A New Film Looks at Bella Abzug’s Life

For Jewish feminists of a certain age, Bella Abzug was larger than life, known for her big hats, her big Jewish mouth, and the big tent that we now call alliance politics. However, as Letty Cottin Pogrebin points out toward the end of Jeff Lieberman’s documentary Bella!: This Woman’s Place is in the House, Abzug is not as well known today. Lieberman’s doc, which premiered on the closing night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, restores Bella’s rightful and complex place in progressive political history. Just as importantly, it reminds us how relevant her voice and views remain. 

A shadow hangs over this achievement, though. In a public Facebook post, Liz Abzug, Bella’s daughter, indicated that she and her sister Eve could not endorse the film and had not yet seen it, and raised questions about her own treatment by the filmmakers. According to her perhaps legally necessary elusive account, she and the director had been battling over Bella! for quite some time. In the credits, Lieberman expresses his “deepest gratitude and appreciation to Liz Abzug without whom this film would not have been possible.” And in response to this reviewer’s questions via email, Lieberman stated, “While we have honored her request, made in 2020, to no longer be involved in the film, I am hopeful that she will view it and recognize it as a glowing portrait of Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s immense legacy.” 

Although Bella may no longer be a household name, the talking heads featured here certainly are. Gloria Steinem remembers being initially afraid of Abzug because she had “never seen someone who did not come to the public as a lady.” Maxine Waters learned to be “bold because of Bella.” Hillary Rodham Clinton asserts that Bella the battler inspired her “because she never lost sight of who she was fighting for.” Barbra Streisand, another of Bella’s staunch celebrity supporters included in the film, tweeted the trailer for the doc the day before its premiere. And House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, also featured in the documentary, was in attendance at the premiere and received an enthusiastic reception from the audience and the press. 

Lily Tomlin captures Bella’s essence in the film when she quips that “under the hat was a lot of brain tissue.” Bella consistently put that brain tissue to good use. When Harvard Law School wouldn’t admit her because she was a woman, she followed her Jewish mother’s advice and went to Columbia Law School instead. She set up her own law practice and went to Mississippi to appeal the conviction of Willie McGee, a Black man who had a consensual affair with a married woman but was accused of rape and was sentenced to death. Arguing that Black people had systematically been excluded from the jury, she succeeded in reversing the conviction; however, he was found guilty in a retrial and was executed by the state. 

Abzug’s activist work with the Women’s Strike for Peace, which led to JFK signing the nuclear test ban treaty, prepared her to become a savvy campaigner and a strategic legislator. Thanks to her work on the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, married women were newly able to get credit on their own rather than needing their husbands to sign off on their applications. She was a formidable ally in the gay rights movement and co-authored the first National Gay and Lesbian Rights Bill. And she tirelessly worked to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Knowing that a resolution to end the war needed wide support and that she was a lightning rod, she selflessly handed off the resolution to a junior Congressperson, caring more about the issue than getting credit for her years of hard work. Once she was no longer an elected official, she worked with the United Nations and put into practice her understanding that U.S. feminists needed a more global perspective. 

Happily, this film is not a hagiography. Lieberman references political enemies who considered her “loud and abrasive” and includes former campaign staff members who sometimes found her relentless and exhausting. Likewise, he does not shy away from her political failures: her giving up her seat in the House in order to launch an unsuccessful Senate campaign as well as a failed attempt to become mayor of New York. 

However, the film is also careful to chronicle the ways she was failed: the redistricting scheme that led her to lose her Congressional seat for a time as well as the publisher of the New York Times overruling the editor of the paper and endorsing Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the Senate. Indeed, the film suggests that Bella may have the dubious distinction of being the “first woman to get screwed over by the NYT.” The documentary is also merciless on President Jimmy Carter, who first appointed Abzug to co-chair his Advisory Committee on Women and then fired her because she challenged him to do more and to view such basics as the budget as a women’s issue. 

Like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bella had a supportive and feminist husband at her side. Bella’s helpmate was also named Marty, and it was he who first encouraged Bella to run for office. The role that Jewishness played in Bella’s life and career is woven throughout the documentary. Her Orthodox grandfather was exceedingly proud of her command of Hebrew, and her feminist formation likely began when she said Kaddish for her father alone behind the mechitzah (the gender separator in non-egalitarian synagogues). When parts of the Lower East Side were added to her congressional district, she and Babs campaigned in the area on a flatbed truck. Bella, knowing her constituents, spoke to them in Yiddish. And each year at the Feminist Seder, an empty chair with a hat on it memorializes Bella’s political and religious commitments to narratives of freedom. 

Bella! is scheduled to arrive in select theaters beginning Aug. 18th, and a broadcast is currently planned for September 8th on PBS as part of its unfortunately named American Masters series. While Bella might bristle at being included among the “masters,” many Lilith viewers will relish watching her receive her due as a national treasure. 

Helene Meyers is the author of Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition. She can be found on Twitter @helene_meyers and at https://helenemeyers.com/