What would Bella do?
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Bella Abzug, activist extraordinaire. With her big hats and even bigger charismatic personality, her sharp mind and even sharper tongue, Bella took on the world and changed it. As a young girl, she spoke on street corners for Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist youth movement. As a young lawyer in the 1950s, she took on civil rights causes in the atmosphere of McCarthyism. As a mother and activist, she fought for a nuclear-free world with Women Strike for Peace. As an influential member of Congress, she fought for women's rights, gay rights, for the environment, for an end to the Vietnam War, and for support for Israel, among many other causes. As an international activist, she brought women together from around the globe and transformed the UN.
A new book about Bella captures in its lengthy title just how hard it is to contain all the she did: 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 the War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way. This book, by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, calls itself an oral history, but is really a collection of first-hand accounts, with snippets woven together thematically into one narrative. I found the style a little distracting at first, but ultimately it succeeds in conveying the texture of who Bella was, capturing both that she was "larger-than-life" and a regular flawed person with a terrible temper.
Bella has long been an icon and a touchstone for me, as she has been for so many women. I keep her picture and some of her (many) words of wisdom on my bulletin board, a reminder to be bold, speak out, take risks, and never give up. But I learned some new things about Bella from this book, too. I never knew, for example, that she had studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where, she reports, she "got involved in studying the Bible somewhat intensely. All I was interested in were the prophets who spoke for peace." I also hadn't realized that, despite introducing the first Federal bill to support gay rights (in 1974), she had trouble dealing with the coming out of her own daughter.
More broadly, I hadn't quite understood that her loss in the Senate primary race (by less than 1 percentage point) was a tragedy that she never quite got over. From my perspective, the loss of her voice in Congress was a tragedy for America, perhaps, but to me it seemed that she went on to do quite important work on the global stage. I was not aware of the desperation with which she continued to run for office and the pain of losing her legislative platform. As Gloria Steinem describes it, "she was like an orchestra conductor without an orchestra."
In this political season, I find myself thinking of Bella often - wondering what she would do today, what words of wisdom she would offer, what the world would be like if we'd had her voice in government longer. We could use some Bella in our lives. May her memory be for a blessing.