It’s been fewer than forty years since Bella Abzug was first elected to Congress on the Democratic ticket, and yet her tradition of firebrand politics is virtually absent from today’s party. The current firebrands are Republicans, who operate using the very politics of fear that Abzug so resolutely challenged during her lifetime. She was indeed fearless, taking on the anticommunists of huac, Richard Nixon (she was the first to call for his impeachment), and Jimmy Carter, who appointed her only to sack her as head of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. Readers of this fine oral history by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom will discover that this is a very partial list. An activist lawyer in New York accustomed to holding her own in a male-dominated world, Abzug took a while to warm to the emerging women’s movement. However, by the late ’80s, the unmissable broad in the wide-brimmed hat was among the most recognizable feminists in the country, if not the world.
Abzug rocked the body politic, all the while deploying her own body as she challenged masculine prerogatives in what one of her aides dubbed our “stag-nation.” In contrast to Betty Friedan, who struggled to make herself acceptably middle-American, Abzug made no effort to soften her image. She was a tough Jew, whose self-presentation seemed uncomfortably like that of a fishwife to many wasps and more-moneyed Jews. Unable to attract donors with deep pockets to her failed Senate race in 1976, she maintained her characteristic chutzpah. “I’m everything these people moved to the suburbs to escape,” she told her friend Gloria Steinem. Abzug may once have looked like a young Shirley MacLaine, but by the time she was a well-known politician, she was stout—defiantly so. “Bella came into a room like a lumberjack,” recalls Ms. cofounder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who confesses her old concern that if Abzug’s stabs at dieting ever paid off, she might lose “that aura of occupying space.”
Abzug’s assault on male space also took legislative shape (not to mention her integration of the all-male swimming pool used by members of Congress), and though she was aggressive, she was also savvy. Her accomplishments as a Congresswoman included writing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which banned gender discrimination in lending practices, and coauthoring the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Amendments, which have proved indispensable to journalists in these days of closed government. Abzug was initially uneasy about public discussion of homosexuality, yet she introduced the first national gay-rights bill in 1975. She also introduced legislation to authorize and fund meetings for International Women’s Year, which culminated in a national conference in Houston in 1977. Abzug was a straight shooter, and this proved her undoing as a politician. Faced with a hostile Hasidic audience challenging her support of gay rights, she reprimanded them, “What the hell is this? You want to talk about perverts? Look at all these men wearing fur hats and ear curls.” And then there was her criticism of President Carter’s economic and military policies, which he judged outside the purview of feminist politics and for which he fired her.
Bella Abzug is a fabulous read about a breed of politician now largely extinct: someone with the guts to say, as she did, that feminism’s goal “was not to see a female Einstein become an assistant professor,” but a “woman schlemiel . . . get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.” Levine and Thom have crafted a history that brings to life one of the great political personalities of the twentieth century.