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The Pioneering Bella Abzug - The New York Times


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.

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