“Find out if your girlfriend is a feminist before you get too far into it,” Phyllis Schlafly told assembled students at The Citadel military academy in April. “Some of them are pretty. They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.”
This was April 2012—not, say, 1972, a more likely year to hear the late New York City congresswoman being used as feminism’s chief bogeywoman. As another Jewish feminist, Rebecca Traister, pointed out in The Washington Post, many in Schlafly’s student audience probably had only the faintest idea who she was talking about. That’s a shame, because Abzug, who died in 1998, is worth remembering in this election season. She flouted, unapologetically and in public, everything a woman was supposed to be. These days, between the enduring paucity of women in elected office, this year’s battles over reproductive rights and gleeful Republican bashing of Georgetown student Sandra Fluke for daring to speak up on a topic of importance to women, one can wonder just how much those unspoken rules have changed.
There was a hidden compliment to current feminism in Schlafly’s slam, as Traister noted: The iconic anti-feminist was tacitly acknowledging that feminists come in all stripes, not just in the demonized cliché that long led some women to hesitate about claiming the label. “The aged, arid vision of feminism on which conservatives have long relied (and that Abzug embodied only in caricature, never in reality) is finally losing its power,” Traister argued. She has a point in a year that also saw a resurgence of broader, popular anger at misogyny: Rush Limbaugh was roundly punished for his sexualized verbal attacks on Fluke, the Georgetown student who defended her right to insurance coverage for contraception. And President Obama’s campaign has seized the moment to offer a relatively robust feminist message, implying it believes that message has a major constituency.
Abzug would have found much about the Fluke dust-up familiar, since one of the prices she paid for public life was the constant attempt to put her in her place through a focus on her looks instead of her work or positions. As she put it, “I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it.” Vice President Spiro Agnew felt comfortable enough to say at a fundraising dinner, “Republicans should work for adoption of environmental programs, welfare and revenue sharing, and most importantly, we have to keep Bella Abzug from showing up in Congress in hot pants.”
Not only did such comments seek to diminish and dismiss a woman who consistently defied the status quo, they played into anti-Semitic tropes about ball-busting Jewish women. But if Abzug was “irritating” and “brash,” as she was also called as she rose to become a powerful member of the House of Representatives, if she was often harsh to her own allies, these were qualities that were forgiven when displayed by men, or described admiringly as confidence or drive. One of her gravest offenses, it seems, was not seeming to care whether she conformed to what women were supposed to want—including male approval.
It was in the pages of this magazine, in 1976, that Abzug was quoted saying, “Sometimes I’m asked when I became a feminist, and I usually answer, ‘The day I was born.’ If I was born a rebel, I attribute it to my family heritage.” Emanuel Savitzky, Abzug’s father, was a pacifist refugee from the Russo-Japanese War who was so dismayed by America’s entrance into World War I that he renamed his Manhattan butcher shop “The Live and Let Live Meat Market.” Abzug’s outsider status as a Jew, a first-generation American and a woman were crucial to her social justice activism, in Congress and beyond.
She’s often called the first Jewish woman in Congress, but she was actually preceded by a woman who, at first glance, seems far from the Abzug mold: Rep. Florence P. Kahn, who succeeded her husband to represent California in Congress between 1925 and 1937 was certainly no Bella. She was a Republican, as were most San Francisco Jews at that time. Her buddy J. Edgar Hoover affectionately called her the “Mother of the FBI” for her staunch support of that agency. She once declared, “I am not specifically interested in so-called women’s questions, as all national positions are sexless.” And yet she had a ready answer for a different set of “women’s questions,” the sexist ones. Kahn was once asked how she had pulled off so much as a legislator. According to the official Women in Congress website, she “snapped back, ‘Sex appeal!’”
Long after Kahn and Abzug, there still aren’t enough women in Congress. But many of those we do have—among them widely admired Jewish women like Democratic National Committee chair and congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, fellow congresswomen Nita Lowey and Jan Schakowsky, and California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein—command both respect and the ability to participate in public life not solely reduced to their gender.
Still, the days of reducing a woman in politics to whether or not some men want to sleep with her aren’t behind us either—just ask Hillary Clinton. But recently, after decades of enduring sexist insults about her looks, her fashion choices, and her aging, Clinton displayed Abzug-like insouciance. Tabloids had been splashing around a photograph of her in Bangladesh not wearing makeup—never mind what she was doing there, which was dealing with political violence and repression. “At some point it’s just not something that deserves a whole lot of time and attention,” Clinton said, “and if others want to worry about it, I’ll let them do the worrying for a change.” Bella would have been proud.
Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon.com and a monthly columnist at Tablet.