"Are they serious?" I murmured under my breath when I first laid eyes on the subtitle of Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom's oral history of Bella Abzug: "How One Tough Broad From the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way." But the long-winded introduction does make sense. Bella Abzug is the kind of hyphenate who will forever confuse librarians and archivists who attempt to label her, a woman who surpasses even Madonna as the queen of reinvention. She was a lawyer, a Congresswoman, an organizer, a feminist, a civil rights worker and an environmental activist: she had a hand and a voice in practically every major post-World War II political movement. Overflowing with rich and formidable adjectives, Bella Abzug tries to make sense of these many stages and sectors of Bella's life.
Levine and Thom, both of whom worked with Bella, settled on an oral history because it seemed the only fitting way to encompass the life of such a controversial, complex figure. Besides, as the authors proclaim, "No one is able to talk about Bella without reciting a 'Bella story.'" The authors summon the voices of everyone from Shirley MacLaine to Shirley Chisholm to help construct Bella's epic. They quote more than 100 organizers, politicians, journalists, friends and family members, drawing on their own interviews, occasional press clippings and hundreds of hours of oral histories recorded at Columbia University. Levine and Thom also let Bella speak for herself, her comments drawn mostly from her incomplete memoir.
The authors tell us their aim is to construct a "conversation" with a motley crew of the four corners of American society, all of whom count Bella as an important force in their lives. Even though the narrative stays quite organized, thanks to thumbnails for each of the speakers and timelines preceding each chapter, it took me a while to extract a particular message from this book; it seemed like I was reading a series of nostalgic toasts. But eventually I began to see Bella Abzug as a not-so-subtle call for the return of the magnetic, committed multitasker.
Born in 1920 in the Bronx to poor Russian immigrants, Bella was always juggling five things at once. By the time she was 12, she was already joining Zionist youth groups and making speeches on the New York sidewalks; she was later student body president at Hunter College. She managed to be one of the handful of women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1945, marrying Martin Abzug in her last year and then raising two daughters with him in a nice suburban house in Mount Vernon, New York. She practiced law for twenty-five years, organizing for civil rights, labor and the peace movement. At 50, with lots of political practice under her belt, she finally ran for Congress and won. She was one of the first members of the House to support the gay liberation movement, seeing its connection with basic human rights. Weeks before her death in April 1998, she delivered a rousing speech to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
New York Times writer Eileen Shanahan tells us, "The male view...that she just stood up and screamed and antagonized everybody and accomplished nothing is just absolutely false.... Bella did yell at people a lot. But she also was effective, and, within the House leadership, known to be effective." She was effective because she saw all the issues up close. She was in the streets protesting the Vietnam War. She hauled ass to Jackson, Mississippi, to defend the innocence of convicted black rapist Willie McGee. She co-founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization in 1990, inviting women from all over the world to the United Nations to discuss the future of the environment. She grounded her political work in her organizer's spirit. Former Congressman and Oakland mayor Ronald Dellums asserts that it's "one thing to be an activist. But it's another thing to be willing to take that level of activism to governance."
People in politics, especially nowadays, are divided into captivating talking heads and behind-the-scenes masterminds. One appeals to the hearts of the audience while the other toils on strategy in the background. Bella Abzug is one of the few public figures who was both. And she wasn't just a gutsy radical who hoped to permeate the mainstream--she actually got elected. Her charisma was one of her greatest assets. She saw the value in emotional appeal, without losing sight of the issues and the work. Bella schooled Women Strike for Peace on this critical combination, telling them, "It's okay to scream about nuclear testing, but you've got to know what you're talking about...it's okay to show your emotion and come in as a mother...to say this is going to hurt my children, but it's not good enough."
As a young woman who learned about Bella only after her death, and only really learned about her after reading this book, I cannot think of one female politician in 2007 stronger than the woman described in these pages. Women politicians have a better chance of being successful the more rigorous their conciliatory nods become, the more they exhibit adherence to the weary status quo. Brash charisma isn't part of it; the ideal female politician--or any politician--is still composed and graceful. Since the "second wave" and particularly in the tiptoeing world of politics, women often set out to prove that they can thrive in male-dominated arenas without ruffling feathers or demanding changes.
Bella didn't buy it. She did not interpret feminism as beating men at their own game. In a way, she was just trying to make it in a man's world and often succumbed to tactical sexism, even calling Pat Schroeder, right after she was elected to Congress in 1972, to tell her, "I hear you got young kids. I don't think you can do the job!" (Schroeder was the first woman to represent Colorado in Congress.) But Bella saw her womanhood as essential to her politics, believing that women should work at changing existing power structures rather than try to fit into them, that there was a "women's culture and a women's agenda" that could greatly influence politics. She also saw feminism as a lens through which to interpret everything from peace to the environment, aside from advocating for "feminist" issues like universal childcare. When Bella presided over the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, she and the 20,000 others who attended buried "the idea that so-called women's issues are a sideshow to the center-ring concerns of American politics," according to columnist David Broder.