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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 ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way Paperback – December 9, 2008
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“This is like being a fly on the wall for some of the most important moments in political history over the past fifty years. Being a part of this conversation makes you not just appreciate Bella's fierceness, but want to emulate it. ” ―MANIFESTA co-author and former Bella colleague, Amy Richards
“Bella was a radical, patriotic and passionate about transforming the system--with the courage to work from outside and the patience to work from inside. Like her life, this book radiates drama, humor, tactical brilliance-- and heart. Bella mattered. So does this book.” ―Jane Fonda
“The authors have captured one of the most principled, vibrant figures of the twentieth century in this equally unique oral history. It seems fitting that an inimitable and influential maverick such as Bella Abzug would find her life recounted in a book brave enough to include the voices of family, friends, and foes.” ―Ashley Judd
“Stumped about what to do in this messed up world? Just get to know Bella Abzug, one of the most important activists of the twentieth century. By gathering the reminiscences of people who lived their personal and political lives right along with her--and sometimes had the courage to break the rules alongside her too--the authors have created a memoir in many voices that captures the suspense, humor, and contradictions of this great woman. Read this book and then ask yourself, What would Bella do?” ―Gloria Steinem
“Bella Abzug didn't vet her opinions through consultants and polls. She wasn't a highly orchestrated pre-fab candidate sprung from a well-oiled multi-million dollar corporate machine. She was the real deal. Pro peace, pro worker, pro women. Angry, authentic, grassroots, alienating and alive. And, she actually got elected. This book is a call to all of us, but particularly those in government to run and lead through their own moral steam rather than blowing more hot air.” ―Eve Ensler
“Bella Abzug is an important, inspiring piece of history. There's nothing we need more right now that this kind of cogent reminder of what it takes to make change in the halls of power--and what's at stake if we don't.” ―Lisa Jervis, co-founder Bitch magazine
About the Author
Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom are both nationally recognized authorities on women's issues. Most recently, Levine is the author of Inventing the Rest of Lives and Thom is the author of Inside Ms.
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I know a lot of people outside of New York probably haven't heard of Bella Abzug. I grew up in her district, her face iconic in my childhood, and I distinctly recall stuffing envelopes for her in a storefront campaign office in the village. No, I never met her but it seemed very mature and necessary for me, an eight-year-old child, to be sitting side-by-side with adults, doing something that really mattered.
Of course, I had no political awareness and couldn't have told you a thing about Abzug's politics. I could assume she was against the Vietnam War because, as far as I knew, everyone knew that war, particularly that war, was wrong and we needed to bring our boys home. And she was a woman so I probably surmised she was a feminist. But it wasn't until reading this book that I understood how strident and divisive she truly was. Wonderfully so because she had strong beliefs and a fearless inability to back down.
I love the way this book is organized. There are very brief sections, few spanning more than a paragraph or two, written in a variety of voices. Abzug's own words are italicized while those of others are preceded by their name and then they share their stories. Everyone from family to employees, from political admirers and opponents are represented on the page. This is not an homage to a remarkable woman so much as it is a faceted look at her impact on politics, feminism, and so much more.
Bella Abzug was born at the right time and had the internal drive and vision to have an effect. Some of the observations make her human, like her dislike of dogs. Others put her in a context that informs her adult personality, like when her father died and she insisted on saying Kaddish for him although, traditionally this would have been done only by the eldest son. She is not easily defined and some of the stories shared reveal a complicated and complex woman, a woman who is conservative enough to not want to know about homosexuality but is willing to fight for homosexual rights and who wears an old fashioned girdle while standing up for equal rights for women.
Remember how after 9/11 there were changes made to the Freedom of Information Act which took away some of the American citizen's privacies? Bella Abzug was one of the forces behind the more rigid rulings that protected the American citizen, a natural response to what the Nixon Administration had been doing.
There are also some stories shared that break the heart or frustrate altogether. That anyone would be so vulgar as to call her "the Beast of Buchenwald" is so far beyond my comprehension that I had to close the book altogether for a few minutes to calm myself (162). She wasn't in politics to make friends but to create change and this is apparent as the editors have the good sense to share the darker and less kind opinions of some of the people who worked side-by-side with Abzug. If she wasn't easy to get along with, she made few apologies (although there is a story shared of her approaching someone years after the fact and admitting that she was wrong).
The strength of this book lies in its lack of synthesis. Rather than try to create a linear biography, the editors wisely, perhaps even brilliantly, chose to let the speakers speak for themselves so when Abzug writes about a particular moment in her italicized sections, these are immediately followed by one or more stories from others that either collaborate, elaborate, or even contradict what she said. What a clever way to show how faceted she herself was, a tour de force in politics at a time when there was so much political foment.
I would highly, even urgently, recommend this book to any young feminist who wants a better understanding of the more contemporary political roots of the movement. Abzug worked with Steinam and Friedan, with more or less cooperation. Before her own political career, she campaigned for Robert Kennedy and, after Malcolm X was assassinated, sold her house to his widow and children so they would have a safe and integrated community in which to live. Agree with her politics or don't, she was an interesting woman and this book makes her fascination understandable.
An outsider in every sense of the term starting from her childhood, Bella Savitsky Abzug crusaded for her causes merely because it was the right thing to do. She was not expecting fame or fortune to come from this work, she saw injustice and wanted to correct it.
After admittance to the bar, she went down south to defend African Americans, motivated by that sense of fairness rather than money.
This work and other even caught the eye of Richard M. Nixon, placing her on his infamous 'enemies list', something which she undoubtedly took as an honor. Her being noticed by the system meant that the cages were being rattled and they knew their time was up. The only machine which she was a member of was her own. Throughout each battle, her devoted husband Martin was proud to have supported her, not at all ashamed to 'Bella's husband'.
One can only imagine what the outlets attacking Hillary for being a 'nutcracker' would have said about Bella. She too enjoyed being a wife and a mother. But she also transgresed established gender norms at seemingly every turn. Even when elected to public office, she did not quietly fall in line with what the rest of the Party electorate expected her to go along with.
It's definently a holiday gift item to inspire the women in our lives. But guys also wanting a solid example of what quality community organizing actually is need to get this book.