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Vol. LXII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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Book Review

The Woman in the Hat: A True Maverick Shakes Up Washington

Stuart Mitchner

In a perfectly just republic Bella would be president.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith (1984)
“She 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.”
—Rep. Geraldine Ferraro at Bella Abzug’s funeral

While the subject of this column is an oral history about Bella Abzug, who died 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be reviewing the book if John McCain had chosen Joe Lieberman or Mitt Romney as a running mate. You might have thought that the Hillary Clinton campaign would be reason enough for a piece on Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom’s Bella Abzug (Farrar, Straus and Giroux $25) with its hefty subtitle promising to tell us how “one tough broad from the Bronx” fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy and “shook up politics along the way.” Until the governor from Alaska entered the picture, however, nothing in the political wars moved me to write about the outspoken New York congresswoman in the big hat, certainly not in comparison to the New York senator in the pants suit. It was when Clinton took credit for the 18 million cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling that I began to dip into the oral history of the woman who not only unhinged the door mentioned by 1984 vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro but put a big hole in the glass ceiling 30 years before Clinton became a senator from the same state. Reading Bella Abzug you learn that she herself might have been New York’s first woman senator if she’d held her famously untameable tongue at a pivotal moment in the 1976 primary.

Like most performers on the national stage, Abzug knew how to command the public’s attention. A self-portrait of sorts provides Levine and Thom with an epigraph:

“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am — and this ought to be made very clear at the outset — I am a very serious woman.”

The Palin Factor

In the course of defining herself, Abzug suggests an interesting range of associations, mixing boxing and literature, Brecht and Roth. Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s storyline belongs much more to the culture of celebrity than either Abzug’s or, for that matter, Barack Obama’s. The single best-known image of Obama’s super stardom is his appearance before a vast crowd in Berlin, but no response to his style or presence compares with the Pandora’s Box of media overkill opened by the hockey mom from Wasilla. I get flashes of American Idol, Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, Becky Sharp and Tammy Faye, tabloids and sitcoms, moose heads and bearskin rugs, revival meetings and beauty contests and basketball. No wonder she stole the Republican show in St. Paul and is still stealing it on the campaign trail whether in or out of the company of the man at the top of the ticket. You always hear how movie actresses are complaining about the lack of meaty or challenging roles. What a part Sarah Palin would be if she weren’t already playing it herself, the Penetecostal cover girl, the barracuda of the basketball court, the self-proclaimed pit-bull with lipstick, a pro-life governor in open-toed high heels pursing her lips to blow away a stray curl as she delivers another scripted punchline at the expense of the opposition — who could play her? Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live and Lisa Donovan on YouTube have already had a shot at it. Or how about Frances McDormand the way she was as the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson gamely venturing through the snowy landscape in Fargo. While Marge would seem to be a kindred spirit who might even be tempted to vote for Sarah on election day, my guess is that so discerning a crime fighter would see beyond the flash of the moment and back Barack.

Even if you’re rooting for Obama, even if Palin’s politics make you cringe, you have to admit McCain’s Choice is a media slam-dunk. How can the buzz-driven minions of the TV press resist her? Reporters and commentators might roll their eyes and make faces, as they did back in the 1970s when Hurricane Bella blew their way, but in the end what it comes down to is great copy. It was not all that different with Abzug, never mind the vast difference in political persuasion and physique; the more people she infuriated and offended, the better the copy. The media rolled its eyes, held its nose, and gobbled her up.

Abzug was the essence of the big city — brash, rude, emotional, in your face. A “real New Yorker,” Pete Hamill says. You could hear “the raw street hoarseness in her voice,” a voice that, as Norman Mailer put it, “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”

Lipstick and Volleyball

Given the recent emergence of cosmetics as a campaign issue, one of the most amusing exchanges in this anecdotal embarrassment of riches comes as Abzug tries to enlist radical feminists in her first campaign. When she demands to know why feminists won’t support her, the answer is, “Well, first of all, you wear lipstick.” Of course she eventually got that support and went on to be a key standard bearer of the cause. One bill she introduced early on that was eventually passed mandated the use of “Ms.” in government documents.

As for “shaking up” Washington (another campaign riff parroted by Sarah Palin), Abzug introduced a motion calling for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam on her first day in Congress, January 21, 1971. A year later she was the first representative to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Bella Abzug documents numerous amusing instances of the “uppity” congresswoman’s impact on the old boy network. Prior to joining the House volleyball team, she had her dressmaker create a volleyball outfit (“blue and white with striped pants, striped culottes and polka dots on top and a special sailor hat”). The image of the stocky Abzug playing volleyball in that regalia is almost beyond comprehension; in the words of publicist Harold Holzer, “Oy! it was an unfortunate outfit, but it was so cute that she tried.”

Then there was the time she showed up at the House swimming pool. As Geraldine Ferraro tells the story, the men “used the pool a lot and they all used to swim naked. She got there and said, ‘I want to swim.’ They said, ‘We swim naked.’ And she said, ‘I’m still gonna swim!’ So … they put on their bathing suits.” When Ferraro got the same treatment a decade later, she offered a comeback the trailblazer must have appreciated: “That’s alright. I swim with one hand over my eyes.”

The House swimming pool was only one in a long line of challenges. As Abzug puts it, “I’ve challenged all systems — the family, I never obeyed my father properly. I always did what I wanted to do. In school I challenged. In the streets, I challenged the monopoly of what the boys thought the girls couldn’t participate in. I’ve spent a lifetime in challenge. There’s no way you can create any meaningful change unless you do that.”


The authors of Bella Abzug have not screened out the negatives. People she rubbed the wrong way are quoted, such as fellow member of Congress and former New York mayor Ed Koch: “Bella and I just disliked one another intensely, personally as well as politically ….She bulldozes people.” Another mayor of New York, Robert Wagner, is quoted in the context of Abzug’s unsuccessful run for that office: “She didn’t seem to be a person who pulls people together, except a certain group that are attached to her ….She’s a type that doesn’t attract me at all ….I think she’s represented that district very well. They’re a volatile district on the West Side. They have a lot of people over there who are screamers and yellers, too. That’s all right, but confine it to there.”

Her Protector

Of all the quotes from Bella Abzug herself (not surprisingly, hers are the meatiest), perhaps the most revealing is her admission that she doesn’t feel “very related to most people …. On the surface I appear to be very involved in a lot of social relationships. But that’s just not the case, because inside I’m not relating to anybody. I find it all a strain and an interference. I feel detached in social situations. I’m always thinking about other things, about Congress, about the issues, about the political coalition I’m trying to organize. It never leaves me. I even have trouble relating to some of my closest friends.” Her relationship with her husband was the great exception. When he died in 1986, she was devastated: “I was dependent, clearly, on Martin. He would embrace me in his furry chest and warm heart and protect me from the meanness one experiences in the kind of life I lead.”

The Wrong Answer

The evidence arranged in Bella Abzug suggests that the greatest disappointments in her life were her failed candidacies for mayor of New York and senator. Her friends tried to talk her out of the 1976 senate run (she was the first woman in New York to run for the senate), arguing that she would be giving up a seat in Congress that was ostensibly hers for as long as she lived. She lost the primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan by less than one percent, all apparently because a young stringer for the Associated Press asked her two weeks before the vote if she would support Moynihan in the general election were she to lose the primary. Perhaps she couldn’t accept even a hypothetical defeat. Her answer was a defiant “No,” and because of that she lost the endorsement of the New York Times, said to be worth “a good five points in New York City and the suburbs.”

While it may be true that Sarah Palin would not be where she is today if John McCain hadn’t been desperate to placate and energize the Far Right, it was Bella Abzug’s pioneering on the Left that “took the door off the hinges.” Whatever the “tough broad from the Bronx” might make of the Alaskan’s sudden rise, it’s safe to say that she wouldn’t be bored. Or maybe she’s too busy to care. “When she gets to heaven,” says actor Joe Bologna, “Bella would greet Martin warmly, maybe share a couple of dances, maybe a little sex” before she “began petitioning God for better living conditions for the people in hell.”

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