Int'l Women's Day: Still fighting gender bias in Israel

Gender equality neither begins nor ends in the Knesset, despite the fact that Israel is a country in which everything is political.

Golda Meir, Israel’s only female premier, Labor's new leader Merav Michaeli and Bayit Yehudi leader Hagit Moshe (photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Golda Meir, Israel’s only female premier, Labor's new leader Merav Michaeli and Bayit Yehudi leader Hagit Moshe
(photo credit: CANVA.COM)
March 8 is internationally recognized by most countries and the UN as International Women’s Day – a time in which people around the world reflect on gender equality and gender bias in the countries in which they reside, in the home and in the work place.
Sweden is arguably the world’s best model for gender equality, having first allowed women to vote in 1718, providing they were tax paying members of gilds, whereas it took almost two centuries before the introduction by Italy in 1912 of unconditional, universal suffrage, though other countries were not quick to follow. Initially Swedish women could vote in local elections and beginning in 1734, female tax paying property owners were permitted to vote in local elections. The right to vote in national elections was rescinded in 1772, but today, Swedish gender policy aims for women and men to have the same rights and powers to shape society and their own lives, in addition to which gender equality must be central to all decision making and resource allocation.
Australia, which became a federation in 1901, wasted little time in giving women the vote. Though in some states, namely South Australia and Western Australia, they already had it for several years. Under the Australian Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, women in all six states were permitted to vote in federal elections and were also allowed to stand as candidates for federal parliament. Unfortunately, some states excluded Aborigines from voting rights. Another disqualification was that anyone who had ever been charged with treason could neither vote nor stand for election.
In the US, that so-called bastion of democracy, a few states gave women limited voting rights at various stages in the 19th century, and in 1918, US president Woodrow Wilson declared his support for women’s suffrage, after which three states gave full voting rights to women in 1919, but it was not until 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified that women were finally allowed to vote after countless fruitless efforts by Susan B. Antony and the National Women’s Suffrage Association that women throughout the nation were given full voting rights.
In Britain, the first women’s suffrage petition was presented to Parliament in 1832, and in the ensuing years women’s organizations locally and nationally staged rallies and protest demonstrations to no avail until 1916 when the Parliamentary Qualification of Women Act was passed. A year later, Mary Astor was the first woman to become a member of the British Parliament. Since then, Britain has had two women prime ministers.
In Greece, where democracy was conceived, only literate women were permitted to vote in 1930. In 1952, voting rights were accorded to all Greek women, and in 1953, Greece signed the Convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
As far as suffrage goes, Israel has a very good track record.
In 1946, in British Mandatory Palestine, women were allowed to vote, and when the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, the Declaration of Independence included the ensuring of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.
Indeed, in the first government, which had a mere 13 members, there was a woman in the person of Golda Meir who served as minister of labor and social security. There were 11 women elected to the first Knesset, moving up to a record number of 30 women in the present outgoing Knesset.
Meir went on to become foreign minister and later Israel’s first and only woman prime minister. As such, she was also the first woman in Israel to head a political party. Others who came afterwards include: Shulamit Aloni, Tzipi Livni, Zahava Galon, Shelly Yachimovich, Tamar Zandberg, and Orly Levy-Abecassis. Currently heading political parties in the upcoming Knesset election are Merav Michaeli (Labor) and Hagit Moshe (Bayit Yehudi). These women run the gamut from the ultra-Left to the ultra-Right.
Gender equality neither begins nor ends in the Knesset, despite the fact that Israel is a country in which everything is political.
Gender equality begins in the home and the kindergarten. In the home are decisions made together or is everything directed by only one of the spouses? Do they share household duties? If there are children are the parents on the same wave length on matters of education, independence and discipline?
In the workplace are women applicants for jobs given the same consideration as men with the same qualifications, and if they get the job do they earn the same salary as a man in an identical position?
The answer in many cases is no. There are in fact, many places in which women are more highly qualified than their male superiors or their male colleagues, but are earning less.
Women have broken through the glass ceiling in numerous professions in Israel, most obviously in law where three women have already served as presidents of the Supreme Court, and three as presidents of the National Labor Court. Even more have served as district court and magistrate court presidents and as prosecutors. Women are also prominent in journalism, including as political, diplomatic and military reporters, as well as news and current affairs anchors on radio and television.
So far, there has been only one woman State Comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, a retired Supreme Court judge, who in 1977, was also the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Similarly, there has been only one woman Knesset Speaker, Dalia Itzik, who also served as acting president of the state and filled that role for several months when President Moshe Katsav suspended himself when charged with rape.
There has yet to be a woman chief of staff of the IDF, although there has been a woman with the rank of major general, which is the second highest rank in the Israeli army. Orna Barbivai, who was the highest ranking woman in the IDF, is now a Yesh Atid member of Knesset.
Although women have proved their mettle in the army, including in combat units, there are still men who are trying to keep them out. Even men who don’t object to their presence, are unhappy about them serving in co-ed units, especially in tanks, and are somewhat embarrassed by their combat abilities.
In academia, women seldom get beyond the role of dean, regardless of their academic prowess, although there have been a handful of women heading universities and colleges.
Things look brighter on the economic front where women have been appointed to the top jobs in banks, and where several women head large scale diverse companies. There has also been a woman governor of the Bank of Israel.
The situation is even better in the diplomatic realm, where women head departments within the Foreign Ministry, and where the number of women ambassadors is on the rise.
Too often, as seen in the above examples, women are token leaders: one prime minister, one state comptroller, one Knesset speaker, one governor of the Bank of Israel.
The record is so much better in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Inasmuch as gender equality is an important issue in Israel, a more important battle being waged by women’s organizations is the problem of domestic violence which has escalated during the pandemic. In 2020, 21 women in Israel were murdered by their husbands or partners. Judging by the number of reports of domestic violence and the number of women already murdered this year, it looks as if the situation in 2021 will be a lot worse.
The tragedy is that there are insufficient shelters for battered women and their children, and even fewer facilities to help men overcome outbursts of violence.
If we want the world to become a better place, the starting point must be with the family and the kindergarten.