Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel on 17 March 1969, after serving as Minister of Labour and Foreign Minister. She was described as the "Iron Lady" of Israeli politics years before the epithet became associated with British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. David Ben-Gurion used to call her "the best man in the government." Meir was Israel's first and thus far only female prime minister. She was the world's third female prime minister, but the first to hold this office without any prior family connection. Meir was often portrayed as the "strong-willed, straight-talking, gray-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people."
The family settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where her father found a job as a carpenter, and her mother ran a grocery store. At the age of eight, she was already put in charge of watching the store when her mother went to the market for supplies.
Golda attended the Fourth Street School (now Golda Meir School) from 1906 to 1912. A leader early on, Golda organized a fundraiser to pay for her classmates' textbooks. After forming the American Young Sisters Society, she rented a hall and scheduled a public meeting for the event. When she began school, she did not know English, but she graduated as valedictorian of her class.
At 14, she went to North Division High School and worked part-time. Her mother wanted her to leave school and marry, but she rebelled. She bought a train ticket to Denver, Colorado, and went to live with her married sister, Sheyna Korngold. The Korngolds held intellectual evenings at their home where Meir was exposed to debates on Zionism, literature, women's suffrage, trade unionism and more. In her autobiography, she wrote: "To the extent that my own future convictions were shaped and given form...those talk-filled nights in Denver played a considerable role." In Denver, she also met Morris Meyerson, a sign painter, whom she later married at the age of 19.
Golda and Morris married in 1917. Settling in Palestine was Golda's precondition for the marriage. Golda had intended to make Aliyah straight away but her plans were disrupted due to all transatlantic passenger services being canceled due to the first world war. Instead she threw her energies into Poale Zion activities. A short time after their wedding, Golda embarked on a fundraising campaign for Poale Zion that took her across the United States. Finding herself pregnant, she underwent an abortion because she felt "her Zionist obligations simply did not leave room for a child." The couple moved to Palestine in 1921 together with Golda's sister Sheyna.
In Palestine, the couple joined a kibbutz. Their initial application to kibbutz Merhavia in the Jezreel Valley was rejected, but in the end they were accepted. Golda's duties included picking almonds, planting trees, working in the chicken coops and running the kitchen. Recognizing her leadership abilities, the kibbutz chose her as its representative to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labour. In 1924, Golda and her husband left the kibbutz and resided briefly in Tel Aviv before settling in Jerusalem. There they had two children, a son Menachem (born 1924) and a daughter Sarah (born 1926). In 1928, Golda was elected secretary of Moetzet HaPoalot (Working Women's Council), which required her to spend two years (1932-34) as an emissary in the United States. The children went with her, but Morris stayed in Jerusalem. Morris and Golda grew apart and eventually divorced. Morris died in 1951.
In July 1938, Meir was the Jewish observer from Palestine at the Évian Conference, called by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss the question of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Delegates from the 32 invited countries repeatedly expressed their sorrow for the plight of the European Jews but made excuses as to why their countries could not help by admitting the refugees. Meir was disappointed at the outcome and remarked to the press, "There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore."
In January 1948, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency was convinced that Israel would not be able to raise more than $7-8 million from the American Jewish community. Meir traveled to the United States and managed to raise $50 million, which was used to purchase arms in Europe for the nascent state. Ben-Gurion wrote that Meir's role as the "Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible," would go down one day in the history books.
On 10 May 1948, four days before the official establishment of the state, Meir traveled to Amman disguised as an Arab woman for a secret meeting with King Abdullah of Transjordan at which she urged him not to join the other Arab countries in attacking the Jews. Abdullah asked her not to hurry to proclaim a state. Golda, known for her acerbic wit, replied: "We've been waiting for 2,000 years. Is that hurrying?
As head of the Jewish Agency Political Department, Meir called the mass exodus of Arabs before the War of Independence in 1948 as "dreadful" and likened it to what had befallen the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
In the early 1960s, Meir was diagnosed with lymphoma. In January 1966, she retired from the Foreign Ministry, citing exhaustion and ill health, but soon returned to public life as secretary general of Mapai, supporting the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, in party conflicts.
In 1969 and the early 1970s, Meir met with many world leaders to promote her vision of peace in the Middle East, including Richard Nixon (1969), Nicolae Ceausescu (1972) and Pope Paul VI (1973). In 1973, she hosted the chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt in Israel.
In August 1970, Meir accepted a U.S. peace initiative that called for an end to the War of Attrition and an Israeli pledge to withdraw to "secure and recognized boundaries" in the framework of a comprehensive peace settlement. The Gahal party quit the national unity government in protest, but Meir continued to lead the remaining coalition.
In the days leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence was not able to determine conclusively that an attack was imminent. However, on 5 October 1973, Meir received official news that Syrian forces were massing on the Golan Heights. The prime minister was alarmed by the reports, and felt that the situation reminded her of what happened before the 1967 war. Her advisers, however, assured her not to worry, saying that they would have adequate notice before a war broke out. This made sense at the time, since after the 1967 war, most Israelis felt it unlikely that Arabs would attack again. Consequently, although a resolution was passed granting her power to demand a full-scale call-up of the military (instead of the typical cabinet decision), Meir did not mobilize Israel's forces early. Soon, though, war became very clear. Six hours before the outbreak of hostilities, Meir met with Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and general David Elazar. While Dayan continued to argue that war was unlikely and thus was in favor of calling up the air force and only two divisions, Elazar advocated launching a full-scale pre-emptive strike on Syrian forces.
Meir sided with Dayan, citing Israel's need for foreign aid. She believed that Israel could not depend on European countries to supply Israel with military equipment, and the only country that might come to Israel's assistance was the United States. Fearing that the U.S. would be wary of intervening if Israel were perceived as initiating the hostilities, Meir decided against a pre-emptive strike. She made it a priority to inform Washington of her decision. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later confirmed Meir's assessment by stating that if Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, Israel would not have received "so much as a nail."
Biographer Elinor Burkett comes to a different interpretation of Meir; she says that Meir was the real hero of the war and not the Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, who considered surrender.
In 1975, Meir was awarded the Israel Prize for her special contribution to the State of Israel.
Golda Meir's story has been the subject of many fictionalized portrayals over the years. In 1977, Anne Bancroft played Meir in William Gibson's Broadway play Golda. Ingrid Bergman and the Australian actress Judy Davis played Meir in the television film A Woman Called Golda (1982), opposite Leonard Nimoy. In 2003, the American Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh portrayed her on Broadway in Golda's Balcony, Gibson's second play about Meir's life. The one-woman show was controversial in its implication that Meir considered using nuclear weapons during the Yom Kippur War. Valerie Harper portrayed her in the touring company and in the film version of Golda's Balcony. In 2005, actress Lynn Cohen portrayed Meir in Steven Spielberg's film Munich. Later on, Tovah Feldshuh assumed her role once again in the 2006 English-speaking French movie O Jerusalem.