Bella Abzug campaigning for mayor, New York City, 1977

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Bella Abzug campaigning for mayor, New York City, 1977

Sometime after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, Liz Abzug, daughter of the politician Bella Abzug, got in touch with Harvey Fierstein. Fierstein, a legend of downtown theater with a joyful, gravelly voice, made his name with Torch Song Trilogy, a 1982 sequence of plays he wrote and starred in, about a gay Jewish drag queen living in New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s. The trilogy earned him two Tony awards, one for best play and one for best actor. In the years that followed, Fierstein continued writing for the stage (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles) and acting in theater and film (Hairspray, Mrs. Doubtfire). By the time Liz Abzug reached him, he was one of the most recognizable presences on Broadway.

Liz wanted Fierstein to write a play about her late mother. Bella Abzug was a labor lawyer and peace activist, the representative for New York’s nineteenth and twentieth congressional districts, which then covered Manhattan’s West Side, and one of the most beloved and derided politicians of the late twentieth century. She was as famous for her anger (nicknames included “Battling Bella” and “Hurricane Bella”) as she was for her unwavering commitment to a set of political principles, among them pacifism, racial equality, and grassroots organizing.

When Abzug was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1970, she was one of only fifteen women among the 535 members of Congress. In 1975 she became the first woman to hold a position as party whip. In 1976 she ran for a seat in the (then all-male) Senate, but she lost the primary narrowly to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Devastated but characteristically undaunted, Abzug ran for mayor of New York City in 1977, losing to Ed Koch in the primary, and then went on to chair a women’s committee under Jimmy Carter, travel the globe promoting gender equality, and advocate for gay rights at a time when few political figures would do so. (During a 1995 international women’s conference in Beijing, UN security guards arrested two lesbians during a protest; Abzug successfully negotiated their release.) She died in 1998, battle-scarred and still at work.

Fierstein was game. After writing the one-woman show, he considered giving the Abzug part to a well-known woman actor—candidates included Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, and Kathy Bates—but he ultimately decided to play the politician himself.* This choice might seem surprising: a man playing a woman who became famous for combatting congressional sexism and advancing American feminism? But it was also apt: “They share the sense of humor, the intelligence, that ability to charm people,” Liz told The New York Times. Fierstein chose not to perform in drag. He could conjure her without a costume.

Bella Bella, directed by Kimberly Senior, opened last October and ran for six weeks. Fierstein appeared on stage barefoot, in a black shirt and black pants, wearing one of Abzug’s trademark enormous hats. Behind him were a dressing table and a pile of campaign signs; next to him was a toilet. It was election night in the 1976 Senate race, he explained, and he, as Abzug, was hiding out in a hotel bathroom as her campaign team monitored results. The occasion led to a long, associative reminiscence about Abzug’s life, from her childhood in the Bronx to her first campaign for Congress. On the night I attended, in late November, I was younger than the average audience member by roughly thirty years.

Celebrating Bella Abzug isn’t just a boomer phenomenon, though. Last fall also brought the publication of Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow, an assistant professor at the University of Houston. Zarnow first became aware of Abzug as an undergraduate, while working in the Smith College archives and cataloging papers donated by Gloria Steinem, which included a note with “a swirly signature, ‘Bella.’” In her introduction, she explains that Abzug didn’t leave much of a paper trail, hence the lack of citations from her personal or professional papers. Instead, Zarnow interviewed thirty-six of her friends and colleagues; mined oral histories, both published and unpublished; and searched through newspapers and magazines.

Abzug’s career, Zarnow argues, helps us understand the course charted by female politicians today: it “measure[s] where we stand as a nation in cracking the durable political class ceiling.” Like Fierstein, Zarnow seems to have Hillary Clinton in mind; references to her appear several times early in the book. Zarnow argues that both women’s careers are examples of a “persistent and arduous campaign to make women more visible in American politics.”

Why would Abzug’s career offer particular insight into this problem, rather than that of any other female politician or activist? Unlike some famous women of her era—Steinem, Betty Friedan—she’s no longer a household name. Even compared to other female politicians from the 1970s, she’s less well known than, say, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination, whom Kamala Harris has cited as inspiration. (Abzug refused to support Chisholm’s run for president, citing concerns about the viability of her candidacy.) Abzug’s congressional record isn’t especially impressive, though Zarnow argues she deserves more credit than she’s usually given. Her time in Congress didn’t last long, and though she aimed high, she couldn’t accomplish many of the goals she had set during her campaign. Nixon vetoed her childcare bill; too few states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). On her very first day in Congress, she introduced a bill to end the Vietnam War, but the war continued for four more years.

Advertisement

It may be her struggles, then, rather than her successes, that make her an appealing case study today. When it came to media coverage, Abzug certainly had a harder time than her male competitors. She was punished for the volume of her voice and her directness, in contrast to softer-spoken female politicians like vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. “With Bella, you either loved her or you hated her,” Ferraro once recalled. “She was up-front and honest: ‘Here’s who I am.’” While male politicians who heatedly defended their political positions were unremarkable, Abzug was cast as an angry woman—her voice “could have boiled the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck,” according to (the famously unmild) Norman Mailer. Her campaign manager, Doug Ireland, used to tell her, “Just shut up so people will think you’re just another pretty face.” This was hard for her to do. “I say things straight out,” she said, “but so do a lot of men.” How many women running for office have struggled to present themselves as tough and passionate without scaring off voters?

As anyone who’s watched the last couple of presidential election cycles knows well, women who run for political office face challenges that men do not. But the limits of gender as a way to evaluate political success become particularly clear when we consider Abzug. She had a complicated relationship with the women’s liberation movement, which sometimes appeared to her as self-involved, parochial, and even apolitical. She may have used gendered rhetoric while campaigning—“This woman’s place is in the house—the House of Representatives!” read one button—but she didn’t define herself by feminism alone. Instead, she was “the Reform candidate, the Antiwar Candidate, the Left-wing Candidate, period,” recalled Jerrold Nadler, who has served in Congress since 1972 (and represents parts of Abzug’s constituency). “She was not elected because she was the feminist candidate, nor was she opposed because of that.”

To Nadler’s point, she wasn’t a single-issue politician, and she didn’t want to appeal to just one type of voter. A lifelong leftist, she wanted to build a coalition with “the young, the poor and blue collar workers, the peace movement, the disenfranchised minorities, and concerned women,” as she once put it. She disagreed strongly with feminists who wanted to support all women political candidates regardless of their positions. Abzug’s support was contingent on the candidates’ politics, as well as on their competence and efficacy. Her standards sometimes made her a controversial figure within the women’s movement, even as she became one of its leaders.

Before Abzug was an elected official, she was a socialist from the South Bronx with a gift for oratory. She was born Bella Savitzky in 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants; her father owned a successful butcher shop called the Live and Let Live Meat Market, a name Abzug later interpreted as a “personal protest against the imperialist World War I.” Abzug’s Jewish education provided a sense of social justice: she learned the principles of tikkun olam, “healing the world,” and tzedakah, charitable giving. She was raised Orthodox, a tradition that separated men and women in religious services. When her father died of a heart attack, in 1934, she broke custom by saying Kaddish from a corner in her local synagogue (the practice was reserved for sons). “The men scowled at me but no one stopped me,” she later recalled.

As a preteen, Abzug joined the socialist Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair. (Part of the group’s appeal was that it espoused gender equality.) Fundraising for Israel on the streets and in the subway, she studied street lecturers who could “keep on going for three-quarters of an hour, gathering a crowd…and bringing it all to a climax.” The skills she developed served her well as an undergraduate at Hunter College, where she, a committed pacifist, rallied students against American involvement in World War II and was elected student body president.

Advertisement

After graduating, she met Martin Abzug, a twenty-six-year-old about to ship off to Fort Dix. After what she described as a “stormy courtship,” they married in 1944. “We got along so well in forty-two years of marriage because we fought out all our differences for two years before we got married,” she later said.

Abzug enrolled at Columbia Law School, which, unlike Harvard, admitted women. (She’d been accepted by Cornell, but her mother convinced her to attend the school that was only a five-cent subway ride away.) There, Abzug was one of nine women. One professor only let women speak in class on what he called “ladies day.” Martin sometimes typed up her class notes late into the night.

Abzug then saw law as the best way to advance social justice. Her first job out of school was at the firm Witt & Cammer. When she showed up at a client’s office, the men often assumed she was the secretary and waited for the real lawyer to come along. Abzug began dressing formally for these meetings, in a hat and gloves. That way, “they knew I was there for business.” She eventually dispensed with the gloves, but the hats remained, becoming something of a synecdoche for Abzug in years to come.

At first, Abzug prioritized civil liberties above other political causes. She was a member of the National Lawyers Guild and defended those persecuted by Joseph McCarthy. In 1948 she took up the defense of Willie McGee, a Black man from Mississippi who had been accused of raping a white woman—a capital offense. McGee asserted that the affair had been consensual. “Abzug recognized…that rape law had moved far from its original intent to protect women to become the leading mechanism to police the sexual color line,” Zarnow writes. It was a difficult and dangerous case. A female lawyer was unheard of in the American South, never mind a female lawyer who would defend a Black man.

Abzug couldn’t find any lawyers to help her represent McGee, nor could she find a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, that would rent her a room. One night, she ended up sleeping in a bus station. The local paper, Abzug recalled, suggested “they should burn Willie McGee’s white woman lawyer along with him in the electric chair.” Abzug worked, Zarnow writes, on the case for three years; the jury that sent McGee to the electric chair deliberated for only two and a half minutes. On one of her trips to Mississippi, Abzug, eight months pregnant, miscarried.

“Originally I felt that law was the instrument for social change,” Abzug later said. “But then I discovered that it was very much dominated by the status quo, that there were bigger issues than my winning a case for a particular individual.” She continued to work long hours as a lawyer while raising two daughters, but she also got increasingly involved in activism. Abzug was an early member of Women Strike for Peace (WSP), a nuclear disarmament group that held marches and pickets protesting US–Soviet militarism. She marched at the group’s first demonstration in November 1961, then, grumbling that there was “much more to be done,” spent the afternoon on the phone, reaching out to organizers, drafting legislation, and scheming to bring WSP to Washington.

With WSP, Abzug first demonstrated the combination of ambition and pragmatism that she displayed in Congress. When she joined, the group was highly democratic; as Zarnow puts it, “decisions were made by phone tree.” Abzug, who had no time for consensus decision-making and other radically democratic practices, moved the group toward a more bureaucratic—and, to her mind, more effective—organization, one that could make decisions speedily and lobby persuasively. She became WSP’s political director and arranged meetings with politicians, including Senator Robert Kennedy, who sought her perspective after announcing his candidacy for president. Though not all of her peers thought that part of the group’s mission was to fight for gender equality, Abzug did: she “urged her colleagues to see their disarmament work as part of a continuous and interrelated struggle for women’s civil rights, economic independence, and world peace,” Zarnow recounts. But as WSP got more involved in electoral politics, Abzug discouraged the support of female candidates, fearing they would be unelectable. Instead, she wanted women to pressure politicians and support the candidates that best reflected WSP’s political priorities. This is how she thought women could have political power: by becoming a voting bloc that politicians needed to appease.

After failing to secure a position in city government—she had expected to be rewarded for her help with John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaign—she was less confident in this strategy. Abzug was deep-sea diving in Martinique when she decided to run for congressional office herself. She made up campaign buttons that read “Abzug-lutely!” and took to the streets.

Abzug was a natural campaigner, talkative and seemingly tireless (only her aides saw her exhaustion). Out on the street, where constituents greeted her by name, she aimed to bring together young activists, immigrants, and working-class voters, a coalition that would connect the Old Left (labor) with the New Left (activists for women’s rights, peace, and racial equality). She was one of the first politicians to actively court the gay vote, appearing at the Continental Baths, a cabaret and bathhouse, where she spoke to a gathering of men wearing nothing but towels held up by Abzug campaign buttons.

In her efforts to merge the traditional Democratic base with activists and immigrants, Abzug presented a variation on the strategy advanced by New Politics Democrats. Formed around the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, New Politics represented the wing of the Democratic Party that wanted to appeal to the New Left. Abzug thought she could speak to those intrigued by New Politics without abandoning the Old Left, labor unions, or the white working class.

This coalition sometimes proved unworkable. Abzug opposed the 1968 teachers’ strike, which was in part a rejection of new, community-run school boards. (She believed in community-run school boards, and because “community-run” in this instance meant Black-run, she also hoped that they would improve racial equality in education. During her Senate campaign in 1976, Al Shanker, who had led the strike, criticized her for her position and urged AFLCIO members to vote for Moynihan.) In 1970, at an antiwar protest, white construction workers, many of them veterans, got into heated exchanges with protesting students. Although she was an open antimilitarist, Abzug continued to visit the construction unions to ask for their votes. She was disappointed to lose the support of union members.

Still, Abzug won the congressional seat, defeating a fourteen-year incumbent and becoming one of the first Jewish women ever elected to the House. She took office in early 1971, along with fourteen other women. Chisholm, a fellow member of the House, swore Abzug into office on the steps of the Capitol.

Both Fierstein and Zarnow emphasize the sexism Abzug faced during her time in Congress. She found herself barred from many congressional facilities, which were segregated by sex, and shunned by some of the all-male committees, such as the informal antiwar group she longed to join. Journalists commented frequently on her weight and appearance. In 1971 the all-male Inner Circle Press Club mocked her in a vicious skit that included an Abzug impersonator, who wore padding on his front and back and sang “We’ll burn a bra and girdle,/But dammit there’s one hurdle/When we take them off/We all look like hell.” It was the first year the Press Club allowed women to watch the show from the floor, and Abzug was in the audience. According to the New York Post, she started to cry. “None of the men were lampooned for the way they look,” Abzug said later. “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.”

Abzug could be arrogant. She was hell to work with, according to the testimonies collected by former Ms. editors Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom in their oral history 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 (2007). She banged the table when she got excited, yelled at friends and collaborators (one of whom claimed Abzug so distressed her that she stopped menstruating for months), and punched a longtime political adviser on the street. One of her assistants reports that “Bella would get equally as angry over some atrocity in Vietnam as the fact that she got a white-meat turkey sandwich when she asked for dark.”

She was sensitive to criticism and worried constantly about her weight. She tried a number of diets and, in preparation for her 1976 Senate campaign, lost twenty-five pounds. The writer Susan Brownmiller was once invited to discuss the women’s movement at Abzug’s apartment, where she watched Abzug cram her body into a girdle—something a feminist of the younger generation would never wear. “My God, look at how she’s trying to stuff it like a sausage,” Brownmiller thought at the time. This image from a dressing-room captures the strain Abzug felt as a woman in public: a progressive who never stopped trying to look like a proper and attractive lady.

In Bella Bella, Fierstein played Abzug mostly for laughs and admiration, a tough and undaunted broad, at times contemptuous of male stupidity. “It’s hell being surrounded by people so mired in their own beliefs that they cannot admit that I am always right,” her character said at one point in the show. She declared that no female president would have gone to war in Vietnam—“only the male ego” was capable of such a thing.

Fierstein seemed to miss the seriousness of Abzug’s insecurities about her body. Late in the show, he pulled out a pack of Twizzlers and cracked a joke about having had “worse things in my mouth.” Abzug’s stress-eating, a source of humiliation for much of her life, became here an unconvincing gag. Although Fierstein clearly studied Abzug’s speech and mannerisms carefully and captured much of her well, moments like this one signaled his limits. Perhaps one of those women Fierstein first considered for the part of Abzug would have been a better choice.

Abzug’s encounters with sexism pushed her toward feminism, and so did the support she received from female constituents and supporters after she was elected. “She didn’t really call herself a feminist until after she was in Congress,” recalled the feminist writer and activist Robin Morgan. “She was in office and visible. She began to get mail from women, saying speak out for us. So she found herself the voice of women.”

Bella Abzug protesting the Vietnam War on the steps of the Capitol after being sworn into Congress, 1971

Bettmann/Getty Images

Bella Abzug protesting the Vietnam War on the steps of the Capitol after being sworn into Congress, Washington, D.C., January 21, 1971

In 1971 there wasn’t consensus on what being “the voice of women” meant. The women’s liberation movement generally, and its radical wing in particular, was notoriously fractious, with disagreements on everything from the value of formal equality to the role of men in the movement to the possibility of separatist communities. Abzug, who belonged to an older radical tradition, couldn’t always countenance the younger women’s political actions. She agreed with many of their goals—pass the ERA, pass universal childcare, agitate for equal pay—but not with all of their tactics and priorities. In Congress, she focused on equality of opportunity and material support for women and their families. Abzug campaigned for universal childcare from her earliest days in Congress and offered childcare in her campaign offices, which had predominantly female staffs.

She was a pragmatist. Like Bernie Sanders, who during his second run for president realized that he needed to speak more directly to the identity politics preoccupying some progressives, Abzug pitched herself to the radical feminists and their identitarian concerns. During her run for the House, she sought Brownmiller’s advice on how to court the radical feminist vote. Brownmiller discouraged her efforts. “They will not support you,” she said, in Abzug’s recollection. “You wear lipstick.” Brownmiller went on to explain that the women she organized with cared more about “their individual rights, their abortion rights” than they did about the Vietnam War. Abzug promised to “give them a feminist interpretation as to why they should be opposed to the Vietnam War.” When she spoke to the women’s groups, she followed Brownmiller’s suggestion to explicitly identify herself as older (Abzug was fifty at the time) in order to explain why she, for instance, wore lipstick. She would address the younger women’s concerns, if necessary. She wanted to win.

Abzug also clashed with feminists her own age. In 1971, while organizing the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), a nonpartisan group designed to increase women’s representation in governance, she fought with Betty Friedan about the group’s positions on poverty, antiracism, and military imperialism. Friedan believed “women’s participation in political power will change the politics of this whole nation,” while Abzug worried that unless the NWPC fought for other groups and causes simultaneously, it would simply “replace or supplement a white, male, middle class elite with a white, female, middle class elite.” They also diverged on the issue of lesbianism: Friedan once called lesbians a “lavender menace” and tried to bar them from the movement, while Abzug, despite some initial discomfort when one of her daughters came out as a lesbian, was an early champion of gay rights. (Friedan and Abzug butted heads elsewhere; at a conference in Nairobi in 1985, they reportedly came close to throwing dinner plates at each other.)

The conflict between Abzug and Friedan signaled the changing definition of feminism as it became more mainstream. While some wanted to denude the term of its political radicalism and make it synonymous with all forms of female “empowerment,” even capitalist ones, Abzug believed feminism implied a commitment to alleviating suffering and promoting equality among all people. This is how she approached her brief time as head of Carter’s National Advisory Committee on Women from 1978 to 1979. Rather than focusing only on “women’s issues,” such as abortion, she pressed Carter on his foreign and economic policy. The approach got her fired. According to Brownie Ledbetter, an NWPC organizer and witness to the contentious meeting between Carter and Abzug, Carter told her, “I supported you on ERA. I didn’t agree with you on abortion, but I let you do your thing. What do my inflation policy and my military policy have to do with women?” To Abzug, everything.

In thinking about women’s issues as inextricably linked to economic issues and foreign policy, Abzug was arguably ahead of her time. Zarnow refers to Abzug as an “intersectional” feminist—one whose approach, as articulated by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, treats identity as something constituted by multiple, overlapping categorizations. In this analysis, identity is something like a social location; it denotes where an individual is situated within the structures of domination and exploitation. A poor Black woman thus is oppressed differently than a poor white woman. Combatting oppression means reckoning with its specificity.

Abzug didn’t think about identity in quite this way, but she did recognize how different structures of domination overlapped. She believed that anti-poverty programs could do as much for women and people of color as laws that prohibited discrimination in hiring. She recognized that feminism didn’t end at the borders of the United States: it involved caring about the lives of women in other parts of the world, many of whom were affected by US foreign policy. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Hillary Clinton, borrowing a slogan popularized by the Filipina group Gabriela, declared that women’s rights were human rights. Abzug, who was in the audience, had understood this long before.