Why you should care

She’s the prototypical female politician who could teach a lot to many of today’s leaders.

They say you can tell a lot about a woman from her shoes. Golda Meir wore sturdy orthopedics, and she wore them everywhere, from schlepping around the house to visiting JFK at the White House. In Israel the phrase “Golda’s shoes” is still a euphemism for something ugly and old-fashioned. But there was nothing conventional about Golda Meir, and to her millions of followers in Israel and around the world, she was a graceful icon, even before she became that country’s first female prime minister at age 70.

If she opted for practical footwear, perhaps it was because she had known real hardship…

She was born Golda Mabovich, became Golda Meyerson when she married, and assumed the Hebraicized Golda Meir in politics; but to many she was always just Golda.

And if she opted for practical footwear, perhaps it was because she had known real hardship, growing up hungry in rural Ukraine at the turn of the 20th century, when Jews lived in constant fear of violence and pogroms. Her strength was not just incubated in Russia but also in the Milwaukee grocery store that she helped her parents run starting at age 8 after her family emigrated to the States.

It was also formed in the girls’ school, where she became valedictorian after not knowing a word of English when she started; in the Milwaukee public schools, where she taught; and at the kibbutz in Palestine, where a young Meir and her husband came after leaving everything behind. If her blemished face showed the stresses of life, then perhaps it was because she had labored hard, from picking almonds and raising chickens on the kibbutz to rearing her children and advocating for workers’ rights as a trade union rep.

David Ben-Gurion with Golda Meir in a black and white photo sitting together

David Ben-Gurion with Golda Meir

Source Corbis

If Golda was a bit too austere or single-minded, perhaps it because she was driven by a fierce commitment to her land and to her people. When the Arab states refused to recognize the newly formed Israel in 1948, and the young country was in desperate need of money and arms, she went to America and single-handedly raised an unheard-of sum of $50 million. When an envoy was needed later that year to ward off imminent war, Golda — disguised as an Arab woman — undertook the dangerous journey to Amman to meet with King Abdullah of Jordan. When the king requested that Israel not hurry to declare statehood, she famously replied, “We have been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?”

Black and white image of Golda Meir with JFK, shaking hands

President Kennedy shakes hands with Golda Meir, Israeli minister for foreign affairs, at a United Nations reception.

Source Corbis

And if Golda was a bit too honest or impatient in her manner, perhaps it was because she had grown up in a man’s world, looking men directly in the eye. Once described by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion “as the only man in [his] cabinet,” Golda was the original Iron Lady, 30 years before Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain. She unflinchingly went toe-to-toe with Kennedy, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kissinger and two Popes. In 1972, after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist group at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Golda, perceiving a lack of international response, took matters into her own hands and ordered the Mossad to hunt down the terrorists.

She was once described by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion “as the only man in [his] cabinet.”

Israel’s losses in the Yom Kippur War of 1974 marred Golda’s five years as prime minister, and she eventually resigned in disgrace. For many, her failures outlive her achievements on the world stage, and her uncompromising views on many core issues such as Palestine’s existence undermined any real chance at peace in the Middle East. But to her people, her love of country was unquestionable and her journey was just as important as the destination. Given her long, hard path, you could see why she needed sensible shoes.

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