On Monday Newsweek/the Daily Beast named Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of Kadima, among its list of “150 women who shake the world”. She is the only Israeli in the list. The international list contains 52 women from the USA, 4 from the UK, 2 from France, 3 from the FSU, 5 from Egypt, 2 from Syria and 6 from Iran. No one from Jordan or the Palestinian Authority made the list.
Newsweek looks past the decline of the Kadima party in recent years and focuses in on the number of seats her party currently holds, her advocacy work and integrity. It describes her like this:
The first female opposition leader in Israel’s history, Tzipi Livni quickly rose through government ranks, from her first appointment in 2001 to being sworn in as the first woman vice prime minister five years later. currently the head of Kadima, Israel’s largest political party, Livni is one of the most powerful women in the country. A former lawyer known for her honesty and integrity, she has been a steadfast proponent of the peace process. Livni was the chief negotiator for Israel in talks with Palestinians, supporting a pullout from the gaza Strip and a two-state solution to the conflict. She is also an active advocate for women’s and gay rights.
Tzipi Livni responded to the recognition with gratitude and hopes that more women would have the opportunities to power that she has enjoyed. On her facebook page she wrote:
I am glad that Israel is represented on this distinguished list in this positive context of strong women, particularly at a time when Israel is mentioned in the context of the unacceptable phenomena of the exclusion of women, which has raised its ugly head. I hope more women will have the power to act and fight for the right to determine their future as I plan to continue to fight for the face and the values of Israel. (Translation: Times of Israel)
In an interview on Israeli Army Radio she acknowledged the compliment to herself, but then stressed the national signifiance, saying “it’s good that an Israeli woman features on the list.”
Every major Israeli newspaper has trumpeted this news, some in ways that are very telling about their biases. Whatever one thinks of her leadership of Kadima, it is hard to argue with the claim that she is one of the most powerful women in Israel. Yet all of the major papers except HaAretz and Ynet had difficulty with acknowledging Livni as a woman of power, even though they quoted liberally from the Newsweek biographical summary.
Arutz Sheva, which has close ties to the right wing of religious Zionism, suggested that the only reason she was on the list was “because” she was the first woman opposition leader. It made no mention of her power and in fact stressed her failure to form a government and the decline of her party in the polls.
The Jersualem Post is also somewhat derisive saying that Newsweek “dubbed” her as one of Israel’s most powerful women and making no mention at all of the leadership positions she’s held or her advocacy work.
The Times of Israel was more subtle, but still downplayed her power as well. It stressed her former career as a lawyer, her integrity and her current advocacy for women and gays. It omitted any mention of her power and the more hard core diplomatic role she played in the peace process.
We often think of sexism as unmitigated negative feelings towards a gender. However, quite often beneificent and hostile feelings towards women and women’s power can co-exist in a phenomenon known as “ambivalent sexism”. Both men and women can exhibit this sort of sexism because its underlying concern is the upsetting of a familiar status quo.
Such sexism sees women positively when they stick to traditional roles, such as mother, caregiver and advocate, or when they translate traditional roles into their public equivalent. However, hostility commonly arises when women depart from supportive leadership into a dominent role. The model explains well why Haredim and Hardal Israelis can speak in glowing terms of women as mothers, wives, and organizers of large scale charitable activities and yet still challenge a woman’s right to public leadership roles.
When more liberal individuals experience hostility, it often expresses itself by minimizing role departures and power. What we don’t see can’t threaten us. Hence the Times of Israel is quite comfortable lauding Tzipi Livni’s role as lawyer and advocate, but downplays her overall power and her roles as a peace negotiator, former vice prime minister, and party leader.
Though these well meaning efforts to suppress hostility are laudable, they actually can cause problems for women. Women’s achievements end up being understated. More perniciously, the good will makes it hard for women to name and object to prejudice and rigid role expectations. They can thus lock themselves into lowered expectations and strive for less than they are fully capable.
Tzipi Livni seems to have overcome those risk factors, but research shows this is not true for the average women. As a society we need to keep working on gaining comfort with female power even in non-traditional roles. Otherwise, Israeli society will not get the full benefit of its women’s capabilities.