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Bella! (There’s Only One)

Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom bring us 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 & Giroux, $25). The book delivers all that its ambitious subtitle promises, and in less than 300 pages. The authors, journalists who knew Abzug personally, pull this off by weaving together an “oral history” (as they call it), mostly long quotes culled from interviews they conducted with Abzug’s family, friends, and colleagues. Their own voices are all but missing, except in the brief chronologies of Abzug’s political activities they place at the beginning of each chapter.

Abzug, who died in 1998 at age 77, was born, in the Bronx, to Russian-immigrant parents who kvelled over their daughter’s intelligence and innate self-confidence. By the time she was a teenager she had discovered political activism: a fervent Zionist, she would ride the subway and declaim to the captive passengers about the need for a Jewish homeland, a passion that drove her all her life. She graduated from Columbia Law School in 1944, a time when few women were admitted to any law school. As a young lawyer her clients included victims of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts. She married, had two daughters, and in the early 1960s became a major organizer in the peace movement. Gloria Steinem, describing an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington that Abzug had organized in the late 1960s, recalls in Bella Abzug: “She scared the shit out of me. She was just so aggressive.”

In 1970, at 50, Abzug ran for Congress in New York’s Upper West Side district on an anti-Vietnam War platform. Her campaign slogan was: “This woman’s place is in the House.” On her first day there, she introduced a motion calling for troop withdrawal from Vietnam. Abzug now had celebrity status. She was known simply as “Bella,” the congresswoman with the trademark hats and the big mouth. But the chutzpah that made her famous was tempered by tremendous charisma, a quality that, in tandem with her talent for organizing, made her a powerhouse legislator. “Bella was one of the greatest coalition builders ever to be in the House… she was able to build coalitions with some very conservative people on various issues, including some of those old southern Democrats,” journalist Doug Ireland, who managed her 1970 campaign, told Levine and Thom. Her greatest successes included coauthoring the Freedom of Information Act, which forced government agencies to open public records to the public, and writing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which banned discrimination against women in obtaining credit.

In 1976, Abzug gave up her Congressional seat to run for Senate. She lost the Democratic primary. The following year she entered the primary for New York City mayor, again losing. She then made several unsuccessful runs for Congress. That a comeback continuously eluded her was, simply, a tragedy. “She was like an orchestra conductor without an orchestra,” Gloria Steinem recalls. In between waging political campaigns, and until the end of her life, Abzug devoted herself to women’s causes, both here and abroad. In 1980 she helped found the first UN Conference on Women; these conferences are now ongoing. At the first conference, which took place in Mexico City, Abzug started a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue group. Lilith editor in chief Susan Weidman Schneider recalls Abzug at that time saying that the women should just model the behaviors and then give up their seats to men, who would then see what they had to do to make peace.

Alice Sparberg Alexiou is the author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary (Rutgers University Press/HarperCollins Canada, 2006), and a contributing editor at Lilith.