- Girls of Liberty: The Struggle for Suffrage in Mandatory Palestine by Margalit Shilo
Girls of Liberty: The Struggle for Suffrage in Mandatory Palestine
Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion, and Law & HBI Series on Jewish Women
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016. 200 pp.
Margalit Shilo’s Girls of Liberty offers a long-overdue extensive account of the struggle for women’s suffrage in Mandatory Palestine in the late 1910s and early 1920s. To be sure, the campaign for women’s voting rights in the emerging institutions of the Yishuv—the organized Jewish community of Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel—is no longer a completely “forgotten struggle,” as it has been discussed by several scholars, including Hannah Safran, Ruth Abrams, Dafna Izraeli, Hanna Herzog, Sylvia Fogiel Bijaoui and myself. Nonetheless, Shilo’s is the first book-length project devoted solely to this interesting episode in the history of the relationship between Zionism and feminism, and it provides a useful discussion of the wider implications of the Zionist women’s struggle for suffrage, shedding light on its place in the historical contexts both of the Zionist Yishuv and of global feminism, and charting the troubled emergence of the Zionist feminist subject.
The episode at the center of this book concerns the campaign launched by a small group of Zionist women, largely urban and unaffiliated with the Zionist labor movement, for women’s right to vote and be elected to the Assembly of Representatives. Established with the constitution of the British Mandate in Palestine, the Assembly was meant to organize the entire Jewish population in Palestine, including the different factions of the Zionist New Yishuv and the religious Old Yishuv. As Shilo’s book clearly shows, however, the question of women’s suffrage exposed deep rifts between the different Jewish communities in Palestine, to the point where a unified Zionist collective in the land seemed virtually impossible.
The book begins by appropriately framing the story of Zionist feminism in the context of the ambiguous relationship between nationalism and feminism: On the one hand, the nation’s institutions serve as a platform for women’s organizing and demands [End Page 177] for equal rights; but, on the other hand, nationalism as a political framework tends to be androcentric, centralizing men’s interests and the constitution of masculine political subjects. Following this theoretical introduction, the book proceeds to document in detail the development of the suffrage campaign, beginning with local struggles in various Jewish municipalities in Palestine, continuing with the campaign for voting rights in the Assembly of Representatives, and culminating with the establishment of a separate women’s party.
The main obstacle to women’s suffrage in the Yishuv was the objection of the ultra-Orthodox leaders and their constituents, who threatened to boycott the Assembly if women were given voting rights. Vis-à-vis this threat, the position of the Zionist leaders to a large extent was embarrassingly weak, for, as Shilo explains, they saw women’s suffrage as a long-term goal, whereas the unification of the Yishuv under one predominantly Zionist political umbrella seemed to them a much more urgent objective. The ambivalence of the Zionist leaders toward the “women’s question” manifested itself in a tedious process of multiple postponements of the first and second elections, and a long period (1919–1926) of indecision, in which, while women were already participating in the political process, their right to do so was constantly contested.
Especially useful and innovative is Shilo’s thorough discussion of the activity of the Union of Hebrew Women beyond the suffrage campaign, namely, its work in lobbying the British Mandate authorities for “feminist” legislation on such matters as equitable inheritance laws and the prohibition of child marriage, and its involvement in legal assistance to women of all strata in the Yishuv in confronting the rabbinical court. In this context, of particular interest are the episodes in which the Union found itself working closely and cooperatively with the rabbinical courts to resolve dire situations of women trapped in abusive marital households.
Beyond its contribution in exposing and synthesizing a large amount of archival material that adds much...