Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bella Abzug by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom

Bella Abzug:  How One Tough Brod from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow, 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 is a book about a political dynamo who fought for changes that we see everywhere but did not realize were the result of her often strident voice.  For instance, did you know that the way curbsides are dipped down for easier wheelchair access is the result of legislation she pushed through Congress?  And that she was the first to demand President Nixon be impeached?  Known for her flamboyant hats and her very big personality, Bella Abzug is one of those leaders who simply would not be ignored.  She also would not back down and some of her positions created rifts within her own demographic so while she fought for Civil Rights for homosexuals, some feminists and minorities were offended and didn't agree with that gays and lesbians should be included.

I know a lot of people outside of New York probably haven't heard of Bella Abzug.  I grew up in her district, her face iconic in my childhood, and I distinctly recall stuffing envelopes for her in a storefront campaign office in the village.  No, I never met her but it seemed very mature and necessary for me, an eight-year-old child, to be sitting side-by-side with adults, doing something that really mattered.

Of course, I had no political awareness and couldn't have told you a thing about Abzug's politics.  I could assume she was against the Vietnam War because, as far as I knew, everyone knew that war, particularly that war, was wrong and we needed to bring our boys home.  And she was a woman so I probably surmised she was a feminist.  But it wasn't until reading this book that I understood how strident and divisive she truly was.  Wonderfully so because she had strong beliefs and a fearless inability to back down.

I love the way this book is organized.  There are very brief sections, few spanning more than a paragraph or two, written in a variety of voices.  Abzug's own words are italicized while those of others are preceded by their name and then they share their stories.  Everyone from family to employees, from political admirers and opponents are represented on the page.  This is not an homage to a remarkable woman so much as it is a faceted look at her impact on politics, feminism, and so much more.

Bella Abzug was born at the right time and had the internal drive and vision to have an effect.  Some of the observations make her human, like her dislike of dogs.  Others put her in a context that informs her adult personality, like when her father died and she insisted on saying Kaddish for him although, traditionally this would have been done only by the eldest son.  She is not easily defined and some of the stories shared reveal a complicated and complex woman, a woman who is conservative enough to not want to know about homosexuality but is willing to fight for homosexual rights and who wears an old fashioned girdle while standing up for equal rights for women.

Remember how after 9/11 there were changes made to the Freedom of Information Act which took away some of the American citizen's privacies?  Bella Abzug was one of the forces behind the more rigid rulings that protected the American citizen, a natural response to what the Nixon Administration had been doing.

There are also some stories shared that break the heart or frustrate altogether.  That anyone would be so vulgar as to call her "the Beast of Buchenwald" is so far beyond my comprehension that I had to close the book altogether for a few minutes to calm myself  (162).  She wasn't in politics to make friends but to create change and this is apparent as the editors have the good sense to share the darker and less kind opinions of some of the people who worked side-by-side with Abzug.  If she wasn't easy to get along with, she made few apologies (although there is a story shared of her approaching someone years after the fact and admitting that she was wrong).

The strength of this book lies in its lack of synthesis.  Rather than try to create a linear biography, the editors wisely, perhaps even brilliantly, chose to let the speakers speak for themselves so when Abzug writes about a particular moment in her italicized sections, these are immediately followed by one or more stories from others that either collaborate, elaborate, or even contradict what she said.  What a clever way to show how faceted she herself was, a tour de force in politics at a time when there was so much political foment.

I would highly, even urgently, recommend this book to any young feminist who wants a better understanding of the more contemporary political roots of the movement.  Abzug worked with Steinam and Friedan, with more or less cooperation.  Before her own political career, she campaigned for Robert Kennedy and, after Malcolm X was assassinated, sold her house to his widow and children so they would have a safe and integrated community in which to live.  Agree with her politics or don't, she was an interesting woman and this book makes her fascination understandable.

Normally, I share quotes, as you know, in the weekly quotes section of my other blog, but this book had so very many and I wanted to separate them from the usual quotes post.  The quotes that are not preceded by a name are Bella Abzug speaking.  The rest . . . well, there are a lot of quotes. 

I wrote a letter to the school saying, ‘I do not give permission for my children to duck under the desk.  It is psychologically maiming; it’s totally political; and I think it’s insane to do it.’ My kids used to say ‘But nobody else thinks that way, Mom.’ And I’d say, ‘They will.  Don’t worry.  They will.’  I was hard on my kids.  (41)

Geraldine Ferraro
Now let’s be honest about it.  She didn’t knock lightly on the door.  She didn’t even push it open or batter it down.  She took it off the hinges forever!  So that those of us who came after could walk through.  (55)

It’s okay to show your emotion and come in as a mother and as a woman to say that this is going to hurt my children, but it’s not good enough.  (61)

I have always enjoyed working with women because there are fewer boundaries and impediments and areas of potential conflict.  It is always easier to come to a confluence of opinion.  (69)

I copied down this quote because I hear, time and time again from women, that they hate working with women.  I always find this a shocking statement, one that hints at a certain amount of self-loathing.  I love working with women, genuine and strong women.  I love working with men, too.  If men and women are different, I suppose I appreciate those qualities that make each unique.  I honestly feel that more than male or female I look at people as individuals.  Some I like.  Some I don't.  But I don't lump those I like into a male/female dichotomy anymore than I would divide them by race or religion or anything else.  I wonder if the next time I hear a woman say "I hate working with women because . . ." I will have the courage of my conviction and say, "Now repeat what you just said but change 'women' into 'African Americans' or 'homosexuals' and ask yourself what you really mean when you say 'I hate working with women'."


Gloria Steinam
Bella and I ended up walking down Lexington together afterwards, talking.  Gradually I began to realize that my response to her was my problem, not hers.  If I was afraid to see Bella being a whole person, anger and all, that was because I was still afraid to be a whole person myself.  (70)

I actually found an opportunity to share this on a forum and the context, although different, was apropos.  So often we have a visceral response to someone we've just met and we immediately think it's them.  From my own experience, I have come to realize that usually, when someone has a strong reaction to me, it says more about them than it does about me.  I suppose much of this comes from my being always being friends with a variety of people, blurring the usual age/race/education/whatever lines.  If I don't feel I fit in a particular group or demographic then it isn't likely that I would surround myself with only people who are like me.  Besides, life is more interesting where there is diversity.  This is also probably why I often have friendships with attractive women and more often than not I have heard from these women how much my friendship has meant to them because, usually, they don't feel they can trust women.  I can understand that.  I've heard the hateful things some women say about beautiful women and it is appalling.  But it reveals more about the person who is speaking, and the ugliness they carry inside, than it does about the beautiful woman who is unknowingly being attacked.

Susan Brownmiller
She was utterly unself-unconscious, and probably just a bit of an exhibitionist.  (93)

If we are going to get anywhere, Congress has got to begin to reflect in its composition the great diversity of this country.  Although women represent 53 percent of the electorate, there are only thirteen of us in Congress (twelve in the House one in the Senate). The country has twenty-two million black citizens, and there are only a dozen black congressmen.  There are no artists, intellectuals, scientists, mathematicians, creative writers, architects, Vietnam veterans, musicians, and not even any leaders of the labor movement on Capitol Hill.  There are no young people.  The average of a congressman is 51.9 years, and a Senator, 56.  Two thirds of these people are lawyers, businessmen, or bankers.  No wonder Congress is such a smug, incestuous, stagnant institution!  It reeks of sameness. (126)

Of course, these statistics no longer apply.  Abzug was quoting the statistics at the time she was writing or speaking these words.  However, how much has truly changed?  Since she said these things, we've had a movie star in the White House and we currently have an African-American/biracial President, so I suppose some things have changed.  Still, the physical make-up, judging by census results, still does not reflect the actual demographic of our nation.  And what would politics be like if there were fewer lawyers, businessmen, and bankers and a few more artists, educators, or those damned intellectuals that I so often hear politicians say are trying to ruin our nation?  What would it be like, dare I ask, if Congress were broken down by income and there were only as many wealthy representatives as there are wealthy people in our nation and the rest of the seats were filled with the poor, the hungry, the huddled masses, and, of course, the middle class which is so quickly disappearing altogether?  

Eileen Shanahan
I am horrified at the degree to which today younger women, feminist women, do not know what an effective member of the House of Representatives [Bella] was.   . .  She did stand up and yell a bit and she could in fact be harsh on her staff and had a lot of high staff turnover.  Ed Koch . . . was in the House at the same time she was and had an equally high staff turnover and nobody ever wrote word one about it.  (150)

Not that this is anything new.  Women are often criticized and judged in a negative light for the same behavior as men.  


Geraldine Ferraro
With Bella, you either loved her or hated her.  (156)

The New York Post
Rep. Bella Abzug insists that she has no objection to poking fun at a political figure–so long as the satirist saves his jokes for the policies and not the figure.  (158)

This blew me away.  The rest of the article is about a political spoof at a venue that was traditionally misogynist, seating the women apart from the men.  But the quote stands powerfully on its own.  When I consider how comedians and political commentators insist upon attacking the person rather than the policies, that even drag in the children or family into the "humor" without regard of the real issues.  It's an amusing distraction, I suppose, but it is rather like critiquing an actor for how they live and saying the movie stinks.  It makes no sense.  And we shouldn't think it's funny.

To make an attack on a woman’s figure or physical appearance is to make an attack on all women .. .  None of the men were lampooned for the way they look.  Everybody else was satirized in terms of what they stand for and what they believe in.  But I as a woman was considered fair game to be ridiculed for what I look like.  (160)

Doug Ireland
She couldn't pull back and get perspective.  (190)

Margaret Mead
Men know a lot about dying but they don't know enough about living.  It has been women's biological and social and cultural task through history to live.  (207)

Eleanor Smeal (speaking in favor of the sexual-preference resolution)
This is a feminist issue, because discrimination against women begins at the basis of sexuality.  There are double standards:  one standard for males, another for females; one standard for heterosexuals, another for homosexuals.  And all these double standards in the issue of sexuality work to keep women in their place.  (212)

My reputation is that of an extremely independent woman, and I am.  But I was dependent, clearly, on Martin.  He would embrace me his furry chest and warm heart and protect me from the meanness one experiences in the kind of life I lead.  (245)

Shirley MacLaine
She said, 'Oh all you New Age fuckheads.  You never take a position.  You have no spine.'  (247)

Martha Baker
Everything was out, usually too much of it, too quickly, without any restraint.  (273)

Robin Morgan
She was amazingly open to learning things up to the very end.  Which is very unusual.  People usually close down.  (280)

Kofi Annan
She liked to say that since Noah we have done everything in pairs, except government.  (282)

3 comments:

  1. hmm is it just me or when you see her name Bella Abzug it is eerily similar to Beelzebub lol sorry about that I just saw her name and was focused on that similarity the entire review...I'll go back now and reread the whole thing...it's odd though as her name is enunciated the way his is...

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  2. You aren't the first to notice that and she was so often vilified that I've no doubt there's an editorial cartoon out there somewhere that makes the same correlation.

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  3. I was wondering if it was an intentional pseudonym. If so, I applaud her boldness. After all who am I to judge I run a blog titled Sympathy For The Devil and my pseudonym is the biblical true name of the Devil.

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