Why Don’t I Know More About Bella Abzug?
Among the many treats in Gloria Steinem’s new memoir My Life on the Road are the bevy of stories starring women who appear on jwa.org: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gerda Lerner, Betty Friedan, and even Emma Goldman earned mentions. But as I read Steinem’s book, one name made more appearances than the rest: Bella Abzug.
I’ll admit, I knew very little about Abzug before I began working at JWA. I mean very little: her name, and that she was a congresswoman in the 1970s. I became interested in her after watching She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a recent film about the Women’s Movement in which she’s mentioned. I learned more though another Gloria Steinem-related venue: the documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, in which Steinem talks extensively about Bella as her mentor and friend. While it was inspiring to hear about how Bella coached and guided Gloria, the real highlight was a story Steinem told about Bella’s singular sense of humor: When an obscene painting of Steinem was posted near the Ms. offices with the intention of harassing and demoralizing her, Steinem looked for sympathy from Abzug and got none. "You don't understand," said Steinem, "it's a nude centerfold in full labial detail—and it has my face and head." "And my labia," Bella deadpanned.
That was really all it took to get me reading about Abzug. As I learned more about her as a radical, feminist leader, civil rights activist, politician, lawyer, and organizer with a wicked sense of humor and iron will, my frustration grew: Why wasn’t I taught anything about her? Bella wasn’t in my high school history books or my Women’s Studies curriculum in college. I’d learned plenty about Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir. How did Bella get lost in the shuffle?
45 years ago today, Abzug was elected to Congress. She ran on a feminist, environmentalist, anti-war, pro-civil rights platform. She claimed to spend her days "figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure." Just imagine a politician, any politician, making that statement today. One passage in My Life on the Road details how Bella quite literally lost her voice yelling at Betty Friedan. (Really! Read it.) Another recounts men stopping Abzug on the streets of New York to say “Give ‘em hell, Bella!”
I hope I represent a shrinking minority of young women who missed the boat on Bella Abzug’s awesomeness, but I sadly doubt that. If anyone deserves a Ruth Bader Ginsburg-esque revival, it’s her. So happy anniversary, Bella—and may this year bring a much-needed uptick in Abzug-mania.