“This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” When I first heard about Bella Abzug it was from that quote in her successful 1970 campaign–and about The Hat.
As a recent graduate from Wagner College, I knew with a fierceness I was just beginning to voice, that my post graduate work was NOT going to be in a kitchen, or doing laundry, or spending most of my day at home waiting for the kids and mate to arrive. In 1969 it was rare to find a woman having a professional career AND being a homemaker. Bella spoke for us all. And for our male companions who were involved, like it or not.
Many of my female married friends stayed home while their diploma languished in the bottom desk drawer, and answered the question “What do you do? with “Oh, I don’t work.” Or “I’m just a housewife.” Somehow that “just” irked me–big time. Even today I am quick to clarify, “She/I/we don’t work outside the home, but that home work is a full time job.” But I digress.
The Hat got lots of press. It might have been because the press didn’t quite know what to do with this loud woman who talked about things women were not supposed to talk about. So they focused, at first, on the hats she wore everywhere. In the ’40s and ’50s working women wore hats to get taken seriously. “Before that (wearing a hat),” Bella said, “I was asked to go get coffee.” She went for big and noticeable in a big way. After a while she liked it. It was said that when she heard there was criticism of her vibrant hats, she remarked, “That’s it, I’m wearing them.” Her reminder: “It’s what’s under the hat that counts!”
At just the right time: “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over. ”~ Bella Abzug. After graduating from Wagner College in 1969 I moved into Manhattan, NYC. The ’70s were a time of civil rights, change, Viet Nam, and women’s lib. Bella Abzug came across my own neighborhood radar on the upper Westside, symbolizing just about every social grace I had been taught was not ladylike. She spoke out constantly, she physically jabbed people on the arms, she espoused her views in a voice that Norman Mailer said “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”
Well maybe, but she also spoke about subjects that we as young women were beginning to think were worth bringing into the open. She was an outspoken advocate of women’s liberation; she opposed the Viet Nam war. One voice pushing for equal pay or a separate bathroom at work, or a locker room that was not a closet, or lamenting the five high school friends killed in Viet Nam, was just one voice and not that powerful. But her interviews about these very same subjects brought her onto my personal turf. She championed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; wrote the first law banning discrimination against women seeking credit; and introduced legislation calling for comprehensive childcare, Social Security for homemakers, and abortion rights. She also focused on veterans’ issues, lesbian and gay rights, and aid to cities.
Much of what she agitated for (a fitting word for her style) has become mainstream and worth protecting today.
I loved researching for this blog, which has taken lots more time than writing up a social blog, and I am not complaining. I include some of her accomplishments here:
- Bella Savitsky Abzug nicknamed “Battling Bella,” was an American lawyer, Representative for Westside Manhattan NY for three terms, and a 1970’s social activist.
- In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedman to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
- Admitted to the New York Bar in 1947, practiced in New York City, in a time when very few women practiced law. She took on civil rights cases in the South.
- Chaired the National Commission on Observance of International Women’s Year, appointed to plan 1977 National Women’s Conference by Pres. Gerald Ford and led Pres. Carter’s commission on women.
- Chaired historic hearings on government secrecy. She was chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information & Individual Rights.
- Co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a global women’s advocacy organization working towards promotion and protection of human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment.
- Influential leader at the United Nations and at UN conferences.
- Received the highest civilian recognition and honor at the U.N., the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award. (1997)
Like other women I highlighted during this Women’s History Month, she was a successful author. Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington and The Gender Gap, co-authored with Mim Kelber.
A serious woman with a sense of humor: Her belief was that in order for the world’s problems to be solved, women must be empowered socially and economically. For that to happen, women must become as politically active as men. “You can’t continue to have a world without equal participation of men and women. That’s my central thesis … It’s not that I think women are superior to men, it’s just that we’ve had so little opportunity to be corrupted by power. And I jokingly add that we want that opportunity. But seriously, I believe that women can change the nature of power.” ~ Bella Abzug
In this tumultuous time in our nation, where there is such divided rhetoric, and often downright racism, being socially and politically active is more than a reminder. Women of integrity–and men–can change the nature of power.
Thank you, Bella Abzug.
The Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women
“Teaching Tolerance” magazine