Bella Abzug, Champion of Women
By Myra MacPherson
The president was Jimmy Carter, it was early 1979 and Abzug -- battler extraordinaire for peace, labor, civil and women's rights -- had been sacked for being too uppity. In the land of yes-men, the former New York congresswoman was again distinguishing herself by her defiance. She dared to criticize Carter for cutting funding for women's programs, so he fired her from a Labor Department advisory committee.
As she marched out of the building she looked tired and her smile was weak. "I felt terrible," she said. "I had worked so hard for this committee." But soon she was lobbing feisty put-downs. Pointing out that this was an unpaid job, she said, "I do this on my own time. For nothing. So what's to fire?"
As for her future, Abzug, who was known to cry in private at cruel comments about her formidable girth, joked, "I'm buoyant. That's why I swim so well."
And swim she did, remaining an international figure as she battled establishment currents for women's rights and fought heart disease and breast cancer to the very end, which came Tuesday at the age of 77.
Emile Zola once gave his reason for being on this Earth as "I came to live out loud." Bella Abzug could have amended that to "I came to live out louder." She never met an underdog she couldn't fight for. She was an outspoken force who became an icon to women worldwide and attracted foes with her confrontational style -- the tough lawyer whose husky-voiced invectives needed no translation for truck drivers, the woman who had that New Yorker's penchant for making a compliment sound like an insult.
We all know the stories. Bella of the enormous hats. (They became a foil for comedians; Mark Russell used to joke that one day Abzug threw one into the air and it landed on the speaker of the House, Carl Albert, completely covering the pint-size Oklahoman.)
In the Washington world of the bland, Abzug was a flamboyant character, but far more than that and definitely more than the caricature fostered by her enemies. Like many larger-than-life leaders, she could be confoundingly contradictory. There was humor in her snapping eyes and a softness too, especially when she spoke of her two daughters and her husband, Martin. Theirs was a love affair that lasted more than 42 years, until his death in 1986.
But Abzug was a legendary tyrant to her congressional staff, and when she was angry, that brassy voice could make Ethel Merman's sound like Shirley Temple's. One former secretary, Frances Cash, said she quit to become a flagman on a construction site because it was a lot easier on her nerves than "listening to Bella screaming." Abzug retorted that her male colleagues were much worse; probably true but hardly a ringing excuse. Yet she was also capable of considerable warmth, and had a self-deprecating wit. Once when she lost 45 pounds, Abzug joked that she saw her future as a pinup. Innocently asked if dropping the pounds was easy, she growled, "Are you crazy?! What diet is easy?"
More than anything, she had guts and vision -- unlike the threatened and timid male cohorts who greeted her underwhelmingly when she became one of only 12 female members of Congress in 1970. Abzug was 50 and already had a lifetime of passionate activism behind her as a labor and civil rights lawyer who fought for peace and against Joe McCarthy's witch hunts. She juggled marriage, motherhood and careers in the dark ages when women were vilified for leaving the home. (In fact she waited until her children were older to run for Congress.) Nevertheless, she endured rank sexism on the Hill; it was an era when New York Mayor John Lindsay, when asked by a TV reporter why there were so few women in his administration, said, "Honey, whatever women do, they do best after dark."
Abzug's jabs at male political foes were issue-oriented; theirs were often personally spiteful. President Bush's churlish aside in 1995 while on a private visit to China backfired when he attacked Abzug, then 75 and in a wheelchair, as an extremist among a world conference on women in Beijing. "I feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese, having Bella running around," he told a group of food executives. Harrumphed Abzug: "He was addressing a fertilizer group? That's appropriate." In her crusade for day care, abortion rights and economic equality for women, Abzug even stressed equality for the mediocre, cracking that the goal was not to see a "female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel."
The Bronx was a tough but nurturing home to Russian immigrant Jews like Bella's father, the "humanist butcher" who operated the quirkily named Live and Let Live meat market. Before she reached her teens, Bella Savitsky was collecting money and giving speeches on behalf of Zionism. Even in those hard Depression times, a career was never in question. She excelled at Hunter College, then Columbia University Law School, where she graduated in 1947. A minuscule 2 percent of lawyers were women.
Bella's mother told her to wear hats "so they won't think you're a secretary." She began collecting chapeaus like Imelda Marcos collected shoes. Those watching TV clips yesterday -- Abzug in a purple hat that matched a purple suit; Abzug wearing a gold wide-brimmed number for a gold-checked suit -- smiled as they remembered the dash she brought to a pale male Congress. After World War II, the young activist and lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union became a legendary leftist when she traveled to hostile Mississippi in 1950 to argue the appeal of a black man, Willie McGee, convicted of raping a white woman. Yesterday's obituaries did not tell the full story of her steely courage. Dispensing with subtlety, local editorial writers wrote of lynching McGee and his "white lady lawyer." A worried Abzug, tracked by local police, spent an entire night in a brightly lit bus station. "She slept sitting up," her husband recalled years later, respect ringing in his voice. "That woman has more guts than the whole damn Army." Abzug was eight months pregnant.
Many remember Abzug's high-profile opposition to the Vietnam War -- she tried unsuccessfully to sponsor a bill for troop withdrawal, used a procedural tactic to force President Nixon to surrender the Pentagon Papers and was the first congressional member to call for his impeachment. In 1971 she urged wimpy politicians to speak out, telling them that the people wanted them to be activists. In that heavy New York accent she hit her words like a boxer attacks a punching bag: "People want to feel that you care, that you're human and really will fight for them and . . . [that] you really are going to kick over the traces, if necessary, to change the policies which are leading this country down!"
Of course her major legacy will be the women's movement. Said Betty Friedan, who had known her since they were young women in New York: "This world will be less good without Bella. All day I have felt an enormous loss. She was such a passionate fighter, warm, earthy. They don't make many like her anymore."
Abzug, however, took an interestingly different route to the women's movement than most feminists. Years of progressive politics led Abzug to a natural tendency to fight for the women's movement, whereas most others began with the movement, which then politicized them. This is why she was so pivotal to diversifying the movement; she so understood blue-collar women and they followed her, rather than some leaders who appeared elitist. They felt she was one of them.
At the International Women's Year in 1977 thousands of women cheered as Abzug, Friedan and Billie Jean King accompanied torch relay runners into the streets of Houston. One woman, by herself, looked like she had wandered into the wrong world. She wore a cheap tight purple pantsuit, lots of makeup and an elaborate beehive. She reluctantly said she was a clerk for a major company and asked not to be identified by name: "I'll get fired if they know I'm here." And she wasn't really by herself, she explained: "I'm representing all the girls who work with me." What had galvanized her to risk her job? "Bella Abzug. She understands people like me."
Another incident illustrates that empathetic pull between Abzug and working people. Congresswoman Abzug was in full glory, the earth-mother ship, as she plowed through a sea of communications workers at a cocktail party. She was mobbed by women in silver-spiked heels, bouffant hairdos, overdressed in chiffon. They enthusiastically told her they were getting off switchboards. They were working as linemen or in the service department and running for office in the union. Abzug shook their hands vigorously. She smiled and nodded serenely when some men volunteered that they were all for the new women's caucus of their union.
Then Abzug offered a whispered aside: "Wait'll those women start taking over," she said with a wink. "Then they won't think it's so cute."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company