Women struggle for equality: Dina’s job search in Israel in the 1950s

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Dina (right) with us, her four children (Amira, Nurit, Daphna, and Gideon), and with her husband (our father) Oscar, few months before Oscar passed away.

 

By Gideon

Dina, my mother, the fourth in a family of ten children, was born in Berlin. The family, which was active in the Zionist movement, moved to Israel in 1933 after the Nazis came to power. The family settled in Jerusalem when Dina was two years old. It was a difficult transition from a modern country to a place with little industry, but they strongly believed in the Zionist movement and accepted the challenge. Her father wasn’t able to find a job in his profession, chemist, so he worked as a guard, a policeman, and any other job he could find. Money was tight. When WWII broke out, he joined the British Army to fight the Nazis. He spent most of the war overseas interrogating captured Nazi officers. Her mother was left to raise their large family by herself.

Living conditions in Jerusalem during Israel’s Independence war  were very difficult. Arab forces circled the city and cut off food supply to Jerusalem. The city was on the verge of starvation  for a long time, until Israeli forces found a way around it. After Israel’s independence war was over, her father bought a farm in a village called Herut to fulfill a life long Zionist dream to live off the land. Since he wasn’t a farmer and relatively old when he did it, most of the work fell on the children: The boys worked the farm and Dina, the oldest among the girls, assumed many of the household chores, including raising the young children. The farm barely supported the family.

When Dina was drafted into the young Israeli army at the age of 18, she finally had an opportunity to do something else: She was sent to a radio operator school where she learned how to communicate using a Morse code.  She welcomed the opportunity and excelled in it. She was looking forward to completing her military service, finding a job in her profession, and for the first time in her life become financially independent and start her life as an adult. 

Fast forward to 2016:

When my sister Daphna received a phone call from Dr. Sharon Geva of the Tel Aviv University, asking her to speak with my mother Dina about a letter that Dina wrote to the Israeli newspaper Davar in 1953 about discrimination against women in the workplace, a letter which at the time became the talk of the day in the young Israeli society, Daphna didn’t know anything about it. None of us knew about the letter. Dina never mentioned it.

Dr. Geva said that she had discussed the letter with her students in her graduate course about women’s professions and that the responses were warm and supportive. She also said that she mentioned it in her book “To the unknown sister, the Holocaust heroines of the Israeli society”  אל האחות הלא ידועה: גיבורות השואה בחברה הישראלית

At first my mother was reluctant to talk about it. Dina is not a person who’s looking to be in the spotlight. She considered the whole affair as something that got out of hand. It wasn’t her intention to be at the center of a public discussion about the place of the woman in the Israeli society.

In 1953, Dina was a young woman who was recently discharged from the army and was looking for a job. She was an experienced radio operator, specialized in Morse code transmission and translation. A skill that was needed in Israel of the 1950s. Yet she was turned down time after time only because she was a woman. 

Israel became an independent state only five years earlier in 1948. It was a difficult period: Arab terrorists routinely infiltrated the borders with Jordan and Egypt. A threat of another war with the Arabs worried most Israelis. The country was in the process of absorbing massive immigration waves of Holocaust survivors and of Jews who fled Arab countries. The Israeli leaders were preoccupied with creating national institutions and organizations to govern the country. They struggled to come to a consensus on how to run the country. The issue of discrimination against women wasn’t a major topic of discussion.  

One day Dina saw an article in the Davar newspaper, written by Miriam Shir, that called for young women to learn “manly” technical professions. Dina, who at the time couldn’t find a job in a technical field because she was a woman, wrote a private letter to the reporter, disagreeing with the article. She had no idea that her letter will be published. Once the letter was published, it became a hot topic that forced a public response from the ELAL airline (one of the companies that turned Dina down). Dina was embarrassed by all the attention she suddenly received and never mentioned it to us.    

Since Dina’s letter is a historical testimony of the period, I translated the letter  to English (the best I could). I also translated ELAL’s response. I attached copies of the original article, Dina’s letter, and ELAL’ response to this article. The attachments are in  Hebrew.

Dina’s  Letter

I read with great interest the article about the daughter who wants a “manly” profession because this problem is directly related to me, although I do not wish to enroll into a vocational school because I already have a profession that I like very much. However, it is considered by many as a “manly” profession which makes it difficult for me to find a job.

It is certainly the right approach for a young woman who wants to learn a technical profession (if she has the talent for it) and she is welcome to do that. However, what good is it to learn a “manly” profession if afterward all the doors of all the workplaces are closed to her.  

I am a Morse code technician. I learned the profession in the army, and since I was successful in this profession, I wanted to continue doing it as a civilian. However, when I tried, I hit a fortified wall. Everywhere I applied I received one answer: “Unfortunately we do not employ women”.

I must admit that I was shocked at the beginning. I grew up in a liberal house. I was educated in a Histadrut school (part of the Zionist workers’ movement), so I was raised on the notion that in our country we had achieved a total equality for women.

I knew about the big part women played in building the country since the days when roads were constructed, the work in the quarries, etc. The major part that women played in the kibbutzim (communal agricultural settlements), and in the workers’ movement in general. Women participated in the underground (Zionist groups that fought to free the country form British rule), and the Palmach (paramilitary organization that fought the Arab invading forces before and during Israel’s Independence War). The mandatory military service, and the equal duties and responsibilities for men and women soldiers, just intensified the feeling of gender equality.

Then I learned that the reality was completely different:

My first attempt was in the Israel Quarries, which had job opening but not for women…then I tried the police, not because I like uniform, but because I missed the radio transmitter.  At the police I was told that at the moment they are not hiring new people, particularly women.

I didn’t give up. At first I wanted to apply for a position on a ship, and then I remembered that I won’t be accepted because women weren’t welcomed on ships. At the same time I saw an ad in the newspaper about a new course for flight crew radio technicians offered by Elal (Israel’s airline).  Since my qualifications matched the requirements, I applied immediately. Shortly after that I received a questioner in the mail. I filled it out and sent it back. A month later I received a reply “…Unfortunately we cannot accept you since we are not hiring women to the flight crew radio technician course.”

I could have started an argument on principles:  Aren’t airlines hire female flight attendants? Aren’t flight attendants parts of the flight crew? Or perhaps they are not considered women? I heard about a woman pilot in the Arkia airline (a small Israeli domestic airline), flying between Lod (Tel Aviv airport) and Eilat. Isn’t she in an airplane? What about female paratroopers? Hadn’t they proven their worth? For these reasons, why women can’t be flight crew radio operators?

I think that such treatment toward women with “manly” profession is nothing but prejudice, which became common in recent years in our country, after the woman was pushed into the kitchen and to the office, which make it impossible for her to show her efficiency in other interesting professions.

If so, does it make sense to direct women to technical professions just to abandon and disappoint them later? First, Groundwork must take place so the public will recognize that a woman also has the right to work in a technical profession, just like a man does.  

Dina 

The ELAL response

We received from the Elal company the following letter:

Regarding Dina’s letter under the headline “Is it easy to make a living in a manly profession?” We wish to bring to the attention of the author and the readers the following: Although there’s no specific law in international airline companies regarding no hiring of women for flight crew, except for flight attendants, in reality this is the practice as an “unwritten law”. Around the world, including countries with much greater experience than Israel in flying matters, we’ve yet to achieve a state where the average passenger trusts flight crews that include women with any technical influence on the actual flight. It is difficult for people in the airline industry to accept such attitude by the passengers, but it exists and airlines who approach this issue from a commercial standpoint cannot ignore it.

ELAL is such a young company among international airlines. It is in a tough competition with bigger companies and cannot afford to be a pioneer in hiring women to flight crews. Please remember that only few years passed since the first women flight attendants were introduced to this profession on a large scale. It started in World War II. There are airlines that yet to employ women even in this profession. They still rely on men-only flight attendants. For that reason ELAL cannot employ a woman as a flight crew radio operator, although it is technically possible and entities that do not have to consider commercial aspects, the army for example, can afford to do that. For that reason, since the intention was to qualify candidates for flight crews duties, ELAL did not accept women as students to the radio operator course. However, in principle, there is no reason why women won’t be hired for ground radio operators duties, and ELAL, which is a member of the international telecommunication association SITA (or CITA), is willing to employ qualified women, based on qualification and not on gender, if there are openings for ground radio operators and applications are submitted.

Conclusion

After failing to find a job as a radio operator, Dina enrolled in a nursing program where she met and married my father. Shortly after that, she gave birth to four children. My father died 10 years later and Dina had to support all of us (four young children, ages six months to seven years). She did it successfully: We lived in a modest household and although we did not have much, Dina made sure that we had a roof over our head, food on the table, and some pocket money so we would feel equal to our friends in school.  We probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to graduate from college as we all did, if she didn’t insist on finding a profession that was needed and that paid a salary above the minimum pay.   

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Dina raised four children, had twelve grandchildren, and five great grandchildren when she passed away on August 30, 2016, at the age of 84.

Dina was loved by the people who knew her for her courage, her wisdom, her resilience,  her good heart and open house, her humility, optimism, and her generosity. I was fortunate to be raised by her.

This article is in her memory.

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Dina  (Kneeling Right) in the army. Dina served in the first year that women were  drafted into the army.

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Dina (standing, center) in nursing school

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Dina and me

The Pick family

Dina (center) at her 80th birthday with her extended Pick family

Dina with Leeor

Dina with her granddaughter and On Jewish Matters contributor LeeOr

ElAl Flight Atendent in the 1950s

ELAL flight attendant in the 1950s

Israeli women practice shooting August 1948

Israeli women practice shooting using a Sten machine-guns, August 1948

 

The original article

דבר 1953 מקצוע גברי - כתבה

Dina’s response

דבר 1953 מקצוע גברי - מכתב דינה פיק

ELAL response

דבר 1953 מקצוע גברי - תגובת אל על

 

Members of the Jewish right-wing underground organization Irgun December 27 1947

Members of the Jewish right-wing underground organization Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization in the Land of Israel) are armed with rifles, revolvers and automatic weapons as they take position on the rooftop of a Jewish house in case of Arab attack on the Jaffa – Tel Aviv border in the Manshiah Jewish quarter in Tel Aviv, Israel, on December 27, 1947.  (AP Photo/James Pringle)

 

Women filling sandbags Jerusalem 1948

Sandbags for defense works are filled by Jewish girls in the Montefiore quarter of Jerusalem in Feb. 1948. (AP Photo/James Pringle)

 

Israeli women in the kibbutz

Israeli women work in the Kibbutz 1904-1914

 

Related Story: Shlomo and Tova 

 

 

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