad stood up for themselves and claimed their inheritance. Look at Deborah, without whom the leader of the Israelites refused to go out to battle. Look at Judith, look at the many Jewish women of Biblical times who had as much wisdom and courage as the men. Tell me, is it right that we should be treated as if we were only fit to agree to anything that is decided by the men?”

“And now,” broke in another girl, “is the time for us Yishuv women to take a stand for our fair share in communal matters. Here we are, helping to build up a new commonwealth in a country where we are all really free to do as we like. Are we going to build on a basis of equality or not? Have not we women taken our part in the founding of this Yishuv as fully as the man have? Did not our mothers suffer and struggle as well as our fathers? Have we girls ever refused to help in any kind of work, indoors or out? Have we not weeded in the vineyards in the burning sun, and made the hay, and milked the cows? Have we not done our best in times of sickness and trouble? Are you afraid that we shall fail you in the future? Let us go forward together, not struggling against one another…”

  • In 1918 in the UK, The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. Several women stood for election to the House of Commons in December 1918, but only one, Constance Markievicz, the Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin St. Patrick’s, Constance Markievicz, was elected; however she followed her party’s abstentionist policy and did not take her seat at Westminster. But here is what she had to say as the first woman elected to the British Parliament:

I take it as a great compliment that so many of you, the rising young women of Ireland, who are distinguishing yourselves every day and coming more and more to the front, should give me this opportunity. We older people look to you with great hopes and a great confidence that in your gradual emancipation you are bringing fresh ideas, fresh energies and above all a great genius for sacrifice into the life of the nation….

Lately things seem to be changing… so now again a strong tide of liberty seems to be coming towards us, swelling and growing and carrying before it all the outposts that hold women enslaved and bearing them triumphantly into the life of the nation to which they belong…..

Women, from having till very recently stood so far removed from all politics, should be able to formulate a much clearer and more incisive view of the political situation than men. For a man from the time he is a mere lad is more or less in touch with politics, and has usually the label of some party attached to him, long before he properly understands what it really means…

Now, here is a chance for our women… Fix your mind on the ideal of Ireland free, with her women enjoying the full rights of citizenship in their own nation, and no one will be able to sidetrack you, and so make use of you to use up the energies of the nation in obtaining all sorts of concessions – concessions too, that for the most part were coming in the natural course of evolution, and were perhaps just hastened a few years by the fierce agitations to obtain them…..

You will go out into the world and get elected onto as many public bodies as possible, and by degree through your exertions no public institution – whether hospital, workhouse, asylum or any other, and no private house – but will be supporting the industries of your country….

  • And finally, an excerpt from Kamala Harris Victory speech as the new VP of the USA:

But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.

* * *

Merav Michaeli may not be a socialist. Merav Michaeli may not be the leader of a party which will garner enough votes to lead this country from the front. Merav Michaeli may never become the prime minister of Israel. But she’s the woman leading the Labor Party, which continues to be my political home as the least bad option, and she’s getting my vote.

About the Author
Anton Marks is a British-born Israeli and a founder member of the largest urban kibbutz in Israel. He has been an informal educator for the last 25 years, and has recently returned from Shlichut in Maryland for the youth movement Habonim Dror. His passion for Zionist education, Tikkun Olam, Jewish history, identity and culture are a recipe for engaging and challenging articles.
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