“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.
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.
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.