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"One Tough Broad from the Bronx": An Oral History of Bella Abzug

The oral testimonies in this biography offer a textured portrait of one of the most powerful women to challenge and change American society.
 
 
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Bella Abzug: An Oral History: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought 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. -- By Suzanne Braun Levine and May Thom

The title says it all. Wherever people fought for social justice and human rights in mid-twentieth century America, Bella Abzug was there, organizing and strategizing, brash but brilliant, abrasive yet empathic.

Abzug knew herself well:

There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I'm any of these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am -- and this ought to be made very clear at the outset -- I am a very serious woman.

To capture the extraordinary life of this very "serious woman," Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, both former Ms. editors, have collected parts of her unfinished autobiography, along with interviews with family members, journalists, activists, politicians, and friends, and shaped these into a chronological narrative of her life.

The result is fascinating. Everyone who encountered Abzug seems to have a "Bella story." Sometimes people contradict each other, presenting different views of her formidable personality and her many political battles. More often, their collective memories offer a layered and textured portrait of one of the most powerful women to challenge and change American society during the last century.

Between her birth in 1920 and her death in 1998, Abzug fought for a series of progressive causes. She was among a handful of pioneering female attorneys who graduated from Columbia University in 1945, and she practiced civil rights and labor law for twenty-five years. She was also a consummate activist and organizer who successfully challenged laws and customs. She fought for the rights of union workers and African Americans, protested the use of the atomic bomb and the Vietnam War, waged endless battles to advance women's rights, and spent the last years of her life promoting environmentalism and human rights.

When she plunged into the women's movement during the late 1960s, Abzug infused feminism with her fierce, strategic, take-no-prisoners spirit. As Geraldine Ferraro reminds us,

She didn't knock lightly on the door. She didn't even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever! So that those of us who came after could walk through!

To many activists, she seemed indefatigable and indomitable. In 1970, at the age of 50, she campaigned for a congressional seat with the slogan "This woman's place is in the House, the House of Representatives." On her very first day in office, she introduced a bill to end the war in Vietnam. The next day, she authored legislation for comprehensive childcare, which passed Congress, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon. In the name of defending human rights, she quickly joined a small group of representatives who supported the new gay liberation movement.

Like many activists of her generation, Abzug was constantly watched by the FBI. Her radical past always threatened to sabotage her effectiveness as a leader, something Levine and Thom fail to address. Her husband had been a member of the Young Communist League, although according to journalist Doug Ireland, Abzug herself never joined the Party. A product of the popular front culture of the 1930s, she had remained a sympathetic "fellow traveler."

Her past surfaced when, as a member of Congress, she authored legislation to fund a National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977. Given her leadership skills, feminist activists wanted the Carter administration to appoint her as chair of the conference. First, however, she had to be vetted by the government. Midge Costanza, Jimmy Carter's public emissary to women and racial and ethnic minorities, recalls what happened: "The FBI called me and said, 'Are you serious? You want this background check done immediately? There's a whole room of files on Bella Abzug!'"

Despite her decades of radical activism, Bella Abzug ended up chairing the Houston Conference, an historic event whose "real significance," remembers journalist David Broder, "was to bury the idea that so-called women's issues are a sideshow to the center-ring concerns of politics." At stake was nothing less than the future direction and reputation of the American women's movement. "Bella and all of us were worried," recalls Gloria Steinem, "that this huge conference would break apart in the bright light of national publicity." With Abzug at the helm, however, the 20,000 women who attended the conference passed a progressive and visionary Plan of Action , which included, among its many controversial planks, the right of sexual preference, the rights of minorities and welfare mothers, reproductive freedom and the Equal Rights Act.

Abzug's private life often struck those who knew her as a bold social and political activist as surprisingly conventional. During her last year of law school, she married Martin Abzug and raised two daughters in a New York suburb. Before any public appearance, she took her time selecting her outfit, applying make up with great care and choosing among her many signature broad-rimmed hats. (Early in her career she had decided that she needed to don a hat in order to be taken seriously as professional woman.)

But her personal life was also complicated. To Robin Morgan, a feminist poet, writer, and activist, she bragged, "Before either you or my daughters fell in love with a woman, I was for gay rights." Yet despite her early support of the gay liberation movement, she had difficulty accepting the fact that both her daughters chose women as their life partners. To Morgan, she lamented, "Both my girls, where did I go wrong?"

A resilient woman, Abzug usually recovered from political failures with a fighting spirit. But when her husband Martin died, she was simply devastated. Theirs had been a great love affair. When asked how she had survived such a stormy political life, she once wise-cracked, "great sex."After his death, Abzug wrote,

My reputation is that of an extremely independent woman, and I am. But I was dependent, clearly, on Martin. He would embrace me in his furry chest and warm heart and protect me from the meanness one experiences in the kind of life I lead.

"I don't think that she ever, ever, ever got over the fact that Martin was no longer there," remembers Gloria Steinem. "She was a slightly different person forever." Abuzg's good friend, the actor Joe Bologna, understood how much Martin had anchored Bella's life. When he imagined her reunion with him in heaven, he pictured this scenario: "When she gets to heaven, Bella would greet Martin warmly, maybe share a couple dances, maybe a little sex. But having done that, I'm convinced that she immediately began petitioning God for better living conditions for the people in hell."

During the last years of her life, Abzug sought to promote women's rights as human rights and to connect economic justice with the health of the planet. At the U.N.'s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, an exhausted Bella Abzug rose from her wheel chair to give her final speech:

I personally have been fighting for human rights for sixty-five years and especially for the rights of women ... the role of women here today and the men who are our allies is to scale the great wall of gender apartheid. Because unless and until we scale that great barrier we will not eliminate the abuses of human rights that have dogged women every single day of  their lives ... And no matter how steep the passage and discouraging the pace, I ask you never to give in and never to give up.

Reading this unconventional narrative, filled with so many different voices and stories, was a great pleasure for me. I realize, however, that I bring to this kaleidoscopic narrative a historian's knowledge of the events, an activist's memories, and a journalist's familiarity with most of the people Levine and Thom interviewed.

I'm not so sure whether younger readers would have the same experience. Although the editors provide an excellent timeline before each chapter of her life, the book requires a broad knowledge of the historical context in which Abzug fought her political battles. When I asked my undergraduate students about Bella Abzug, some knew her name, but none could describe any of her historic achievements. This is not familiar history to them, and I fear that this narrative, as marvelous as it is, will be best appreciated by those who know the history of social movements or fought along with Abzug, rather by those who were born after her death. That is why this book left me with such a longing for a well-written, definitive biography of the larger-than-life Bella Abzug, a book that would place this remarkable woman within the context of mid-twentieth century American social and political movements.

Until that book is written, however, we should welcome this captivating narrative that reminds us why we must resurrect her life and legacy. Future generations should know what one tough broad from the Bronx achieved within her lifetime.

Ruth Rosen is a historian and journalist who teaches public policy at UC Berkeley. She is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute.

 
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