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‘She’s Got A Man’s Head On Her Shoulders’ Ada Fishman (Maimon) as a Test Case For Women’s Political Activity

The emergent Zionist society in Eretz Israel witnessed the rise of staunch women leaders. One of these women was Ada Fishman (Maimon), born in 1893 and died in 1973. Fishman immigrated to Eretz Israel with her family in 1913; fought for suffrage from 1918 onward; and was among the founders of the Women Workers Movement within the Histadrut (the Israel Labor Federation) from 1920. Later in her life, in the early 1950s, she became a Knesset member. Despite Fishman’s longevity, her independent personality and broad-ranging activity, she was relegated to oblivion in Israel’s collective memory.

Looking at Fishman’s path in the public sphere from the point of view of women’s involvement in the political arena raises questions. How did Fishman chart her path in the new political milieu created by the Zionist movement, and what was the gendered context and significance of her activities?

Ada Fishman got her start as a Zionist activist in Bessarabia, where she was born into a learned, religiously observant family and became known for her intellectual acuity, strong-mindedness and ability to hold her own in a debate (Geula Bat Yehuda, Rav Maimon and His Contemporaries(Jerusalem, Mosad Harav Kook, 1979), p. 77). In January 1913, Fishman, who was then 20 years old, immigrated to Eretz Israel together with her revered brother, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman (Maimon), his wife Batya, and a younger brother. In Eretz Israel, Ada began her career as a teacher. Her first teaching job was at the school of the Frankfurt Orthodox Community in Petah Tikva, but the school’s rigidly Orthodox atmosphere was not to her taste, (Shilo, “Ada Fishman Maimon” (above, note 29), pp. 289-290). and she soon left. In the spring of 1914, she set out for Safed at the invitation of the Teachers’ Center established by the Zionists in Eretz Israel. Faced with the growing influence of Safed’s Scottish Mission School, Fishman was given the task of opening a Hebrew-language school for girls and teaching in it (See Rika Yitzhaki-Harel, “The Scottish Mission in Safed until World War I and the Jewish Community’s Response to Missionary Activity,” Cathedra, 123 (Spring 2007), pp. 67-92 (Hebrew). Later on, members of the Zionist community got involved as well, and these included Fishman. See Ada Maimon, Along the Way: A Selection of Essays and Letters (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1973), p. 13).

For Ada, with her developed Jewish consciousness, the competition between the Hebrew school and the Scottish Mission School was a source of “keen humiliation,” and she found it hard to “bear the shame” of the Mission’s popularity. She was no less upset by the class stratification that had emerged among the city’s Jews, particularly between those who collaborated with the Mission School, leading them to adopt lifestyles that were foreign to the national spirit that she was hoping to cultivate, and their opponents. The youthful Fishman had no compunctions about voicing her opinions in public, and she lashed out fearlessly at the “old yishuv” (the traditional Jewish community that had existed in Eretz Israel before the onset of Zionism) and its ways. Fishman believed that she was saved from the Rabbis’ wrath only by her distinguished lineage, of which she was well aware.

Her lineage also stood her in good stead in her next struggle, which was once more against the city’s rabbinic establishment. When the time drew near for the traditional Lag Ba‘Omer festivities on Mt. Meron, Fishman decided to take part in them – notwithstanding the strict ban set by the local old-yishuv rabbinic establishment on the participation of women (This ban was a relatively new one; in the past, women had taken part in the festivities. See A.M. Lunz, A Guide in Eretz Israel and Syria (Jerusalem, 5651/1891; new edition), pp. 257-258 (Hebrew)). Nor was she deterred by her colleagues’ warnings that she would end up destroying the school. Fishman organized an expedition of three women, with some men for reinforcement, and led them up the mountain. Ever sensitive to the underprivileged, and particularly to subjugated women’s unmet needs, she recorded:

All along the way … women were sitting by … with an infinite yearning in their eyes. When they saw us, their eyes flamed with jealousy, but they kept silent and said nothing (Maimon, Along the Way (above, note 31), p. 16).

When night fell, Fishman and her friends sought shelter in the room of a local Jew. She was not put off by his protestations about the presence of women in the room, and only after her companions besought her to relent, did she agree to their leaving. The company passed the night in the shack of a local Arab and dined the following morning on cow’s milk, extracted by Ada’s own hands. No wonder the young woman’s conduct left a strong impression on her companions (Ada Fishman, “A Teacher in the First Hebrew School in Safed,” in B. Habas (ed.), The Book of the Second Aliyah (Tel Aviv, 5707/1947), p. 578).

The form taken by Ada Fishman’s protest in Safed, bore within it the characteristics of the dauntless opposition she would show throughout her life to dictates that clashed with her own reason, her conception of social justice, or her understanding of Jewish thought and ethics:

One day I was listening to a heated argument among some Talmud scholars who were among the frequent comers to our house. … I heard them say: “Women are exempt from positive time-bound commandments” [see Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7]. … And when, one day, I asked why women are exempt … I received the answer that women have so much work to do in caring for the home and the children that they should not be given the additional burden of observing these commandments. This answer did not satisfy me. … This inner resistance gave me no rest, and it caused me constant distress and disconsolate thoughts. Ultimately, I arrived at my own explanation for the “mysterious exemption”: It must be because women are viewed as being of inferior status, and as lacking the ability to take on burdensome commandments. This explanation of mine only increased my sense of burning humiliation, discrimination and injustice, all at once (Ada Maimon, “An Episode Worth Mentioning,” in Along the Way(above, note 31), pp. 214-215).

Fishman, with her thorough grounding in Jewish sources, was indignant about the exclusion of women from the public sphere – in this case, from the celebrations at Mt. Meron – solely by reason of their sex. That is why she refused to be bound by the dictates of the rabbis of Safed in particular and the rabbinic establishment in general. Her protest bore fruit. The inclusion of women in the festivities brought about a redefining of the boundaries of the public sphere.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Fishman found her way to her occupation of choice: farm work. Her experiences as a hired farm hand enhanced both her class and her gender consciousness. Though she thought that laborers ought to be paid a decent wage for their toil, she did not see the accumulation of property of any sort as a worthy goal. Joining her personal experience to her social worldview, she declared:

I took upon myself a regimen of frugality, which implanted in me the confidence that there was nothing wrong with being compensated for my work. My inner commitment to frugality grew ever stronger, especially when I so often saw how people went after profits without stopping to think about their nature, and so came to squandering, without ever grasping that money, if it leads to squandering, is always tainted (Maimon, Along the Way (above, note 31), p. 213).

In 1913, Fishman applied successfully for membership in the workers’ Hapo’el Hatza’ir party. Her ties with Hapo’el Hatza’ir, in which she served as a member of the Central Committee (1913-1920), were an important element in her integration into the labor movement in Eretz Israel. But how did this religiously observant young woman come to associate herself with a workers’ party, hardly to be identified with Orthodox piety?

Fishman’s attraction to the party was ideological. Its positions regarding the centrality of Hebrew language and culture and the importance of productive personal labor, and, most of all, its hint of understanding for the difficulties of women laborers, all fit well with her own worldview. Her acquaintance with several party members also had an influence (For example, A.D. Gordon, the party’s “spiritual shepherd”; on Gordon’s relationships with a number of young women who had arrived in Palestine during the Second Aliyah see Ramon, A New Life (above, note 32), pp. 210-211). Fishman’s choice shows something of her inner integrity and tenacity, as she also remained committed to religious observance until the end of her life, including the dietary laws and the Sabbath, refusing any unnecessary violation of the Sabbath with the same fervor with which she opposed the exclusion of women from the commandments reserved for men.

Her family, chief among them her father, a highly regarded ritual scribe in his home town, did not censure her choices. According to her testimony, her father took pride in his daughter and stood firmly by her side (Maimon, “An Episode Worth Mentioning” (above, note 38), p. 215). Not too long thereafter, an accounting job for Hapo’el Hatza’ir’s newspaper, replaced her work in the groves. But that, too, did not last long. Ada Fishman was already deeply involved in organizing on behalf of women, and particularly of her fellow women laborers, whose difficulties she knew and identified with. Her consciousness of women’s weakness in the public sphere, emanating from the unequal power relations between men and women, galvanized her to action. Her principal struggle, with both institutions and individuals, became the issue of women’s rights to participate in the elections for the representative institutions of the Jewish community in what was then known as Mandatory Palestine.

Fishman and her compatriots in this struggle created a linkage between women’s equality and liberation, and the proper development of the new society. Their demand for equality related to both the public and the domestic spheres. As Fishman declared:

Whether you like it or not, it must be clear to all of us that the “happy” era when a woman would relate to every word issuing from the mouth of her patron as sacred is past. That “divine presence” that used to hover over Jewish homes and family life, imbuing them with the spirit of “put your husband’s will before your own,” has departed (Ada Fishman, To the Hebrew Woman (Jaffa, 1919), p. 3).

Though Fishman was aware of women’s limitations, she refused to accept their inferiority as a permanent fact of life. In her view, it was a consequence of neglect and poor education, for which the rabbinic establishment, among others, was to blame (Ibid., p. 4). Struggling tirelessly against the founding of the discriminatory treatment of women upon the lofty platform of Jewish tradition, she declared without fear that “the pious Jews of Eretz Israel have falsified our Torah.” (Ibid., p. 10). She protested sharply against men’s exploitation of their wives, whether they based it on their interpretation of Jewish law or on other rationales. In the course of her struggle for women’s suffrage in the yishuv, she lashed out:

The Yemenite woman, who toils to support both herself and her husband … and after her the Sephardi woman. … So did the masters-and-lords compel their wives to work against themselves. This was each man’s public slap in the face to his wife – and the pitiful women didn’t even notice (Ibid).

In order to enable meaningful change in the status of women in the family, there was a need for some far-reaching revision in the rabbinical courts, who, as Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen was later to put it, had been endowed with the authority “both to judge and to legislate” for the country’s Jewish community in matters of personal status (Haim Cohen, Being Jewish (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Kinneret-Dvir, 2006), pp. 20-21).  The decision of the British authorities to endow the rabbinical courts with this authority put women in a difficult, abject position, particularly in view of the circumstances created by the country’s immigrant society. That is why progressive women, including Fishman, called upon the Mandate government in the early 1920s not to give over authority to a rabbinical court. As an alternative, the progressive women demanded “that a secular Hebrew court be instituted by the government, on the basis of equal rights for women and for men,” to have judicial authority in matters of personal status, inheritance, guardianship, support payments, and so on (The women’s request was not granted, though British legislation allowed them to file suit in such matters in the civil courts. Sarah Azaryahu, A Hebrew Women’s Union for Equal Rights in Eretz Israel (Hebrew; reprinted Haifa: Women’s Aid Foundation, 1977), pp. 61-63).

Ada Fishman’s struggle for women’s equal rights was the channel through which she allowed her views their most open expression. She believed that women’s collaboration to further their own concerns must override the political and social affiliations of those who joined in the effort. Thus, she assigned the gender principle priority over class, political and other elements (Rafi Tehon, The Struggle for Women’s Equal Rights: The Life Story of Sarah Tehon (Hebrew; self-published, 1996), pp. 236-237). She took a feminist attitude toward women’s status as wives and mothers and toward the economic and social significance of their labor. Fishman rejected the conventional distinction between wage-earning women laborers, who thus had rights in the labor movement, and those who cared for the laborers’ families in their homes. She viewed the latter as no less productive than the former. At the height of the economic crisis in the late 1930s, she declared: “The woman who keeps the household on her husband’s meager salary while raising two or three children is a working woman!” (Ada Fishman, “Our Married Women Comrades,” Davar hapo‘elet, 3/10-11 (January 1937), p. 211). Fishman’s voice may have been at its most cogent and progressive-minded on this very subject, though she herself remained single and lived to the end of her life in a one-bedroom apartment without a kitchen at Ayanot,the women’s farming school near Nes Tziona she had conceived of and helped to establish. In her view, the “housewives” who worked so hard in their homes were entitled to enjoy the rights usually viewed as reserved for wage-earners.

Fishman saw women as independent entities not to be identified solely by way of their biological functions, nor to suffer discrimination because of their physical differences from men. Well aware of the difficulties women faced in a man’s world, she sought to help them acquire tools to enhance their ability to cope and to compete professionally.

The establishment of the women laborers’ farm, Ayanot, in 1932, was a significant landmark on the twisted path of gender politics in the yishuv. The initiative, the conception, the funding, the realization and the ongoing management were all done by women, drawn together from different ideological approaches and socioeconomic classes. Fishman, coming from the labor movement, did the work and ran the farm, while “bourgeois” members of WIZO from Romania provided her with the necessary funds. Of course, the assent of the Zionist establishment was also vital to the project. The establishment of an enterprise designated specifically for women did not impinge upon and perhaps even benefitted the interests of the establishment, which, accordingly, gave its blessing (Maimon, Fifty Years (above, note 55), pp. 106-107).

Fishman saw Ayanot as one of her greatest triumphs. In her room, which, apart from a bulging bookcase, was bare of any trappings of distinction, achievement or status, she welcomed a stream of visitors, from within her own party and outside it, women and men who had been her comrades on the way, past and present political figures.

Had Fishman not been active in women’s affairs, and had she not expressed herself so forthrightly on gender issues, might her status in the public arena have been stronger? Ada Fishman offered a model of a woman leader who, like her counterparts in other countries, worked on women’s behalf in their own separate framework. Notwithstanding her place at the heart of the Histadrut establishment and, later, that of the State, Fishman (Maimon), as an ascetic and unbending women laborers’ leader who refused to kowtow to the establishment, respective of party affiliation, was rejected from the embrace of collective memory. Her well-guarded privacy, her refusal of public honors and her austerity condemned her to the sidelines of history.

Dr. Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is a lecturer of Jewish History and Women’s Studies at the Schechter Institute. She is currently writing a biography of Ada Fishman (Maimon) which will be published in the near future.

Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is an Associate Professor of History, emeritus. Her fields of research include Women’s Studies, Modern Jewish History and Land of Israel Studies. Professor Margalit Stern got her PhD at the University of Haifa and her post-doctoral training at Stanford University. After several years of exploring life in the United States, she came back to Israel and became a member of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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