As we watch one of our major political parties at the brink of choking on the presidential candidacy of either an egomaniacal real estate developer or a nasty zealot whose own colleagues detest him, let us think about something more uplifting.
I give you Bella Abzug.
I still miss her.
The force of nature that was Bella Abzug died 16 years ago today, too soon, at the age of 77. The date of her passing — March 31 — marks the end of Women’s History Month and often falls during Passover, the Jewish celebration of resistance, liberation and renewal.
Bella — everyone called her that — was part of a wide-ranging sisterhood of Jewish feminists who worked both within and outside the system to transform American society and American Jewish life.
“Born yelling,” in 1920, as she described herself, this daughter of Russian immigrants grew up poor in the Bronx, N.Y., and went on to Columbia University Law School, one of only a handful of women of her time to obtain a law degree.
As a young lawyer, she began wearing her iconic bold hats, not as a fashion statement, but as a political one. “I began wearing hats,” she said, “(to) establish my professional identity. Before (I did) that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get the coffee.”
Prior to her election in 1970 as the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, Abzug specialized in labor, civil liberties and civil rights law. One of the few lawyers to challenge the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, she subsequently helped found Women Strike For Peace, and vehemently opposed the Vietnam War.
In Congress, she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced the first lesbian and gay civil rights bill, and co-authored the 1972 Water Pollution Act and the Freedom of Information Act. By her third term, Abzug was voted by colleagues as one of Congress’ three most influential members.
Women’s economic equity was a central issue for Abzug. At a time when women who earned their own paychecks could be denied credit because of their gender, and married women could not obtain credit in their own names, she was responsible for passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Later, she made a mock American Express commercial describing how she had been told by American Express that her husband had to sign if she wanted one of their cards. It’s classic Bella; you can find it here on YouTube.
Bella’s admirers see her as the embodiment of the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” — the idea that humans are meant to be the Divine’s partners in healing and repairing the world. To remedy injustice, she confronted the powerful, and did not stay in a woman’s “proper place.”
As she announced later in her career: “They used to give us a day — it was called International Women’s Day. In 1975, they gave us a year, the Year of the Woman. Then from 1975 to 1985 they gave us a decade, the Decade of the Woman. I said at the time, who knows, if we behave, they may let us into the whole thing. Well, we didn’t behave and here we are.”
Today, Women’s History Month winds down and, as we look towards the coming of Passover in April, I like to think of how the women who did not behave are central also to the Passover narrative. While the traditionally-told story offers only scant mention, the women’s seders that emerged during the 1970s celebrate the women without whom the transformative journey out of Egypt could not have happened. Bella, a regular participant in the gatherings of the original “seder sisters” (who also included Esther Broner, Phyllis Chesler, Grace Paley, and Gloria Steinem) sometimes brought the chicken.
During feminist seders, we speak of Moses’ mother Yocheved, who gave up her baby so that he could survive; of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who hid him, and later helped lead the Jews out of Egypt; of Thermutis, Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted the baby Moses, had him nursed by his own mother, and later became known as Batyah — daughter of God; and of Shifrah and Pu’ah, the midwives who disobeyed the orders to kill Jewish males at birth, instead hiding the infants, saving Moses and others, and making the flight from Egypt possible.
“At the feminist seder,” says author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a member since 1975 of the first recorded feminist seder group, “we don’t praise good girls; we praise rebellious women, wise women, quiet heroines and brash leaders.”
Bella was brash and wise, and definitely not a good girl. As Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro said at Bella’s funeral, “She didn’t knock politely on the door. She didn’t even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever.”
© Rhea Hirshman 2016