Woman's Work

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www. carolynsee.com
Friday, December 7, 2007

BELLA ABZUG

An Oral History

By Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pp. $25

"Icouldn't stand the screaming," historian Amy Swerdlow remembers about Bella Abzug. "She was just so aggressive -- assertive doesn't do it -- aggressive and carrying on." That from Gloria Steinem. Journalist Doug Ireland recalls "those volcanic eruptions of Abzugian temper." "She got so angry that she punched me," colleague Ronnie Eldridge reports, "on Fifth Avenue in front of De Pina's. That was the only time she ever really hit me." This is how the feminist congresswoman's friends, the ones who stayed loyal to her all her life, remember her.

Abzug was born in the Bronx of Russian Jewish immigrants who told Bella and her sister they could do anything they wanted when they grew up, and Bella took this seriously. She raised money for the Zionist state-to-be when she was just a little kid, trolling the subways with a Mason jar. When her father died, she went to the synagogue every day for a year to sing kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Except that only guys are supposed to do that, and she was a girl, and only 12. She went on to Hunter College, where she excelled, and then to Columbia Law School -- one of the first women to be admitted there, and she was Jewish to boot.

From the very beginning of her adult life, she had trouble working for anybody and soon set up her own office. She experienced insults about her appearance (she was chunky, and put on more weight as she got older), about her abrasive voice and her abusive personality, but it seemed to roll right off her most of the time. "I'm Bella's oldest friend," Mim Kelber, her speechwriter, remembers. "She liked herself too much, but I think you need that. She was very self-confident." Except that later on, when she was a successful member of the House of Representatives, she broke down in tears at a political "roast," when a man dressed up like her with a fat, padded fanny, and another man, impersonating her long-suffering husband, came out in a frilly apron.

She began her career working as a lawyer for progressive causes that often were doomed to fail. She represented a black man who was accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi. (He said they were having a consensual affair.) The jury deliberated for a full 2 1/2 minutes and, of course, he was eventually executed. After a few disheartening events like this, Abzug got a clue. She wanted to change the world and thought she could. She ran for the House from a section of Manhattan. She served, flamboyantly, for three terms, focused mainly on women's issues and world peace. (Although how you fight for peace while punching and yelling remains an interesting question.) Then she decided -- despite good advice -- to run for the Democratic senatorial nomination against Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She made some wiseass, ill-considered remarks and lost the primary to him. She also lost a mayoral primary election and then another House election. It looked like a disastrous losing streak, but maybe it wasn't. She just kept going higher and wider, operating as a celebrity-feminist-organizer, always sporting her trademark hat, traveling all over the world addressing women's conventions, addressing the United Nations. She was ubiquitous.

It's become a tiresome platitude now that women of a certain age repeat: Their daughters and their granddaughters have not the faintest notion of what it was like before the feminist movement began in the early '60s -- how women couldn't get credit to buy anything, couldn't teach at colleges or universities, couldn't get abortions unless they had the money to leave the country or the courage to put their lives in the hands of back-street butchers. (And please, no e-mails on this. I'm against abortion on principle, but I'm not a woman of childbearing years.) Young girls in those days were advised repeatedly in women's magazines to become "good listeners," i.e., to keep their mouths shut and, of course, their legs crossed. But if they kept them crossed too determinedly, then they were labeled as "man haters," and that was bad, too.

But I'm going to add that very few people now actually remember what it was like during the period of the feminist movement. Everything was up for grabs. No one knew what to do or how to do it. Betty Friedan ruined a Super Bowl party in my very own home by wearing a black leather miniskirt and swinging her (not bad) legs clad in fishnet stockings back and forth in front of the TV screen so that nobody could see the plays. She radicalized a sizable bunch of neutral men into committed anti-feminists that day. Nobody knew what to do with these uppity, unpredictable women.

And what were they for, or against? Against the Vietnam War, of course. For legalized abortion. For equal pay for equal work. (As if!) For parity, true equality, with men. They even tried to peddle the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have given women equal rights -- what a concept! -- with men. Lots of men had conniption fits about this. If you were a second-rate fellow, who would there be for you to look down on? But lots of women hated the idea just as much. Who could they find to take care of them, if not men? The amendment never passed. And the movement began to wind down. The congresswomen of the day -- Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Abzug -- died. Steinem got married. She's a widow now. Friedan is gone, too. All those meetings, the huge international conferences, the tiny, exciting, consciousness-raising groups -- it all simmered down. It's still a safe bet that at 80 percent of all the dinner parties in every state across the nation, women know enough to be good listeners.

Bella Abzug screamed and yelled and hit people. She was appalled when both her daughters grew up to be lesbians. She wore those goofy hats and played poker. She could be snide, but often that got passed off as cute. Her terrible, lippy mouth caught up with her, kept her out of the Senate, even out of the office of mayor. She was mean, no doubt about it. But as with Malcolm X, her extremism could have helped clear the way for at least theoretical equality between the sexes. Is all this good, or not? It's really too soon to know for sure. But Abzug was certainly a major player in our change in attitudes in the second part of the past century. The two authors here, Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, give us a fascinating glimpse into that inspirational but undeniably peculiar period that is receding, all too quickly, into the past.

Sunday in Book World

¿ Children's books celebrate the holidays.

¿ Bill O'Reilly's "Kids Are Americans Too."

¿ Anthony Swofford on reporting in Iraq.

¿ Colleen McCullough's "Antony and Cleopatra."

¿ A creepy collection of family mysteries.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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