Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Bella Abzug was one of the first women I learned about that really made me start thinking about these issues of women and their voices and careers and the place that they hold in our history of progress. As Tina Fey would put it "Bitch is the new black" and Bella was totally a bitch way before it was acceptable, never mind cool. But as the story goes,,,, bitches get shit done. Bella's story is so interesting to me because she didn't really go at life wanting to change everything and be the most progressive person, it just happened that she recognized inequality as it came her way and she didn't mind changing her views or working to change other's views.
Bella was born in New York City in 1920, the year women won the right to vote. She was born Bella Savitzky to two Russian immigrants. At the age of twelve Bella was giving Zionist speeches outside her father's butcher shop and riding the subway around New York collecting money for the creation of the State of Israel. When Bella was 13 her father died and she controversially showed up at synagogue every day for an entire year to say Kaddish (traditionally, this was usually reserved for sons of the deceased). She attended Hunter College and was elected president of the student government. In 1945 she graduated from Columbia Law School and married Martin Abzug. Later in life when fellow members of the feminist movement would ask her how she managed to have a busy career and a successful marriage Bella would respond "Good Sex".
Upon graduating Bella joined a law firm in the city and worked furiously to build a reputation. For many of her early cases, she'd show up and everyone would assume she was the secretary to the lawyer, instead of the lawyer herself. She began wearing gloves and impressive hats to gain a sense of authority. The wide brimmed hats became her trademark. In the late 40s and 1950s Bella took a lot of cases that were controversial for their relation to the McCarthy trials and the civil rights movement. For one case Bella went down to Mississippi to defend a black man who had been accused of rape. The very pregnant Bella, narrowly escaped being murdered multiple times and would sleep at bus stations for safety. At this point Bella was also a chair on the Civil Rights Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. She had two daughters Eve in 1949 and Liz in 1952, while managing to represent a group of high profile actors in the McCarthy witch hunts.
When nuclear fear became all the rage Bella wrote a letter to her daughters' school saying they were not allowed to duck under their desks during bomb drills because in her words "Its psychologically maiming and totally political". In 1961 Bella helped organize Women Strike for Peace to campaign for a nuclear test ban. This group went on to protest Vietnam and create a thirst for equality and a voice among many women who had been stuck at home before joining WSP. On Mothers Day 1967 they marched on the pentagon to demand an end to Vietnam. In 1970 at age 50 Bella ran for Congress to represent Manhattan's West Side and Lower East Side. She was the first Jewish Woman ever to serve in the House of Representatives, at the time there were only 9 other women in the House.
To win, Bella went everywhere from synagogues to gay bath houses to find people who would vote for her. This experience actually lead her to become one of the first members of Congress to support gay rights, introducing the first federal gay rights bill, the Equality Act of 1974. On her first day in Congress, in 1971, Bella introduced a motion calling for a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Also that year she introduced the bill that made the term "Ms." legal on government documents, she becomes the first member of Congress to call for Nixon's impeachment, and along with Shirley Chisholm she introduced a comprehensive childcare bill. The next year Congress banned educational discrimination against girls and women. Back home in NYC she gave the first financing to the "curb cut" so sidewalks would be accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. In 1974 she coauthored the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Amendments. I don't know much about how those ones are doing these days -I'm gonna guess they were yanked long before the Patriot Act.... I should look that up. Also in 1974, she wrote the first law banning discrimination against women in obtaining credit, loans, and mortgages.
Next, Bella made an unsuccessful run for the all male Senate and was also the first woman to run for Mayor of New York. In 1977, she presided over the National Women's Caucus in Houston. She then headed President Carter's National Advisory Committee on Women until she was fired for criticizing the administration's economic policies in 1979.
Bella co founded and served on so many committees and organizations for women's rights that its hard to keep them all straight. In 1978 the National Organization for Women sponsored a huge march on Washington to persuade Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing women equal rights. Sadly enough, to this day that amendment has yet to pass. In the 80s Bella starts really going global with these issues. She worked with the United Nations organizing international Women's Conferences and formed the Women's Foreign Policy Council which worked at involving women in commentary and policy making on world issues. In 1990, Bella co-founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization, an international activist and advocacy network. While reading other books I realized how strange it was that until fairly recently no one was involving women when they talked about population problems and stuff like that. Thanks to Bella they started involving women in these discussions and working in more conducive ways to tackle issues like overpopulation, poverty, or the enviroment.
Through most of her life Bella was a huge pain in the ass, she had plenty of enemies. Yet, she got shit done. From reading this book about her I realized that she was well respected among her enemies and stuck by those close to her through everything. Her childhood friend and college roommate Mim Kelber was her main speechwriter and a co founder of Women USA and WEDO. Many of the women who joined Women Strike For Peace found their calling and worked beside her for the rest of their careers. Bella and her husband Martin had an incredible marriage and stayed together till his death in 1986. Bella Abzug gave her final public speech before the UN in March of 1998. She died later on that year.
Its because of Bella that my generation has the luxury of not thinking about sexism. Which in my opinion is even more of a reason to be aware of it and to remember the insane amount of change she made happen in just a few decades.
To remind us all of that here is Daria dressed as Bella Abzug.....