Remembering Bella Abzug

On Bella Abzug’s first day in Congress, January 21, 1971, the doorkeeper of the House of Representatives stopped her and told her to remove her floppy, broad-rimmed hat. “Fuck you,” she is said to have replied. On other occasions, Abzug would explain her signature millinery prop by contending that headgear confirmed her professional identity. “Before that,” she recalled, “whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.”

Proceeding past the doorkeeper to the floor of the House, the novice lawmaker, one of only nine women in the 91st Congress, introduced a resolution requiring withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. She was a co-founder of Women Strike for Peace and in-and-out-of-office a leader of the anti-war movement, yet Time magazine could not resist dubbing her “Bellacose Abzug.” She was indeed a fighter — for peace, civil rights, civil liberties, economic justice, and environmental protection.

The days of Bella Abzug ended in a New York hospital in 1998. Born in the Bronx in 1920, when American women first exercised the right to vote, she managed to accomplish a remarkable amount without ceasing to proclaim herself a radical. The subtitle of the new oral history by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom sums up the career of one of the extraordinary figures in recent American political history. A composite of more than 100 voices, the book draws on new interviews with and published statements by friends, family, and associates to provide a running commentary on Abzug’s eventful 77 years. The more recognizable contributors to this collective portrait include Liz Carpenter, Ron Dellums, Geraldine Ferraro, Jane Fonda, Betty Friedan, and Shirley MacLaine.

Rejected by Harvard Law School, which refused to admit women, Abzug obtained her law degree, and edited the law review, at Columbia University. She went on to specialize in tenant rights, labor law, and civil rights. Abzug represented many clients who were blacklisted or subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But her bravest moment as an attorney came in Mississippi, where she defied the Ku Klux Klan to represent Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman with whom he had a long-term consensual relationship. Despite her efforts, McGee was convicted and executed.

Though she characterized Congress as “a smug, incestuous, stagnant institution,”`p. 126` it was there, from 1971-77, that Abzug, representing parts of Manhattan, became a national figure. Midge Costanza, a champion of gay and women’s rights, calls her “the most brilliant strategist I have ever met.”`p. 144` Abzug became the deputy Democratic whip, and, according to Senator Edward Kennedy: “She stirred the House in such a way to push her view, irritate, antagonize, cajole, persuade, inspire, and lead”`p. 165` Her legacy includes the Freedom of Information Act, the Equal Credit Act, the Right to Privacy Act, Title IX, and the Equality Act of 1974 (the first gay rights bill). She was the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

In 1976, Abzug gave up a safe seat in the House to run for the Senate. She seemed on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination when she alienated some partisans by stating she would not support her primary opponent, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the general election if he won. Even so, she lost to Moynihan by less than one percent. Thereafter, several bids to return to office ended in failure — for mayor of New York in 1977 and for Congress in 1978 and 1986. In 1978, Jimmy Carter appointed Abzug co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women but fired her when she spoke out against his proposed cuts in funding for women’s programs.

This oral history draws from some of the eulogies at the standing-room-only service held for Abzug in New York’s Riverside Memorial Chapel. Despite a few disparaging words (“Bella and I just disliked one another intensely, personally as well as politically,”`p. 114` says Ed Koch, a fellow Democrat who served with Abzug in Congress and defeated her for mayor), the book is a celebration more than analysis of an exemplary life. Readers seeking a dispassionate biography of this passionate brawler must wait for an author other than Levine or Thom. Their volume evokes what feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin remembers as “a time of hope and possibility, and ferment, and progress, and change, and media attention, and brilliant activist women everywhere you turned.”`p. 143` Faye Wattleton, who led Planned Parenthood, is convinced that, in our own time, Abzug would have become speaker of the House. She was probably too strident, too principled, too urban, too Jewish. But, according to John Kenneth Galbraith, “In a perfectly just republic, Bella Abzug would be president.”`p. 284` The more that our republic strays from perfect justice, the more we need her voice.

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