Bella Abzug, wearing her trademark hat, declares her candidacy for mayor in 1977. She lost in the Democratic primary to Ed Koch. Photo: Copyright © Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com" www.dianamarahenry.com
Fiery, feisty and feminist. Brainy, blunt and belligerent. A principled radical, an outrageous agitator, a notorious confrontationalist. And let’s be blunt: A nuisance, a thorn in the side, even a pain in the ass.
It’s hard to imagine that Bella Abzug — who gleefully wrote being called “tough, noisy, a man-hater, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, overbearing” — would quibble with a single one of those descriptions.
But above all, as she wrote, too, she was also a “very serious woman,” a fact no detractor could ever deny. And now, 20 years after her death, the self-described “Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy” is getting some of the accolades she so richly deserves.
On March 29, Bank Street off Greenwich Avenue, a few doors away from the Greenwich Village home where she had lived from the 1960s through the 1980s, was officially co-named Congresswoman Bella S Abzug Way.
And even as preparations were underway for the ceremony, an old friend and fellow feminist, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, was firing off a letter to Postmaster General Megan Brennan, the first woman to hold the post, with a new proposal: Print an Abzug commemorative stamp to honor a tireless champion of women.
“Her success breaking down barriers for women in politics inspired generations of young people,” Maloney wrote on March 23, and she recalled Abzug’s famous declaration, “A woman’s place is in the House ... the House of Representatives.”
One of her greatest breakthroughs, Maloney wrote, was that she “empowered countless women to run for office, engage in politics and civic life, and join the women’s movement in pursuit of equal rights and opportunity.”
Known as “Battling Bella,” Abzug was first elected to the House in 1970 and served from 1971 to 1977 in a district that included the Upper West Side, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village.
With her trademark hat and take-no-prisoners style — she was the first person in Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon — she made scores of powerful enemies. Yet to the surprise of colleagues she alienated, she also proved a remarkably effective legislator.
Abzug’s landmark bills included the Freedom of Information Act, to bolster transparency and accountability in government, and Title IX, which guaranteed equal protection for men and women in higher education.
In 1976, she became the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, and in 1977, she became the first woman to vie for mayor, though she lost both times, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ed Koch respectively.
“She had a huge impact on the nation as a civil rights lawyer, feminist leader, and the first Jewish congresswoman in modern times who was one of the most progressive, do-everything representatives in the history of Congress,” said Liz Abzug, her daughter and the founder of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute at Hunter College.
Noting that her mother was born in 1920, which was also the year of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the vote, Abzug said that, ideally, a stamp could be timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of both events.
It’s cutting it close. Though the Maloney letter is a critical first step, and the U.S. Postal Service is traditionally responsive to Congressional requests, supporters have not yet submitted a formal proposal to the USPS Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, which is needed for the stamp-selection process to move forward.
Typically, due to the time required for research and review, ideas for stamp subjects are supposed to be received at least three years prior to the proposed issuance, according to USPS guidelines
“If it was up to the will of the people, there would be a stamp,” Liz Abzug said. “But let’s be realistic, she was as left and progressive as you can get within the Democratic Party, and this guy [Donald Trump] is a maniac, and he doesn’t like women, so it won’t be easy.”
Asked if the stamp proposal can be expected to encounter political headwinds in the Trump administration, Maloney said by email, “You don’t become a political trailblazer without getting under some people’s skin.”
While Abzug’s advocacy might have seemed radical at the time, issues like her support for LGBT rights and women’s rights have become more mainstream, she said.
Indeed, “She was the perfect embodiment of a belief that by dignifying one person you would dignify everyone – the complete opposite of the identity politics of today,” said Diana Mara Henry, who was Abzug’s official photographer in the 1970s.
“Bella represented a we’re-all-in-it-together spirit, and she saw all people as deserving of a better life,” Henry said.
Douglas Feiden: firstname.lastname@example.org