Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 20, Nos. 5/6, pp. 593-604, 1997 Copyright © 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0277-5395/97 $17.00 + .00

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ON R H E T O R I C AND C O M M I T M E N T : THE E M P L O Y M E N T OF M A R R I E D W O M E N D U R I N G THE DEPRESSION OF 1936-1939 DEBORAH S. BERNSTE1N Department of Sociology, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, Israel

Synopsis - - The debate concerning the employment of married women raged during the severe depression which hit the Palestine economy in 1936-1939. It began as a gender-neutral debate concerning the employment of both spouses, and was immediatelygenderized to focus on the employmentof the married woman. While most rank and file male, and to a much lesser extent, female organized workers demanded the restriction of the employmentof married women, strong opposition to such a demand was put up both by the Labor Movement (Histadrnt) leadership and by the Women Workers' Movement (WWM). It is argued in this article that despite the similar rhetoric used by Histadrut male leaders and by the WWM, a vital difference existed between them. In the former case, the opposition stemmed from the overall policy of the Histadrnt concerning the issue of unemployment, and had, in practice, little to do with the improvement of women's position in the labor market. In the case of the WWM, the opposition to the restriction of the employment of married women, was embedded in a wide range of activities aimed at securing the position of working women, both those married and unmarried. © 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd

The debate concerning the employment of both spouses raged during the severe depression that hit the Palestine economy in the years 19361939. In conditions o f extreme unemployment and hardship, the equitable allocation of work became a salient and heated issue. Solidarity within an organized labor m o v e m e n t called for an equitable allocation of work. If not all households could have an adequate income, at least none should be glaringly better off. H o w could any justice, or sense of justice, be maintained when one household had two wage earners while another had none. And if one spouse was to leave the labor market - - who was that to be? Would the controversy over the employment o f both spouses become a confrontation over the employment o f the married woman/the "second s p o u s e " in the e m p l o y e d c o u p l e . W o u ld women, the victims of inequality in the labor market, become the victims of the search for great equity? The debate concerning the employment of both spouses can serve as a microcosmos of the relations that had consolidated within the Jewish settlement in Palestine. It can serve, at one

and the same time, to highlight gender relations within the Jewish settlement, to highlight class relations within organized Jewish labor, and the interplay between the two. The positions taken will be studied in light of the wider perspectives of the different contenders. The rhetoric used to convey the positions, will be critically probed in terms of the concepts used, the actions pursued and the overall significance for a society in formation. More specifically, I shall discuss the gendered nature of the rhetoric, and the extent to which the speakers attempted to use a genderneutral language primarily to conceal the gender implications o f the positions they were exp r e s s i n g w h i l e others r e v e a l e d and e v e n emphasized the gendered significance. Furthermore, I shall elaborate the relation between the rhetoric - - the positions taken and the terms in which they were expressed, and the actions aimed at implementing those positions. It shall be noted that in a number of cases a similar position in relation to the employment of married women, was expressed in subtly different terms, and accompanied by a widely different strategy of action. Thus the relation between the 593



position taken, the terms used and the action pursued could, and did, vary significantly. Before delving into the debate itself, the scene must be set. No debate takes place in a vacuum. It is located in time and place. It is the crossing point of numerous processes which must be sketched so as to understand the positions taken by the different parties. Z I O N I S T I M M I G R A T I O N , THE HISTADRUT, AND THE W O M E N WORKERS' MOVEMENT The Jewish settlement in Palestine increased rapidly over the years of Zionist immigration, beginning in 1882. Large waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine, primarily from Eastern and then Central Europe. The largest ones, each of which doubled the already existing Jewish community, arrived in the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s (Gertz, 1947, p. 103). Women were an integral part of all of these waves of immigration. While they were in the minority in the early immigrations, which were mainly composed of single male immigrants, they amounted to approximately half of the largest waves in which families played a major role (Gertz, 1947, p. 98). Some of the immigrants, especially those who came as young single women and men, were affiliated with labour Zionist movements. They professed a commitment to the establishment of an egalitarian society, in which organized labor would be the leading force. Jewish immigrant workers, men and women, faced a range of difficulties, which were to determine their patterns of organization. The major difficulty was the absence of sufficient work for the rapidly growing labor force. Women were doubly affected by the shortage of work. They competed for employment with men in a labor market in which agriculture, construction, and related industries played a leading role. They also suffered from a very limited range of occupational choices. Much of the work was considered inappropriate for women, being relatively heavy physical labor. Thus, the women were channeled primarily into services - - above all into domestic service, but also into cooking, laundry work, and child care. Women were also employed in labor intensive industries, such as textile, clothing, cardboard products, and the manufacture of food, in which they worked mainly in the unmechanized jobs. Just over a quarter of the

women had the skills and the opportunities for clerical work, semi-professions and professions, though even then domestic service still remained a major occupation. Wages were very low, much lower than men's wages. This was an accepted fact, which was formalized in different wage scales for men and for women in collective work agreements signed by the Jewish Labor Movement with various employers (Bernstein, 1987). The difficulties faced by immigrant workers from the early years of Zionist labor immigration led to the formation of a large labor movement. In 1920, the General Federation of Jewish Labor - - the Histadrut, was established. By 1925, its membership included 53% of all Jewish workers, and by 1930 - - 75%, a level at which it remained for the next two decades (Gertz, 1947, p. 290). The Histadrut developed into a unique labor organization in that it combined a number of functions in a manner not found in most other cases of such organizations or movements - - it served as an organization for the protection and advancement of workers' rights, as an organization which provided its members with a wide range of social services, and as an employer. It fulfilled the latter capacity through the employment of a large staff of functionaries to administer its various institutions and through its economic enterprises. The Histadrut consolidated very early on as a highly centralized organization in which the rank and file were greatly dependent on the large administration of officials and functionaries (Shapiro, 1977; Sternhell, 1995). Women were members of all workers' organizations - - political parties, the Histadrut as the overall workers' association and trade unions which were an integral part of the Histadrut. And yet, from very early on it became evident, to the women in any case, that the Histadrut, as such, would do little to tackle women's particular difficulties. The Histadrut and its institutions, such as the Histadrut controlled Labor Exchange, the various trade unions, the local labor councils, etc. ignored women's special difficulties, and above all manifested complete indifference to their predicament. They could hardly be depended on to provide a fair share of employment, to help acquire skills let alone to secure, or even support, equal pay for women and men. Immediately after the formation of the Histadrut, in which women workers were full members, they

Rhetoric and Commitment

realized that they were still highly marginalized and established a separate organization - - the Women Workers' Movement (WWM), which was under the auspices of the Histadrut and an integral, though semi-autonomous, part of it (Bernstein, 1984; Izraeli, 1981; Bernstein, 1987). Despite the various ventures of the WWM, women's status in the labor market was clearly inferior. Their wages were far lower, and their tenure of work, much shorter. While at the level of expressed ideology there was no objection to the continued employment of married women and the notion of "a woman's place is in the home" did not explicitly prevail, in practice, married women tended to quit the labor market. The lack of supporting services, the shortage of employment and the low wages led most of the women to quit their employment on marriage. Some continued to contribute to the family income through work done from within the household, such as taking in tenants, supplying meals for single men, etc. The status allocated to most married women within the Histadrut was - "Workers' Wives," meaning that most of the women who were registered as members of the Histadrut were not directly employed in the labor market, but were married to men who were, and their membership in the labor movement was a mediated one (Bernstein, 1992). Having set forth both the labor market context and the organizational arena, we can begin to tackle the controversy itself. But not yet. The controversy over the employment of both spouses was located within a still larger confrontation, which polarized the Histadrut, positing much of the working, predominantly male, rank and file in opposition to the Histadrut administration and functionaries. I N E Q U A L I T Y AND I N E Q U I T Y WITHIN THE H I S T A D R U T The deep divide between men and women in the Histadrut, at the level of employment and unemployment, occupational marginality and level of wage, was not the only one in organized labor. Histadrut male members were deeply divided among themselves, forming a class hierarchy within the Histadrut (Sternhell, 1995, pp. 356-366). The Histadrut leadership and large administration enjoyed a completely different standard of living and life experience from the rank and file of skilled, and much more, un-


skilled workers, with a level of wages that was substantially higher. A decision was taken already in 1922 to set an equal wage for all Histadrut employees, regardless of rank or position, based on a given accepted standard, and varying according to number of persons per family (Avizohar, 1977). This highly egalitarian principle was carried out in a far less egalitarian manner. The level agreed upon was, in itself, much higher than the typical wage of urban, let alone, rural workers. But, to make things worse, the agreed standard of wage was never implemented in practice, and Histadrut functionaries, especially the senior ones, enjoyed much higher wages (Shapiro, 1977, pp. 162-163; Sternhell, 1995, pp. 366-385; Tevet, 1980, pp. 349-361). Even more important, the officials and functionaries were not vulnerable to the sharp fluctuations of prosperity and depression. The condition of the organized Jewish working class was totally different. From the height of prosperity in which all (men) were employed the vast majority fell into the insecurity, anxiety, frustration and hunger of depression. The government, being the colonial British government was not expected to provide r e l i e f - - the organization of Jewish labor, was. The bitterness of the working class was turned toward its leaders, and even more so toward its officials and functionaries. The deep sense of frustration and rage was directed at them, with their comfortable life, their high and stable income, often made higher by the additional income of their spouse. During periods of depression the unemployed confronted the Histadrut administration, congregating in the labor exchanges, the local labor councils and the trade union offices, demonstrating and protesting (Avizohar, 1990, pp. 293-313). Depression had already set in late 1935, and by 1938 it had deepened. Many had already been unemployed for extended periods, and others joined the ranks of the unemployed. The course of action pursued by the Histadrut leadership, was the creation of commonweal funds, based on obligatory contributions by Histadrut members together with funds from other Jewish national institutions. These funds were under the total control of the Histadrut Executive, which used them to create work opportunities and to allocate them according to elaborate criteria. This specific policy for easing unemployment, was in line with the overall policy of the Histadrut in developing economic resources and in managing them in a highly centralized man-



ner, which created strong dependency of its membership. Thus, the Histadrut established an Unemployment Fund (Keren Hoser Avodah), which was composed of monies from the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency (see glossary), and from the Histadrut itself. In the years 1936-1940 the Histadrut embarked on a number of fund raising campaigns. In each campaign, workers were called upon to donate the equivalent of one day of work. As time went by, the resentment among the rank and file workers increased. The sum collected in the third fund raising campaign was only one third of the sum collected in the first one (Eilam, 1974, pp. 40-41, 75-77, 79-82, 88). The impact of these attempts at relieving unemployment were extremely limited. Above all, they could not signifcantly diminish the gap, the social chasm, between those who were well off and those who suffered dire poverty. And within this scene of hardship, resentment focused on the Histadrut functionary who, in addition to all the good he enjoyed, could benefit from the salary of his employed wife...and from him, and her, on to all employed wives whose husbands made an adequate living .... Thus despite the overall weak position of women in the labor market, despite the fact that most women left the labor market on marriage, the limelight was turned on the employed marfled woman.

THE RESTRICTION OF THE E M P L O Y M E N T OF B O T H SPOUSES: WHO WOULD LEAVE AND WHO W O U L D STAY? All through the years of depression, the demand to prohibit the employment of both spouses appeared again and again. It was put forward by the unemployed people, primarily men, but also single women and women whose husbands were unemployed. They were backed, in many cases, by the local level Histadrut functionaries who interacted with unemployed people on a day to day basis. In more precise terms, the demand was to prohibit the employment of both spouses, in all those cases where the employment of one of the two would suffice to ensure the level of income considered adequate by Histadrut criteria. In those cases where for one reason or other neither spouse could stop working, the second wage should be handed over to the Unemployment Fund.

Those who demanded the restriction of the employment of both spouses, linked such a step with other means of equalizing family income within the Histadrut. Above all, rank and file workers demanded the implementation of Histadrut resolutions concerning the restriction of the wage of Histadrut employees to the "family standards" formally established, but never implemented. And yet, precisely because of the bitter experience with the inability of the Histadrut to restrict the earnings of high income families or to appropriate part of their income, the restriction of number of workers per household seemed far more feasible. If not totally just, if still leaving many earning far above accepted standards, it was at least a tangible, concrete attempt at greater equity (Eilam, 1974, pp. 75-76; Sternhell, 1995, pp. 395-396). The language used in phrasing the demand was gender-neutral. It was never explicitly proposed to prohibit the employment of married women. The opposition was always made to the number of wage earners per household, or to the "dual spouse" employment. Each household was free to decide who would be the spouse to continue working, and who would be the one to quit. After all - - as one of the workers wrote to the Histadrut daily paper, D a v a r 1 - - "Maybe it will be the woman who will stay at work and the man will clean the rooms. That won't be a tragedy...." (Klorfield, D a v a r , 28.12.37). And yet, precisely the ironical undertone makes quite clear that the writer was well aware of who would most probably be cleaning the house .... The gender-neutral presentation of the problem of unemployment and inequity, and the gender-neutral wording of the solution, were not actually so neutral. In what was said and how it was said, in what was omitted, in what was implied and what was added as an ironic comment, the gender significance of the proposed solution was amply clear. At times a proposal was phrased in a gender-neutral language, but as soon as it was elaborated, gender seems to have crept in. For example, Avi Dan, in a letter to D a v a r , which constantly oscillated between a gender-neutral rhetoric and a highly genderized one, wrote: There are hundreds of women workers whose mate is a laborer or a clerical worker, holding a permanent job, making a decent income, and the woman also works full time. This is possible only in small families, as a

Rhetoric and Commitment

mother of two or three children cannot work outside of her home. And thus in one family the wage is spent on furniture, nicer clothes, recreation, etc. and in the second family hunger prevails - - But if we take the job of one of the spouses (on condition that the wage of the other spouse is adequate for their living) we can satisfy the hungry family. Such an arrangement is necessary not only in times of unemployment, as we always are in need of a system which will provide employment for a maximum number of immigrant families. And even if the woman's right for work outside of her home is a fundamental right, the necessities of life compel us to put the needs of immigration above it. (Avi Dan; Davar, 28.12.37) To conclude, it is significant that even among the opponents of "dual spouse" employment, at least in their writing in the Histadrut daily newspaper, no direct opposition was expressed to the employment of all married women. Certainly no direct opposition was expressed to the employment of women as such. And yet, despite many statements concerning the right of women to work, it was made absolutely clear who was the "movable" spouse and whose labor commitment was genuinely unquestioned.


The demand to prohibit the work of both spouses met with strong opposition (see Dvar Ha-Po'elet, 1936-39, especially No. 4, 1937; Davar, 28.12.37, 14.1.38, 12.4.38). The main flag bearers of the struggle against such restrictions were the leadership and activists of the WWM, but they found a somewhat surprising ally in the senior leadership of the Histadrut. The Histadrut Executive would have much preferred to ignore such demands as totally inappropriate and carry on with its work, but for the pressure of both rank and file workers and Histadrut functionaries at the local level. As a first step in responding to rank and file pressure, without giving in to it, the Histadrut Executive passed the task on to its Auditing Committee, to "study the matter." This entailed surveying the scope of the phenomenon of "dually employed spouses" in Histadrut institutions, such as the employees of the Histadrut administration in-


cluding its local labor councils, the administrative and professional staff of its economic enterprises, such as Solel Boneh, the Histadrut contracting company, the staff of the Histadrut Sick Fund, the workers of the collective kitchens run by the Histadrut and similarly related institutions. It was assumed that only in such institutions could the Histadrut implement a policy restricting the employment of a worker whose spouse was fully employed, and thus they were the target of survey. The Auditing Committee carried out two surveys in the beginning of 1938 and once again toward the end of 1939. Little had changed between surveys. The overall number of people employed directly by Histadrut institutions was approximately 1,800. 2 In 1938, there were 366 cases of couples in which both spouses were employed, with at least one of the two being a Histadrut employee. Of these, in 22 cases both spouses were employed in the same Histadrut institution and in another 75 cases, the two were employed by the Histadrut, but in different institutions. All in all, in 1938 approximately 30% of the employed couples were both employed by the Histadrut, the phenomenon which attracted the strongest criticism by the rank and file (Davar, 1936-39, 12.4.38). In 1939, 300 were men and women belonging to the same families, which amounted to 16% of all Histadrut employees (Histadrut Executive, 1939). Having reported this information in a gender neutral manner, providing information concerning spouses as such, the reporting of both surveys then went on to focus on the wife, the woman worker, and to document the occupational distribution of the women and their level of pay. It can be understood that they would be the ones to vacate their work place, and thus the nature of their job and income was the relevant information. There was little change between 1938 to 1939. There were 56 women who worked in clerical occupations, 4 in the professions, 26 in teaching (among these kindergarten teachers), 125 medical workers (approximately 70% of them nurses and the rest doctors) and 90 manual workers, among these the workers in the cooperative workers' kitchens. The wages of the women were not high - - 90 of them, approximately one quarter, were in the two lowest wage brackets and only very few received the high wages earned by senior Histadrut officials. Nevertheless, when the combined income of



both working spouses was calculated, it far surpassed that of the vast majority of working class households (Histadrut Executive, 1939). What would be gained by these women vacating their jobs? (And it was amply clear to both opponents and proponents of the proposal to restrict the employment of "both spouses," that it would be the women who would be the one to vacate the labor market.) A look at the occupational distribution of the female spouses leads to the conclusion that not many places of work would be provided for those groups of workers who applied most of the pressure against the employment of both spouses. Few of the large masses of unemployed construction workers and the workers in related occupations would enter the jobs vacated by women, as would few of the unemployed old-timers. Many of the positions entailed trained skills, such as those of clerical workers, teachers, nurses, and doctors. Others were kitchen workers,' a low paying, highly gender segregated occupation, which unemployed male construction workers were hardly likely to enter. Given the occupational distribution and the level of occupational segregation, it was far more likely that unemployed single women, or married women whose husband was unemployed, would be allocated the positions vacated by the exiting married female spouses. The latter possibility was seen, by some of its proponents, as beneficial for increasing equity and at the same time maintaining women' s right of employment. This was forcefully argued by some of the women who supported the restriction of the employment of both spouses. Le'ah Ebelsohn, for example, writing in Dvar Ha-Po'elet, the periodical of the WWM, called upon all working women, in whose household there was another provider, to limit their own work so as to give relief to the hardship experienced by other women (Le'ah Ebelsohn, 1937, p. 24). Aba Houshi, the powerful secretary of the Haifa Labor Council, followed this line of argument. He used it to launch an attack over the pages of the Histadrut paper, against the WWM, who opposed any restriction of the work of married women, regardless of the status of their husbands. He championed the rights and the needs of the unemployed women, who could benefit greatly from a policy which would prohibit the work of both spouses.

After all there are many women workers who have no work, neither yesterday nor today, who for many months have been unemployed. Must we care, before all else, for those who, both yesterday and today, are still employed, they and their husbands, while those have been pining away months upon months, are not entitled to work? (Aba Houshi, Davar, 28.12.37) Why an employed woman should become unemployed to provide work for an already unemployed women - - was not adequately explained in Aba Houshi' s attack on the WWM. And yet it is doubtful whether this concern for the hardship experienced by unemployed women was very genuine, going by past experience. It is even more doubtful whether it had anything to do with the recurring demand of predominantly male rank and file workers. As Beba Idelsohn, the secretary of the WWM, said: There is much talk of the unemployment among women workers, and on the basis of that, the demand is made to remove couples [from the labor market - - D.B.]. Why was everyone silent in the years of prosperity when many [men - - D.B.] worked overtime, and in the very same places women workers were unemployed? Why did we not hear, even recently, of any readiness to do something concerning the allocation of labor? (Davar, 12.4.38) Thus, the repeated demand had less to do with the actual benefit which could be gained by one spouse - - the wife - - vacating her job, as with the combined anger at the advantageous position of many of the Histadrut administration on the one hand, and at the very fact of married women being where they really had no place to be...especially when men were unemployed, on the other. And yet, if some families would benefit, if some unemployed women would improve their lot, why the consistent opposition of both Histadrut senior officials and of the WWM? The opposition was justified on a number of grounds: • The genderized nature of the proposed resolution. • Work as an inalienable right.

Rhetoric and Commitment

• Broader implications for w o m e n ' s employment • Effect on the working class family • Impracticality • Preferable alternatives. Let us examine each one of these points:

The gendered nature of the proposed resolution Those opposing any restriction of the employment of both spouses made it a point to reveal and emphasize the gender implications of the supposedly gender neutral proposal. While emphasizing w o m e n ' s equal rights, they were fully aware that despite the gender-neutral rhetoric, women were the " m o v a b l e " category. No reasonable man would act otherwise .... Yisrael Gurfinkel, the chairman o f the Auditing Committee, which was given the task of examining the issue and drawing up its recommendations, stated clearly: It has been said that "there is no place for discrimination against the married woman. The woman might even stay at work and the man clean the house .... All these are empty statements which have little to do with reality. How many men - - if they are healthy in body and soul - - will quit work and leave the burden of providing for the family on the w e a k shoulders of the w o m a n ? (Davar, 12.4.38) Similarly responded Miriam Shlimovitz, an active member of the W W M : Let us not mislead ourselves for one moment. The male comrades, who argue against the employment of both spouses, never even consider the resignation of the man so that he will be provided for by the woman. They would not want to see themselves in such a position, provided for by their women, not even temporarily. And yet, as far as the Israeli working woman is concerned, who was educated, just as they were, for independence and creative labor, they see it as natural for her to be permanently dependent, economically, on the man. And it is known that economic d e p e n d e n c e entails subordination. (Miriam Shlimovitz, Davar, 14.1.38)


Both Gurfinkel and Shlimovitz expressed the same position but their rhetoric was far from identical. The former appears to empathize with the physically and mentally healthy men who would not vacate the labor market, leaving their wives there instead of them. Shlimovitz, on the other hand, was far more ironical towards the men who could not conceive of themselves as being supported by their women folk.

Work as an inalienable right The restriction of the e m p l o y m e n t o f both spouses was seen blatantly and explicitly as an opposition to the right of the married woman to continue working, a right which was as inalienable as any other basic human and social right. This level of argument was put forward by some of the Histadrut's leaders and by both leadership and rank and file of the W W M . Ben Gurion, by far the senior leader of the Histadrut, stated dryly but clearly: Prohibiting the employment of both spouses, as a general principle, would badly hurt the right o f the woman to work and her right to independence. The woman has a right - even if she is married - - to be independent economically, to live off of her own work and not to be dependent on the work of her husband. Our Movement has the duty, as does society at large, to care for all those in search of employment, and to provide work to those in need, but this duty should not be carried out at the expense of other workers, whose right to work and economic independence is not terminated by marriage. (Ben Gurion, 1937, p. 185) Ben Gurion related work with individual independence. Implicitly he seemed to accept the feminist-marxist claim that economic dependence of the woman on her husband led to, or at least could lead to, relations of subordination. G o l d a M e i r s o n (Meir), one o f the few women in an elected position in the Histadrut leadership was no less emphatic. The continued employment of Golda herself was not in question. As an elected member of Histadrut institutions she could not be substituted by another, nonelected, woman or man. Nevertheless, she claimed forcefully that: As an elected worker, and one who wants to work, I would like to say that as soon as such



a resolution is passed I will do everything so that every working female comrade, especially those elected women, will leave their jobs .... The Histadrut will face a situation in which there will be no women in its institutions .... (Histadrut Executive, 1939, p. 79) "You can call this sabotage," she added in response to an interjection, "But I am not willing to give up on my right to work. The Histadrut can take decisions on all matters, but it cannot negate that right. (Histadrut Executive, 1989, p. 79) Work was considered so essential a right because it was seen as linked to so many individual and collective facets. It was taken as a condition for retaining o n e ' s autonomy, it was seen as essential for egalitarian relations within marriage, and, in line with the widely spread socialist rhetoric, it was considered the way to contribute to the collective Zionist-socialist venture. Women, so it was implied, were not a different species, contributing to society in their different, unique ways. They were autonomous, active, productive, human beings. As such none, not even the Histadrut had the right to challenge their employment.

Broader implications for the employment of women A resolution which would be passed as " a case of emergency," "until the acute hardship would pass," would have long-term implications, it was argued, not only for married women, but for all women. As Rachel Katznelson, one of the leaders of the W W M said: It is not to be believed that there is anyone who does not understand that the kind of workers who are permitted to work only in years of prosperity cease to be considered workers, as far as the employer is concerned, as far as the trade union is concerned, and as far as they themselves are concerned. (Histadrut Executive, 1939, p. 79) Many years of experience had shown how difficult it was for women to find employment in the first place. After all, much of the work of the W W M was devoted to helping women overcome the many obstacles they faced in the labor

market. The M o v e m e n t ' s activists were well aware of how any restriction imposed on wome n ' s employment would make these obstacles even more formidable. If women were to be employed only until they were married, who would consent to employ them in the first place? Furthermore, the W W M had claimed all along that the only chance women had to improve their status in the labor market was to acquire skills. Which woman and what employer would invest time and effort in such training when it was known that w o m e n ' s stay in the labor force was only tentative and temporary?

Effect on the working-class family Women were not seen only as autonomous individuals contributing to the collective venture, they were also portrayed time and again as the keepers of the working m a n ' s home, the socializers of the working man' s children. It was up to them whether the home would embody the values of the Labor Movement, or whether, within its four walls, a petit-bourgeouis style of life would take over the souls of the working class, and of its future generation. The individual family was thus seen, at one and the same time, as a threat to the pervasive authority of the Labor Movement, and as a possible ally. The Histadrut, I have argued elsewhere, needed the individual family. In the town, the family continued to carry out all the basic functions of a family in an individualized, capitalist society - - reproduction, socialization, sexuality, and consumption (Bernstein, 1992). The Histadrut, in the city, was freed of supplying many essential services due to the continued functioning of the family. And yet, possibly precisely because of the indispensability of the family, it posed a latent, and at times manifest threat. The woman, accepted by both men and women as the homemaker, was the one to determine the nature of the individual family, and thus its relation to and with the Movement. 3 The link between women, family, and Movement, did not turn on the benefit of women being at home to carry out their homemaking role. Instead it turned on the formative impact which labor would have on the employed wife and mother, enabling her to embue her family with the values of the working class and the Labor Movement (e.g., Miriam Shlimovitz, Davar, 14.1.38; A d a Fishman, Davar, 12.4.38).

Rhetoric and Commitment

Impracticality While women activists devoted much of their argument to the broader implications, such a policy would have for all women, men who opposed the proposed restriction devoted more of their attention to its impracticality. It was argued that many institutions were looking for ways to cut their expenses. If some workers (i.e., the unnecessarily employed spouse - - the married woman) would vacate their jobs, in all likelihood the position itself would be eliminated and no one would be employed in their place. Furthermore, what would happen to the single woman who would be employed instead of the resigning married woman when she too would get married...and what would be the lot of the resigning married woman if shortly after her resignation her husband would find himself unemployed .... What sort of policy could be based on such transient, changing circumstances?

Preferable alternatives The women activists stated clearly and emphatically, time and again, that they were deeply concerned with the extreme inequality within the Histadrut. Women were the victims of inequality both in times of unemployment and in times of prosperity. Rather than being presented as superfluous workers, it should be remembered that the rate of unemployment among women was the highest, and their level of pay - - the lowest. Hence, a policy which would further victimize women, could hardly be the best alternative. There is inequality among us, not only in the employment of both spouses. There are members among us who earn more than 20 LP, 4 while thousands of labourers, doing the most pioneering work, in town and in the moshava, 5 earn only 4-5 LP per month. As for inequality, there is the heart of the matter. (Shmilovitz, Davar, 12.4.38) Equity and equality, it was argued, were not synonymous with the number of employees per household, but with the level of income. The proper way, and the only one, to increase equality within the Histadrut, was to restrict the level of income per household, regardless of how many people contributed to it. The very fact that


the wife was employed, as well as the husband, should be no more of an affront to the sense of justice, than the employment of the husband only, if his wage was far above that earned in the households of most rank and file workers. The inability of the Histadrut to restrict such high incomes, primarily among its senior officials, should be confronted directly and honestly. It should not be evaded by penalizing those married women who, usually with great difficulty, persevered in their work. Inequality within the Histadrut was not new, argued the activists of the WWM, and the women were more frequently the victims of inequality than its cause. The alternative proposed by the WWM was to limit and equalize the level of income per household. All income exceeding the standard set by the Histadrut, regardless of whether it was earned by one wage earner or more, would be passed on to the commonweal funds of the Histadrut, and thus serve for the creation of new work opportunities for the unemployed. The employment of married women, in itself a goal of the WWM, would not be affected, the level of inequality, hopefully, would. THE W W M AND THE LEADERSHIP OF THE HISTADRUT In those debates which took place at the top levels of the Histadrut hierarchy, that of the Histadrut Executive and its Auditing Committee, any restriction of the right or practice of the employment of married women was rejected. Such restriction was opposed both by the leadership of the Histadrut on the one hand and by the leadership and most activists of the WWM on the other. This was in striking opposition to the pressure applied by rank and file Histadrut members, primarily, though not solely, male members. As can be seen from the above discussion the opposition to such a restriction was based on a wide range of arguments and considerations. The rhetoric in which these arguments were presented, despite its somewhat archaic language, seems to echo, to resound, or pre-sound, basic contemporary feminist tenets - - feminist thought, which perceives of women as autonomous, active, creative human beings, which sees marriage as a relationship of two autonomous people rejecting dependence and subordination between them, and which is well aware of the special difficulties faced by women



in the labor market, often overlooked or denied by those who claim that will and rational choice can overcome all obstacles .... The position taken, and the rhetoric used, by the W W M was hardly surprising. It can be seen as an extension of all the W W M had stood for and had struggled for so far. The extreme difficulties faced by women in the labor market had been the major cause for the formation of the WWM, and had been the central focus of its activity. They had no illusions whatsoever as to the genderized nature of the demand put forward in gender-neutral terms. The activists of the W W M were fully aware of the nature of the difficulties and obstacles faced by women, and could assess the detrimental impact such a policy would inevitably have. The position they took and the wording chosen to express it were fully compatible with their activity all through the years. What is far more surprising, and thus calls for special consideration, is the position taken by the Histadrut leadership. After all, it was precisely the indifference of Histadrut institutions toward the lot of women in the labor market that triggered the formation of the W W M in the first place. How are we then to explain the overall similarity between the position adopted by Histadrut leadership in support of the right of the employment of married women, and that of the WWM. On the face of it, one would conclude that the W W M was a highly effective force within the Histadrut, especially in all that concerned the working woman. It was able to have its position adopted and thus to protect the right of married women, despite strong and consistent rank and file pressure. And yet, everything that we have learned so far concerning the W W M and its impact within the Histadrut, would cast heavy doubts on such a conclusion. After all, most married women did not work outside of their homes precisely because they lacked the institutional support which would have enabled them to do so. The W W M established a separate labor exchange for women precisely because the "general" labor exchange paid little attention to their needs. The W W M with its restricted resources, was the one to train women workers because they benefited little from the training programs enjoyed primarily by men. Women were restricted to a narrow range of occupations as the WWM, on its own, did not have the ability to bring about occupational desegregation. And finally, women were paid extremely low, and

unequal, wages, as formal Histadrut policy, which the W W M was powerless to change. I argue that what would appear to be a common position was, in fact, motivated by totally different considerations. While the position of the W W M was closely related to its overall position and action concerning women's work, that of the Histadrut leadership was related to its overall position concerning unemployment. As discussed earlier on, the course of action pursued by the Histadrut leadership, was the creation of commonweal funds, which were under the total control of the Histadrut Executive. It used these funds to create work opportunities and to allocate them to Histadrut members in a highly centralized manner. The rank and file were increasingly resentful of the contributions required of it. As additional contributions were called for, they were answered by the demand for the resignation of married women. Such a course of action would be difficult to implement and would do little to ease unemployment. It would let some steam out, but it would also serve to delay and possibly evade the new contribution campaign on which the Histadrut Executive wanted to embark. Thus, I am arguing, the position taken by the Histadrut Executive stemmed, not so much from its commitment to women's equal rights, but from its opposition to any course of action which would detract from its ability to pursue its policies. The "meeting of minds" in support of the right of the married woman was far more coincidental, and far less significant, than it might appear. The very fact that the Histadrut Executive did not oppose the employment of married women was, indeed, of great importance, as a formal decision to the contrary would have been highly detrimental. But it did not signify the meeting of paths. Despite the declarations of support, the W W M was left alone to advance the needs of the working women, both employed and the unemployed. RHETORIC WITHOUT ACTION m WHERE DOES IT LEAD US? WHERE DOES IT LEAVE US? Given the above argument concerning the overall indifference of Histadrut leadership to women's predicament, what are we to make of their impressive rhetoric regarding the rights of the married woman? It is striking rhetoric. It not only acknowledged the right of women to work

Rhetoric and Commitment

in times of depression, but it recognized the significance of work for women's autonomy, equality, and self-esteem. Somewhat ironically, it is difficult to find in the annals of the Histadrut much like it, precisely because they were too indifferent to the problems facing women to address them frequently. It can also be argued that rhetoric which acknowledged women's worth, and recognized the obstacles they face, is of value. After all Ben Gurion, Yisrael Gurfinkel, and others could have rejected the proposal to restrict the employment of married women, devoting far less attention to the basic issues of gender involved. They did pay at least lip service to the equality of women, they possibly even paid homage to it. But they did absolutely nothing else. Their rhetoric was rhetoric without action. Such rhetoric, despite seeming or genuine similarity, should not be confused with rhetoric which was accompanied by, and in turn, itself accompanied, action, even if the action was ineffective, as was much of the action of the Women Workers' Movement. After all, the general silence and indifference of Histadrut institutions most of the time, indeed, almost all of the time, spoke louder than its eloquent rhetoric. It was precisely this indifference which was so crucial to the failure of the WWM, to its inability to bring about significant change by the action it tried to pursue. The rhetoric hailing the right of married women to work and autonomy, helped create the myth that women in fact enjoyed those rights .... Most of them did not. The myth of women's equality during the pre-state period was later to boomerang. Women were told that they had enjoyed equality but had lost it through lack of diligence, maybe through lack of interest, or through the work of nature .... Only later, did we begin to examine the myths ourselves, which is where the new feminist study of Israeli women's history began. ENDNOTES 1. The Histadmt daily newspaper, Davar, published three long sections dealing with the issue of the employment of both spouses. On 28.12.37, and on 14.1.38, a whole page and a half were devoted to readers' letters. The 12.4.38 Davar published the minutes of the debate in the Auditing Committee. In all cases where quotes will be brought from readers' letters or from the Auditing Committee's debate, the name of the writer-speaker will be given and the date of the publication in Davar. This will not appear once again in the list of references. 2. This did not include the many construction workers who


were wage earners of Solel Boneh, but only the permanent staff of that institution. 3. See, for example, Aba Houshi, in a public debate which took place in Haifa, 1937, concerning the woman - homemaker, in Bernstein, 1987, pp. 191-194. 4. LP stands for Palestine sterling pound, which was the local currency. 5. Moshava - - a settlement based on agricultural private farms, as opposed to the collective kibbutz. Many workers, members of the Histadrut, were employed as agricultural wage labour in these settlements, at very low levels of wage.


The Jewish Agency. Established by the World Zionist Organization. Intended as a means for cooperation with the British mandatory government in Palestine for the advancement of the Jewish National Home. The World Zionist Organization (WZO). The major organization of political Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Included the various foundations for raising money and investing it in Jewish immigration and settlement of Palestine. REFERENCES Avizohar, Meir. (1977). The family wage. Journal of Social Policy, 6, 4%54. Avizohar, Meir. (1990). National and social ideas as reflected in Mapai--The Israeli Labor Party--1930-1942. Tel Aviv: Am Oved. (in Hebrew) Avizohar, Melt, & Shavit, Yaacov. (1978). Restricting the standard of living of Histadmt officials. Social Security, 16, 40-52. (in Hebrew) Ben Gurion, David. (1937). On the issue of the employment of both spouces. Dvar Ha-Po'elet, 4, 185. (in Hebrew) Bemstein, S. Deborah. (1984). Women workers and women pioneers in the Second Aliya - - Hopes and disappointment. Idan, 4, 145-163. (in Hebrew) Bemstein, S. Deborah. (1987). The struggle for equality-Urban women workers in pre-state Israeli society. New York: Praeger. Bemstein, S. Deborah, (1992). Human being or housewife: The status of women in the Jewish working class family in Palestine of the 1920s and 1930s. In D. Bernstein (Ed.), Pioneers and homemakers: Jewish women in pre-state Israel (pp. 235-260). Albany: SUNY Press. Davar (28.12.37). Davar (14.1.38). Davar (12.4.38). Ebelsohn Le'ah. (1937). On the issue of the employment of both spouces. Dvar Ha-Po'elet, 3, 24. (in Hebrew) Eilam Itzhak. (1974). A time to build. Tel Aviv: Am Oved. (in Hebrew) Gertz, A. (1947). Statistical handbook of Jewish Palestine, 1947. Jerusalem: Jewish Agency of Palestine. Histadmt Executive. (1939). Minutes of Histadrut Executive (Vol. 41, pp. 4-5). Labor Archive Library. Mimeo.



Izraeli, N. Dafna. (1981). The Zionist women's movement: in Palestine, 1911-1927: A sociological analysis. Signs, 7, 87-114. Shapiro, Jonathan. (1977). The organization of power. Tel Aviv: Am Oved. (in Hebrew)

Sternhell, Zeev. (1995). Nation-building or a new society? The Zionist Labor Movement (1904-1940) and the origins of Israel. Tel Aviv: Am Oved. (in Hebrew) Tevet, Shabtai. (1980). The zeal ofDavM (Vol. II). Jerusalem: Schoeken. (in Hebrew)

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