“I’ve been described as a tough noisy woman–a prizefighter–a man-hater…a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am–and this ought to be made very clear–I am a very serious woman.”
Bella Abzug said that about herself in her memoir, Bella!, which was published in 1972, not long after she’d been elected to represent the 19th Congressional District on the West Side of Manhattan. She was the first woman elected to Congress on a women’s rights/peace platform. Her slogan: “This woman’s place is in the house…the House of Representatives!”
She was already instantly recognizable to the public thanks to her large, colorful hats and a voice Norman Mailer said that “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”
I interviewed her right after she was elected. I was a young journalist at McCall’s, caught up like most working women my age (I was 27) in the excitement of the women’s movement, and Bella was my heroine. She seemed part of every skirmish and every standoff in our struggle for equality. Plus, she was not only a celebrated feminist, antiwar activist, reform Democrat and lawyer–she was a wife and mother of two girls. How did she do it all? That’s what I wanted to write about.
We met at her headquarters in Greenwich Village–an office right next to the Lion’s Head bar. The place was staffed mainly by female volunteers, some of whom had brought their squalling babies. For a while, Bella and I talked about the importance of women’s networks and then about how women define power. “Sure we define it differently from men,” she told me. “We define power as the ability to use our gifts–our creativity. Our power–women’s power–is about being able to control our lives.” Finally we got around to how she was able to juggle so many roles–wife-mother, lawyer-activist–successfully. “For starters you gotta marry a man like my husband, Martin Abzug. That’s my secret,” she grinned.
Martin Abzug was a woman’s dream. The two had met on the way to a Yehudi Menuhin concert in 1944. Martin wanted romance. Bella wanted to be a lawyer. She was then on scholarship at Columbia Law School, where she already had a reputation for being forceful and brilliant; she was an editor of the Law Review. Martin would meet her at midnight at the Columbia Law Library. When she began to practice law, representing union workers, Martin would type her briefs for her. (She couldn’t type.) He promised her she could always keep working even after they had children (that had been her major hesitation about marriage), and she did continue practicing law after their two daughters were born. Meanwhile, Martin was a stockbroker and wrote two novels. He wasn’t interested in politics but he supported Bella in all her aspirations. He adored her. And she adored him. They were married for forty-two years.
Bella served in the House from 1971 to 1977, and she was a huge galvanizing force in Washington. Working an eighteen-hour day, she was scrupulously prepared on all the issues. She became an expert in parliamentary law–cutting through red tape and also tangling red tape up to suit her purposes. She knew how to strategize–she could sniff out opponents’ agendas–and she understood the complexities of leadership, the importance of forging alliances. She kept a journal of what it was like to be a freewheeling woman of New York confronting the genteel Southern male establishment that ruled Congress at the time. She would write, “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the power structure,” and in another entry she wrote, “I’m not being facetious when I say the real enemies in this country are the Pentagon and its pals in big business.”