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Bella's Way | The Nation

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Bella's Way

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Bella came to formal feminism late, but for her, women's issues were never a "sideshow," simply because she never was. She was never afraid to be a woman in public, an attitude impeccably personified by her millions of hats. She first donned the hats because in the 1940s a woman couldn't be taken seriously as a lawyer without one; but later they became an emblem of her firm embrace of femininity. Writer Lindsy Van Gelder, during the National Women's Conference, learned from Bella that women could "excel at serious parliamentary procedure, and still...knit and nurse babies during debates, to laugh with Bella as she banged the gavel to adjourn and wished us 'Good night, my loves.'" Bella also didn't see a weakness in her own openness, which, innate or not, is an enduring female quality. "I share my feelings, I share my despair, I share my hopes, I share my tears and my joys," she says of her political style in another oral history. "People want someone who cares." She was ahead of her time where feminism was concerned, precluding the third-wave notion that traditional femininity, sexuality and sentimentality can be an integral part of being a self-aware feminist.

About the Author

Nona Wills Aronowitz
Nona Willis Aronowitz
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and cofounder of Tomorrow magazine. She...

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Still, Bella couldn't win: her comfort with her femaleness left her exposed to being criticized for being too abrasive and too girly at the same time. She was told by feminist author and activist Susan Brownmiller, "You wear lipstick...[feminists] will not support you." Even Women Strike for Peace told her, as Gloria Steinem recalls, that "she couldn't represent them because she wasn't motherly enough," despite her two children and surprisingly conventional home life. Her campaign manager Doug Ireland tells a story of trying to photograph her for a New York magazine article, saying that "there was an image around her that needed to soften" and that his ultimate goal was to get a picture of her "smiling and cute." Former New York City Mayor Robert Wagner wistfully tells of female politicians who are "just as bright, just as dedicated, but so much more nice and like a woman." Like any public woman, Bella was subjected to constant critiques about her physical image and lifestyle choices; and despite her tough-cookie veneer, she didn't always take it lightly. When her looks and weight were viciously spoofed at the annual dinner of the Inner Circle, a political writers' charity club, she actually cried, saying later that "to make an attack on a woman's figure...is to make an attack on all women."

More than anything, Bella's charisma was embedded in her New York Jewishness. "New York is in her voice," Pete Hamill says, "which has a street hoarseness; it is in the way she walks, with a bold swagger." Harold Holzer describes her as a "frank, strong, funny, earthy, brilliant woman, sort of the 'uber Jewish mother' in a way." She was, like New York itself, both alluring and repellent. It was her mixture of narcissism and grittiness, her insistence on giving equal weight to charm and audacity, that could have only been hatched in the city. She combined grassroots with glamour and grandeur. Being raised in the flawed swarm of the "land of opportunity" has always created in New York souls a blend of cynicism and arrogance that somehow ripens into ruthless optimism. Her birthplace may also explain her particular kind of feminism--her pride, her defiance of the demand to forgo vanity, girlishness, fashion and makeup in order to participate in women's lib. Bella, with her complete disregard for excuses or failure, more often than not went against convention, warning and instruction.

Not that Levine and Thom cast her as a renegade individualist who listened to and accepted help from no one. They make sure to emphasize the puzzle pieces of people--her husband, Martin Abzug; her speechwriter Mim Kelber; her partner in crime Shirley Chisholm--without whom the force that was Bella Abzug would have crumbled to bits. But Bella Abzug does not evade her dismissiveness, her fearsome temper or her downright nastiness. "Once I got so upset when Bella yelled at me that I didn't get my period for two months," Kathy Bonk recalls. When it really came down to it, Bella was a hard person to stomach.

The oral history concludes with the words of Hillary Clinton, who extols Bella's fighting spirit and sees her as an inspiration to pioneering female leaders around the globe: "As I travel around the world...I am always meeting women who introduce themselves by saying, 'I'm the Bella Abzug of Russia' or 'I'm the Bella Abzug of Kazakhstan'.... I know what they really mean is that they'll never give up." I stared at these words for a while, not sure whether the authors gave Hillary the final word ironically or in a genuine pass-the-torch gesture. Regardless, the words made me realize more than ever that a woman like Hillary Clinton, our prime hope for the first female President, is simply too easy to stomach. The only way for women to make political headway is with an even-tempered tactician like Hillary. And even now she is vilified within an inch of her life.

As a woman raised in the era of Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, I doubted while reading Bella Abzug that my generation could ever get behind another Bella, or even that a Congresswoman like her could emerge from our current world. It's not just because Bella is a relic of history, a singular, iconic character who could never exist again. Because even if she could, she might still fall victim to the quarter-century effort to streamline all political figures. Grassroots activism and mainstream politics have never been further apart. Is Bella a role model? Or have we inherited an era in which we must restrategize around the fact that our symbolic leaders have been officially disembodied from issues?

Feminist or not, radicalized people my age don't often see the point of running for office because they assume that politicians don't really do anything. Electoral politics are secretive, meandering and deliberately confusing; maybe it's best, we reason, to opt for exerting pressure from the outside that nudges the center a little to the left. Perhaps Bella's most revolutionary notion was her idea that open government is the only way to speak truth to power. Throughout her life, as Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy points out, Bella tried to "move a system that doesn't move."

Striving to be a Congresswoman like Bella Abzug may seem anachronistic, but as the definition of "feminist" expands by the minute, she is a more relevant female role model for twentysomething women than most of the famous feminist icons like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. "I never felt I couldn't have it all," Bella said. "I do not feel guilty." Bella lived out the superwoman concept of family and career before it was even a goal of the women's movement. She didn't swallow any codified regime of identity politics as a feminist, a Jew, an activist or a mother. She was always herself. Bella Abzug is a reminder to young women, who bear the pressure of higher and higher mental and physical expectations, that it has always been possible to set your own rules.

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