Books

Under the hat of 'Bella'

During this "historic" election year, let me just say what so many of us are thinking: I miss Bella Abzug. And Barbara Jordan. What I would give to see Bella toss one of her signature striped, oversized hats into the presidential ring. Or to hear Barbara Jordan debate any comer, to hear her intone the preamble of the constitution as she reminds us of the true meanings of "equality" and "justice." If only big, bold Bella or big, bold Barbara were here to run ... and win.

So far my only solace has been the recently published oral history of Bella called (deep breath) "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." The book is edited by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, women with long histories of activism and scholarship in and about the women's movement in America. Their book features Bella, Barbara and all the other larger-than-life figures of the first wave of feminist politics in America, including Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and, unfortunately, an unsavory character named Susan Davis.

Abzug was elected to Congress from New York City in 1970 when she was 50 years old. She had already raised two daughters; practiced law when few women did; argued, rallied, lobbied and protested on behalf of worker's rights, for the end of segregation, against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.

Once in Congress, with her oversized hats and Bronx accent, she led the political arm of the women's movement to encompass so much more. She helped found Ms. magazine and the National Women's Political Caucus. Her passion for social activism, for defending the rights of all oppressed people, was deep. She famously argued the case of Willie McGee, a black man in Mississippi who was accused of raping a white woman. That case brought on death threats and a miscarriage.

The book begins with a description of Bella's memorial service in New York in 1998. The event was a who's who of feminism and leftist politics, and everyone told a "Bella Story." Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City and a fellow member of New York's congressional delegation who never got along well with her, told this story:

"[Once when] Congress stayed [in session] on a Saturday, a lot of people went home on Friday, and Bella was one of them. I stayed over and [Saturday morning] at 9 o'clock there's a telephone call. You have to understand, Bella doesn't talk to me. But it's Bella at the other end. She knew I'd be there because I'm always in the office early. With her very distinctive voice: 'Hello Ed.' 'Hi, Bella.' 'Ed, I forgot my hat. Could you bring up my hat?' I said, 'Of course, Bella.' And the staff roared, because who else would she trust to bring up her hat? I brought up her hat, carried it on the ... plane in a box, very careful, brought it to my house and Martin picked it up." Martin, Bella's husband, was her lifelong true love.

Many of the voices in the book point out that one way in which Abzug was distinct from feminists such as Steinem was that she came from many social justice movements, not just the women's movement. In fact she was dismissed by President Carter from his National Advisory Committee on Women for insisting that economic and environmental policy were, in fact, women's issues.

People have been yanking hard on the thread between Bella Abzug and Hillary Clinton, which makes sense and doesn't. Abzug famously said, "I am not a centrist." But her career didn't last as long as she wanted it to. She was ousted from politics, perhaps, some say, because she was too entrenched as a radical.

Recently, Lisa Levenstein, who teaches women's history at UNCG, told me that the young women who take her classes don't know about Abzug, but they don't know about anyone from her time. Levenstein said her students do not identify as feminists because of the negative stereotype established by women such as Abzug and twisted by cultural critics such as Rush Limbaugh (think "feminazis.")

Levenstein said her students think feminists are white and middle-class and are surprised to find out how interracial the movement was. When they find out what feminists did and stood for, they find out that they are, indeed, feminists.

Maybe with the help of the oral history of Bella Abzug, they will bring feminism back and stop talking about "that woman" running for president and start talking about the rights and needs and future of all women with a capital W.

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