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Book Review

Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and 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

An oral history by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 320 pp

by Jo Freeman

The subtitle tells it all. Love her or hate her, Bella Abzug never failed to make an impression. She pushed and shoved her way through life, pursuing good causes with single-minded determination and trampling over friends and foes alike.

This oral history is not a conventional one; most of the words are not Bella’s but those of over a hundred people, compiled, edited and shaped into a rough narrative by two former Ms. editors. The result is like an impressionist painting, using vivid flashes of memory to evoke a subjective understanding more than provide the actual facts of Bella’s life story.

Fortunately the "authors" provide a chronology at the beginning of each chapter from which one can glean the basic outline of her life and the crucial events of the times in which she lived. Between her birth as Bella Savitzky on July 24, 1920 and her death on March 31, 1998 Bella experienced the Depression, Zionism, World War II, left–wing causes, the Cold War, the civil rights, feminist and antiwar movements, the U.S. Congress, globalization, and the United Nations.

In many ways this unconventional woman led a very conventional life. One of two daughters in an extended family of Russian Jews, her father ran a butcher shop and her grandfather took her to synagogue, where she sat upstairs in the women’s section. Her sister reports that "we were good kids – nothing like the rebellious kids today."

Bella’s childhood cause was Zionism, though she later became disillusioned with the kind of state Israel turned into. While at Hunter College she joined the left-wing American Student Union, became student body president and made life-long friends.

Married at age 24 to Martin after a "stormy courtship," their mutual devotion transcended his death 42 years later. She had one miscarriage, two daughters, and a black housekeeper who raised them in Westchester County. Known for her hats, she took pride in being well dressed, from her carefully applied make-up to her girdle.

But in other ways she defied convention from an early age. An athletic tomboy, she wanted to be a lawyer at a time when very few women even thought of trying to enter that male domain. She graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1945 after making law review, joined the National Lawyers Guild and worked for a while for a left-wing law firm which represented unions.

Concluding that she couldn’t work for someone else, she opened her own law office in New York City, though from the brief descriptions of her cases it appears to have been mostly a pro bono practice. Fortunately her husband made good money as a stockbroker or Bella’s life might have had a different trajectory.

Free to devote her time to good causes, she represented a black man on death row in Mississippi and actors called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. She was very active in Women’s Strike for Peace, constantly prodding it to lobby Congress as well as demonstrate.
These connections came in handy when she successfully ran for Congress in 1970. During her three terms she became such an expert on procedure that even those Members who hated her asked her advice. Bella was just beginning to make a place for herself in the House when she gave it up to run for the Senate in 1976.*

That was a fateful decision; in a four person race she lost the Democratic primary by one percent. She spent the next decade trying to get back into the House, or some other elected office, while also working to advance a women’s political action program.

Gradually she went global, eventually co-founding the Women’s Environment and Development Organization to put gender on the agenda of the United Nations. After a few international conferences, women around the world looked to her as a role model; after her death the UN General Assembly honored her with a special tribute.

Understanding Bella Abzug requires reconciling some serious contradictions. While this book provides some hints, it still leaves one wondering exactly how Bella succeeded as well as she did. Her performance as a politician gets such mixed reviews that it’s hard to believe everyone is speaking of the same person.

On the one hand, everyone agrees that she had an extremely abrasive personality. Most of the people in this book describe her yelling and screaming and making nasty comments to them. One the other hand, she had a band of devoted friends and followers and was never estranged from her family. Where outsiders saw anger, they saw affection and dedication. When she needed them, they rallied around her.

Bella’s public appeal made her an international celebrity who could excite a crowd even of those who didn’t like her politics. But New York voters, from 1976 onward, chose someone else to represent them.

This is a tantalizing book. It tells some good stories, but makes you want more. Consider it a tasty appetizer to the serious biography of Bella Abzug that awaits its author.

* I worked on that campaign, and later interviewed many of those involved as part of a project to study women’s campaigns by the Center for the American Women and Politics. Ruth Mandel, then director of CAWP, incorporated my research into her book, In the Running: The New Woman Candidate, but it was not separately published.

Like everyone who knew her, I have my own Bella stories. I wrote one of them as part of my report on the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. Go to http://www.jofreeman.com/womenyear/beijingreport.htm and "find" Bella.



Jo Freeman’s next book, We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in March.

Jo Freeman is a political scientist and attorney.  Her most recent book is At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist (Indiana U. Press 2004). Her previous book, A Room at a Time:  How Women Entered Party Politics, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) was reviewed by Emily Mitchell, a Senior Women Web Culture Watch critic.

Other books include The Politics of Women's Liberation, winner of the 1975 American Political Science Association's prize for the Best Scholarly Book on Women and Politics;  five editions of Women: A Feminist Perspective (ed.).  Jo edited Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies and (with Victoria Johnson) as well as Waves of Protest: Social Movements Since the Sixties.  She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from NYU's School of Law.  Visit her website, www.jofreeman.com and email her at joreen@jofreeman.com

©2007 Jo Freeman for SeniorWomenWeb

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