The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug
By Leandra Ruth Zarnow
“Battling Bella,” a new biography of Bella Abzug, starts off in 1977, a year after she lost her bid to become a United States senator, with Andy Warhol on his way to do a portrait of the former congresswoman. It was commissioned by Rolling Stone for a cover celebrating Abzug’s campaign for mayor of New York that year. Then Elvis died and the cover was postponed. By the time it finally ran in October, she had already lost the Democratic primary.
It’s kind of a perfect beginning. Abzug was one of the most recognizable figures in America during the 1970s — a time when there was absolutely no shortage of outsize political personalities. But her tenure in elected office was pretty brief — only six action-packed years in the House before she lost her nail-biting Senate primary race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
In revisiting her career, Leandra Ruth Zarnow, an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston, makes a good case that despite the loss, Abzug continued to have an impact. While she was best known as an extremely outspoken public figure, she was also a kind of genius at behind-the-scenes organizing. (Her campaign offices almost always featured day care, an Abzug passion.) Reading about how the mostly female volunteers steamrollered the traditional New York Democratic machine, feel free to think of her as a middle-aged, Jewish, Vietnam-era version of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. That would please Zarnow, who sees a whole lot of similarities between our era and the 1970s, when Democratic progressives were going head-to-head against establishment moderates for control of the party’s agenda.
Abzug was a native New Yorker — her father, a World War I pacifist, ran a business he named the Live and Let Live Meat Market. After law school, she volunteered to go to Mississippi to defend Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Arriving in 1951 to argue the case, Abzug, who was eight months pregnant, was refused accommodations at the hotel where she’d rented a room, and wound up spending the night sitting nervously and sleeplessly in a stall in the bus stop bathroom. She pursued the case through two appeals and numerous death threats, before McGee was executed.
When she ran for the House in 1970, Abzug, with her omnipresent hats and flashy polka-dotted dresses, became, as Zarnow writes, “the most recognizable woman in U.S. politics.” That wasn’t necessarily all that hard — at the time only 14 of the 435 House members were women, most of them trying to look as inconspicuous as possible in a deeply male world. It was inevitable that Abzug, who liked to say she was “born yelling,” would make a splash. When President Gerald Ford was in hot water for his pardon of Richard Nixon, he agreed to testify before a congressional committee as long as there was a time limit “and no questions from Bella Abzug.”
There were the many, many critics, not all of them high-minded. “With idol appreciation came degrees of hate: abusive mail, death threats, lampooning and weight shaming. Some questioned her authenticity as an activist, feminist, heterosexual woman, devout Jew and loyal American,” Zarnow writes. You can’t help thinking she was lucky to have missed the age of Twitter. But men did feel more liberated to make fun of a woman’s looks in public back then. The all-male New York press club Inner Circle featured a well-padded Bella impersonator in its 1971 show, who danced around singing: “I guess I’ve never been the high-fashioned kind / Mother Nature gave me a big behind.”
Abzug’s career has been the subject of a lot of books over the years, and Zarnow focuses on her progressive politics rather than her persona. The book gives rather short shrift to Abzug’s many failings as a boss. (She reportedly told staff members who called in sick: “I don’t give a damn. As long as I’m paying your salary you’ll show up.”) An aide claimed that when he and Abzug had a disagreement, she gave him “a whack on the side” that left him doubled over in pain. To be fair, the next day, she was on the phone: “I called to apologize. How’s your kidney?”
Abzug won her first campaign by organizing like hell against the veteran incumbent Representative Leonard Farbstein with squads of volunteers who were mainly women. Once she got to Washington, her fellow House Democrats weren’t always thrilled with her voluble performances on the floor — on one occasion, Zarnow reports, they thwarted her attempt to force a vote on an antiwar resolution by “physically holding her down.” But her organizational talents came in handy. She mastered the procedures, attaching amendments to totally unrelated pieces of legislation — as one aide said, “the way Southern senators did” — and tweaking bills so that funding for pretty much any program included a provision banning sexual discrimination.
Given her short stint in Washington, Abzug accomplished quite a lot, particularly when it came to women’s rights. (Zarnow also gives her credit for an amendment to the Federal Highway Act that earmarked funds for the creation of wheelchair access ramps.) She survived a Republican attempt to redistrict her out of office, and if she had stayed on, she might have piled up seniority and legislative achievements for the rest of her life. But just into her third term, she decided to run for the Senate seat occupied by the conservative James Buckley. So did a lot of other people — the field vying for the party nomination seemed to include half the Democrats in the city. The United Nations ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a moderate, turned out to be the prime contender. Zarnow says that Abzug, who lost 25 pounds for her campaign, made a mistake in softening her feisty image: “It allowed the contest to become a choice between feminine and masculine leadership.” But she also argues that Abzug leaned too heavily on “democratic socialist principles” at a time when New York City was teetering on bankruptcy and people were perhaps more scared than angry.
The 1976 Democratic primary race became a political legend. Moynihan talked about encouraging business development and making social welfare programs more efficient. Abzug ran the gamut from fighting to keep local day care centers open to wondering if it would be possible to make use of a rumor that Moynihan had body odor. And she refused to promise she’d support her opponent in the general election if he beat her. Everything seemed to be down to the wire. The final blow, many people felt, came when The New York Times endorsed Moynihan. The decision, by the publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was a shock to the opinion page editor John Oakes, who was on vacation at the time. Oakes published a short protest, but the deed was done. Moynihan eked out a narrow win.
Abzug quickly tried to get Ted Weiss, who had just won the Democratic line in her old House district, to give it back. But Weiss wasn’t in the mood, and although she’d repeatedly try to win another office, she never did.
Nevertheless, this was a woman who was hard to discourage. Abzug tried working on the inside, heading Jimmy Carter’s National Advisory Commission on Women, but it was something of a disaster. (Carter fired her when the commission attacked his economic policies.) Then she found a new cause in international feminist issues. By the time of her death in 1998, Zarnow says, she had become so well known for her efforts “that leaders in other countries were called the ‘Bella Abzug of Nigeria’ or ‘the Bella Abzug of Mongolia.’”
You have to wonder what she’d be doing if she were around today. Running campaign offices for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders? If she did, I’ll bet they’d have day care.
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