My MAKERS Hero: Bella Abzug

(Left: Ms. February 1973 issue Right: Mary Thom and Suzanne Braun Levine)

During Women's History Month, we're shining a spotlight on our women heroes. Suzanne Braun Levine, author and first editor of Ms. magazine talks about her MAKERS hero, Bella Abzug.

She spoke truth to power - every day

Maybe it’s because she was loud and opinionated, and I was chronically afraid to make trouble; maybe it was her moral courage; maybe it was because she kept fighting way after others gave up. Or because she was very funny. Or because pushy and rough as she could be, she always spoke of her husband Martin and her daughters with great tenderness Maybe it was her omnipresent hats. Bella Abzug, who died in 1998 – too soon to be interviewed for MAKERS - is definitely my hero.

Several years after she died my colleague, the late Mary Thom, and I began working on an oral history of her life. We interviewed people who had worked with her and against her, people who were inspired to do more than they thought they could by her, and those who felt they owed their own success to her. Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984 and still the only woman on a major party presidential ticket, tried to sum up her impact on women. “If there had never been a Bella Abzug, there would never have been a Gerry Ferraro,” she said. Bella “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.”

Throughout her life, she was an activist and leader in every major social movement of her lifetime – from socialist Zionism and labor in the forties, to the civil rights, ban-the-bomb, and anti-Vietnam war movements in the fifties and sixties; the women’s movement in the seventies and eighties; and, in the years before she died, global human rights, economic equality and environmental sanity.

After decades of supporting other candidates, at age 50, she ran for office and was elected to Congress. Bella became one of the most respected strategists in Congress. Friend and foe alike marveled at her mastery of procedure and innovative approaches to legislation. Even when she was on the inside, she continued building pressure from the outside, mobilizing women around the country to march, lobby elected officials, and keep making trouble. After she left Congress she undertook the awesome task of getting funding and authorization for the First National Women’s Conference, which took place in 1977 and brought 22,000 women together in Houston to hammer out an agenda for change.

No one we interviewed was able to talk about Bella without reciting a “Bella story,” frequently assuming her unmistakable New York accent in the telling (Norman Mailer, not an admirer, said her voice “could boil the fat off a taxi driver’s neck.”) Everyone had a favorite Bella phrase too. Journalist Myra Macpherson recalled that she “even stressed equality for the mediocre, cracking that the goal was not to see a ‘female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.’”

If Hillary Clinton ever becomes the first women president, I know Bella will have been an inspiration. Here is what she said at a memorial service: “As I travel around the world…I am always meeting women who introduce themselves by saying ‘I’m the Bella Abzug of Russia.. or Kazakhstan…or Uganda.’ Now what these women are really saying is that they are willing to take on the establishment and the institutions of their society on behalf of the rights of women, but not just that, on behalf of what families need, on behalf of peace, on behalf of civil society… So when women around the world say to me ‘I am the Bella Abzug’ from somewhere, I know what they really mean is that they’ll never give up.”

Adapted from 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 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

Watch Suzanne Braun Levine's complete MAKERS interview