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Channeling Bella and Challenging Power

“Women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” - Bella Abzug

The year is 1920. Women are passionately fighting for equal rights, they finally secure the right to vote, the seed for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is planted, and Bella Abzug is born. Nearly 100 years later, we have just elected over 100 women legislators to Congress for the first time. Yet still, the right to vote remains women’s only legally protected power on the federal level.

Known as “Battling Bella,” Abzug was a lawyer, activist, and congresswoman during the 1970s. Abzug passionately dedicated her life to challenging power structures. She never shied away from breaking the rules in the name of justice because she knew that for women, playing by the rules does not create lasting social and political change in this country.

Whether she was saying Kaddish after her father’s death or playing and beating the boys at marbles, Abzug understood from a very young age that power was a societal construct; she challenged the concept of power by not asking for permission. She advised others to “be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart. People may not like it, but no one will stop you.” And this sentiment led her to be a leading voice in many progressive movements—including those for human rights, economic justice, and the environment.

Women like Bella throughout history and today challenge societal norms of what it means to be powerful. Our society has placed value in the narrative that we as women are powerless in determining our own self worth because we are “fragile.” When we fight back against that concept, we risk being labeled “hysterical.” Therefore, our society is caught in a vicious cycle in which anyone who is not white and male has to fight harder and longer for equality.

Women are strong leaders because we understand how deeply intertwined policy is with our everyday lives. Labeled a “passionate perfectionist,” Abzug refused to separate idealism from activism.

Before the 1970s, women could not obtain their own credit cards, or easily get divorced. During Abzug’s time, women were trying to change the power dynamic by advocating for financial independence from their husbands. And now that women have the right to financial independence, we are focused on the power to control our own bodies and take up space in our personal and professional lives.

We are seeing that same sentiment emerge amongst women leaders today who are unapologetic in their views and refuse to accept the political system at face value. For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the incoming congresswomen elected in November 2018, is using her social media presence to shine a light on the prevalence of corporate lobbying in Congress. She spotlights the grassroots energy of the environmental movement, in which young people lead the charge. Some still deem her actions and politics as radical for a woman, but incoming leaders like her are changing the narrative: politics will hopefully cease to benefit the powerful few, and instead serve the people and their needs.

As “Battling Bella” would say, “It is up to all of us to broaden the social, political and economic spectrums in this country.” Women from every background have important perspectives to add to the public sphere and it’s up to all of us to listen. Black, brown, white, Latinx, LGBTQ, Jewish, Christian, Catholic, Muslim... we all have lived experiences that influence our understandings of power, and until we choose to challenge the constructs that entrap us, inequity will continue to be a persistent problem in this world.

I am proud to live at a time when women are challenging power structures and speaking truth to power. It is my hope that in my lifetime, women can redefine what it means to be powerful in our society. If there is one thing we can learn from Bella and today’s women leaders, it is that if we are to truly control own destinies, we must never apologize for standing up for what is right.

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How to cite this page

Dubinsky, Rachael. "Channeling Bella and Challenging Power." 26 December 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/channeling-bella-and-challenging-power>.

Women protest the dissolution of Bella Abzug's 19th Congressional District in 1972.
Courtesy of Dorothy Marder.
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