“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.”
Vehemently opposed to the war in Vietnam, she was the first member of Congress to call for Nixon’s impeachment–and she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She initiated the Congressional caucus on women’s issues and helped organize the Women’s Political Caucus; she was the chief strategist for the Democratic Women’s Committee, which achieved equal representation for all elective and appointive posts, including presidential conventions. She introduced pioneering bills on childcare, family planning and abortion rights. In 1975 she introduced a bill in support of gay and lesbian rights.
“She was absolutely indefatigable,” said her former assistant Esther Newberg. “Yes, she was difficult to work with and yes she yelled and got angry a lot but it was because she cared so deeply about what she wanted to accomplish.”
She would always credit her parents–Jewish immigrants from Russia–for encouraging her to be a forceful, dynamic, opinionated person. She was born Bella Savitzky on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx; her mother thought she could be President. Her father, Emanuel (whom Bella described as “this humanist butcher”), ran the Live and Let Live meat market on Ninth Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen. By the time she was 8, Bella excelled in her ability to read Hebrew–she was one of the best students in the Torah school she attended. She was also a graceful swimmer (“like a dolphin” someone said), a card player and a talented musician–she sang and played violin. At 11 she joined a left-wing labor Zionist group at her school and got caught up in politics raising money and making speeches for a Jewish homeland, arguing about the importance of peace and justice.
When she was 13 her father died, and that’s when she made a crucial choice. Forbidden by religious tradition from saying Kaddish for her father in synagogue, Bella did it anyway. For an entire year, every morning before she went to school she’d march into synagogue and daven. People were shocked, but they didn’t stop her. She did what she believed she had to do for her father, who’d never had a son. “I made that choice,” she said, and it was a lesson she never forgot. Always be true to your heart. People may not like it, but no one will stop you. It became her philosophy.
She always remained impatient with the demands of conforming to a restricting feminine ideal. She refused to mask her strengths with wiles, abhorring the double standard applied to powerful, larger-than-life women, who were invariably penalized for being ambitious or outspoken whereas powerful, larger-than-life men were invariably admired and praised. So Bella was often disruptive when she was expected to be deferential. As when she barked “Fuck you!” to Carl Albert and Hale Boggs after they voted no to her resolution to end the Vietnam War. As when she was invited to the White House and in the receiving line informed President Nixon that her constituents wanted him to stop bombing.
As the chair of the subcommittee on government information and individual rights, Bella co-wrote three crucial pieces of legislation: the Freedom of Information Act, the government “Sunshine law” (which required government bodies to meet publicly) and the Right to Privacy Act. She was “one of the most exciting, enlightened legislators that ever served in the Congress,” said Manhattan Representative Charles Rangel. By 1977 the Gallup Poll had named Bella one of the twenty most influential women in the world.
In the following years I kept in touch with Bella. We’d bump into each other at rallies and marches. I was part of a large contingent of journalists who helped her celebrate her 57th birthday at Studio 54. I reviewed her fine book Gender Gap, which she wrote with Mim Kelber in 1984. In it she very succinctly explains how women can achieve political power in America–through coalition-building and bringing a sense of female values to the political process.
After she left Congress she tried to run for mayor of New York but lost to Ed Koch in the primary. Her last campaign was in 1986, for a House seat in Westchester. She lost. It was during this campaign that Martin died. Bella never recovered. “I haven’t been quite the same,” she admitted to me once over the phone. Even so, she fought her depression and later cancer, and she worked tirelessly to fulfill a vision of an international women’s movement. The result was WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization). In November 1991 WEDO convened the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami. Fifteen hundred women from eighty-three nations came together to produce the Women’s Action Agenda 21.
The last time I saw Bella was in 1995, just before she left for China for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. I wanted her to do an oral history so her entire amazing political journey could be recorded. I wanted to hear her talk about founding Women Strike for Peace with Cora Weiss, and how they lobbied for nuclear disarmament. I wanted to hear her describe in depth one of her early landmark cases, in the 1950s–when she represented Willie McGee, a black Mississippian who had been convicted of raping a white woman and was sentenced to death. (She argued the case in Mississippi when she was eight months pregnant; white supremacists threatened her and refused to allow her to stay in a hotel, so she slept in the bus station.)
But Bella had no interest in an oral history about her career. She was too caught up in the present and in WEDO. “We’re gonna have 35,000 members of nongovernmental organizations covering this conference,” she enthused. “Our Plan of Action is earmarked for the twenty-first century–we’re gonna stop poverty and crush corporate greed and stomp on defense spending…women are being mobilized like crazy all over the world.”
Suddenly she looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Didn’t you once ask me about networking?” I was amazed she could remember something from thirty years earlier. I admitted I had, and then she burst forth with how important international networking was for women, an international network of women working all over the world for peace, justice, health and human rights–a “global sisterhood,” she called it.
Bella Abzug died after heart surgery in 1998. She was 77 years old. When I read her obituary I discovered that former President Bush had paid a private visit to China that coincided with the Beijing conference. During his stay Bush commented to a group of food executives, “I feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese–having Bella Abzug running around. Bella Abzug is the one who has always represented the extremes of the women’s movement.”
When told of Bush’s remark, Bella snorted. “He was addressing a fertilizer group? That’s appropriate.”