In her speech to the Harvard University graduating class this week, Angela Merkel urged a cautious optimism: “I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”
She went on to list some of the problems the youthful graduates might want to change: “Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said. “Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources.”
Angela Markel’s common sense optimism, as well as her acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the world today grow out of her life experience. Born in 1954, she was raised in East Germany during the difficult years when the Soviets controlled that nation. In university she studied science and did not engage in public life. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany that she was drawn to political life. Few people would have predicted she would become a leader. But, improbable or not, this quiet woman made her way past the bombastic male leaders of the party and eventually emerged as the leader.
Since becoming Chancellor of Germany in 2005, Merkel has been acknowledged as the leader of the European Union. She weathered the immigration crisis of 2015, encouraging Europeans to accept the humanitarian necessity of helping Syrian refugees to find a place in European society.
Now Europe is facing continuing turmoil as one country after another reveals a strain of populism that rejects immigrants and wants to turn the clock back. Merkel has said that she will leave politics in 2021 and allow someone else to negotiate the future. But her contribution to building a united Europe will not be forgotten. As historians look back on the first decades of the 21st century, I am certain she will be recognized as the outstanding political leader of our times.
Angela Merkel is not the only woman leader who is leaving the limelight. Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is also stepping down. May took on the onerous task of working out a Brexit plan to move Britain out of the European Union. After the referendum in which voters chose by a narrow margin to leave, several of the noisy male supporters of the move stepped back and chose not to handle the mess they had created.
Theresa May was the only political leader willing to take on the hard work of actually coming up with a plan. She came up with a number of plans, but, unsurprisingly, someone found fault with each one. The fact that she did not succeed in finding a magic formula that would suit everyone was almost inevitable.
When Theresa May stepped down, the media talked about her a failure. Perhaps they should wait to see whether any of her critics comes up with a foolproof plan that will be accepted by all sides. No one has shown any sign of doing that yet. I can’t wait to see whether any of the guys who have been jeering from the sidelines will step up and hit a home run now that they are on their own.
It is time for us to honor the courageous women who have not just talked but have taken on some of the world’s most serious problems. As Margaret Thatcher once said: If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.
Golda Meir lived a far more cosmopolitan life than Margaret Thatcher did perhaps that is what gave her such wide sympathies. She was born in Kiev in 1898, and remembered the fear of Russian pogroms that haunted her childhood. But she moved to the United States with her family when she was eight years old. She grew up in poverty and resisted her mother’s wish for her to quit high school and get married. Instead she went to college where she became an ardent Zionist. When she married, she and her husband moved to Palestine. They joined a kibbutz in 1921. There she found more poverty and hard work and eventually she moved the family to Tel Aviv and entered politics.
The Jewish population in Palestine grew during the decades following the first World War, but the arrival of World War II and the Nazi persecution of European Jews demonstrated that something more drastic had to be done. In 1948, Golda Meir was one of the 25 signers of Israel’s independence declaration. Her obituary in the New York Times quotes her as saying on this occasion “When I studied American history as a schoolgirl and I read about those who signed the Declaration of Independence, I couldn’t imagine these were real people doing something real. And there I was sitting down and signing a declaration of independence.”
From then on her life was dedicated to preserving the state of Israel. She became a member of the Israeli Parliament and served as Minister of Labor and later Foreign Minister. She became Prime Minister in 1969 and served until 1974. Israel was still fighting for its life. The murder of athletes at the 1972 Olympics occurred during that time and in 1973 the Yom Kippur War started. She was blamed for not being prepared for war and for hesitating too long before doing anything. To a woman who had always sought peace, it was difficult to accept the fact that Israel would continue to be a battleground. She hated having to send troops to war and said “A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader”. That was not a popular stance at the time, and was in sharp contrast to the quick decision by Margaret Thatcher to dispatch armed forces quickly to the brief war in the Falklands.
Two Iron Ladies—two different countries and two different times. Golda Meir is now remembered as a hero of Israel and is almost universally admired. Will Margaret Thatcher’s final fate be the same or not?