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The Woman of the House
Almost 50 years after she was elected to Congress, a closer look at Bella Abzug’s legacy
Harvard University Press
In 1970, two women ran for two seats in Congress with the same slogan: “This Woman’s Place Is in the House—the House of Representatives.” Phyllis Schlafly, the face of the anti-feminist movement, campaigned in Illinois, while Bella Abzug, a leader of the women’s movement, sought a seat in New York.

Only one of them would prove that slogan right: On January 3, 1971, Abzug was sworn in to Congress, where she’d serve for the next six years. Building on decades of legal work and social activism, she fought for universal child care, green energy and gay and women’s rights, including voting for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Historian Leandra Ruth Zarnow’s new book, Battling Bella, explores Abzug’s stint in Washington, as well as what led her to pursue politics and what followed. Zarnow spoke with Smithsonian about Abzug’s life and legacy and how it paved the way for today’s female politicians.

Why were you drawn to writing about Bella Abzug?

This project began in the archives, when I was a student at Smith College and helped process Gloria Steinem’s papers. I came across a letter clearly written by a big personality and simply signed, “Bella.” I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. I found that the signature belonged to lawyer-turned-politician Bella Abzug, who had her hand in just about every progressive social movement that reshaped our nation in the 20th century—antifascism, labor, racial civil rights, peace activism, environmentalism, disability rights, feminism and LGBT rights.

I was surprised that despite being the most recognizable woman in politics in the 1970s, historians had afforded little attention to Bella Abzug. For those Americans my age, she was an unknown. For those old enough to remember her in action, she was either passionately adored or detested. Any political dynamo that still riles people at this level deserves serious attention as a harbinger of change and a bellwether of her time.

What shaped Abzug’s progressive politics?

Bella Abzug was deeply motivated by her sense of justice grounded in her Jewish faith and the concept of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish ethical commitment to repair the world. She was also a labor Zionist in her youth before Israel’s founding, which helped shape her class consciousness and distinct brand of radicalism. Bringing “protest to power,” Abzug prioritized reform through governmental channels, in part, because of her orientation as a lawyer who had worked within the legal system to expose its failures and seek redresses. Deeply patriotic, she had great confidence in American democracy. She believed dissent was not only a right, but an obligation to help her nation achieve its fullest potential.

What will readers be most surprised to learn about Abzug by reading your book?

I think readers will be surprised to find that Abzug played a role in driving post-Watergate reforms as chair of the Government Information and Individual Rights Subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee. Participating in the 1975 “Year of Intelligence,” Abzug cast a critical gaze on government recordkeeping practices, intelligence surveillance and personal privacy rights. She helped expose covert operations, introduced “sunshine” legislation and schooled Americans on how to lodge Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests, a process that has become a tool of democracy. She was one player in this larger struggle between Congress and the Executive to rebalance power and help steer the U.S. out of a constitutional crisis.

Additionally, for those who know Abzug most as a feminist icon and “dove” in Congress, it may come as a surprise that she was equally committed to economic issues and the needs of the working class. She championed many of the ideas that animate progressives today such as a green economy, universal health and child care and free higher education. She did so in conversation with workers of all kinds, seeking to balance the concerns of white male blue-collar workers with those of people of color, immigrants and women. She understood that separating class from race and gender “identity politics” was a false divide.

What do you see as her most lasting legacy?

Bella Abzug made sure that the call for Democratic “new politics” in the late 1960s and 1970s included women’s rights as a centerpiece issue, helping secure the connection between feminism and the Democratic Party that holds today. Her attempt to expose and reform the U.S. government’s patriarchal structure and culture resonates even more so in this #MeToo moment. Abzug modeled a women-led workplace and helped integrate sex-segregated spaces on Capitol Hill alongside sponsoring landmark women’s rights legislation. While she and the women she worked alongside in Washington were not fully successful in dismantling its “old boys’ network,” their disruption of business as usual provides an example of how women can shift the shape and tenor of politics.

You position her as a foremother to several of today’s prominent female politicians. How did she pave the way for them?

In 1976, Bella Abzug ran for Senate to become “one in one-hundred” when the Senate was entirely male. She attempted to deliver a lasting crack in the political glass ceiling. She lost that election, but made the case while trying that women must push against the assumption that they are not politically viable. She was persistent and relentless in her challenge of the “un-representativeness” of government. As a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she sought to better prepare women for campaigning and to lead. She challenged Americans to think differently about what women could and should do in government. She modeled, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has echoed, that women must “dream big, fight hard.”

Anna Diamond
What We’re Listening to Now
A recommendation from a Smithsonian staff member
Dolly Parton's America (WNYC Studios)
In a time of division and distrust, Dolly Parton shines as a blond honey-voiced beacon. Her songs cut through the noise with colorful, evergreen ballads of love, loss, belonging and empowerment.

“Dolly Parton’s America,” a new podcast series hosted by Jad Abumrad, explores the complexities of Parton’s life, career and all that she represents. In nine episodes, Abumrad, the host of shows like “Radiolab” and its spinoff series “More Perfect,” chronicles Parton’s life, from her debut on the “Porter Wagoner Show” to the making of her amusement park, Dollywood.

Abumrad and producer Shima Oliaee do a masterful job of telling her story. They weave together sound bites from Dolly Parton experts, fans and their own lives. One fan calls her “one of the most underrated feminist icons of our time.” In the fourth episode, Abumrad’s father describes his emotional connection to Parton through their mutual affinity for their respective mountain homes—his in Lebanon and hers in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

She’s a bold personality and a metaphor for many things to many people, but above all, Abumrad stresses, she is a master songwriter. Her songs once dominated the charts, and she has a gift for imagining lives otherwise unseen.

In the first half of the series, Parton drifts into vignettes of her childhood, her divorce and reconciliation with Porter Wagoner and the stories that inspire her writing. She sometimes accentuates an anecdote by singing in a voice that’s soft and satiny, and feels impossibly personal.

Not only Parton’s sound, but also her emotional candor has uniquely touched many diverse people across her 60-year musical career. In the first episode, Abumrad describes the scene at one of Parton’s shows. “You’ve got evangelical church ladies standing next to men in drag,” Abumrad says. “All of these different communities, on either side of the ‘culture wars,’ all standing together, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing the same song.”

Between Parton’s witty lines and vivid stories, Abumrad pulls out poignant moments of reflection. Perhaps, he muses, Parton’s personability and compassion is what brings together so many deeply divided groups of people. After all, “forgiveness,” Parton says, “is all there is.”

Abumrad’s version of “Dolly Parton’s America” is truly a beautiful place to be.

Claire Bugos

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Smithsonian in the World
Last week, Smithsonian Books and the National Museum of African American History and Culture published We Return Fighting, which explores African-American involvement in World War I. Read more at Smithsonian.

Beatrix, a 2-year-old female porcupine at the National Zoo, has given birth to a porcupette. The baby marks the start of the third generation of porcupines at the Zoo. Read more at the Washington Post.

Next spring, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will open an exhibit about Alexander von Humboldt, a 19th-century naturalist who influenced the fields of climate and taxonomy. One surprising artifact in the show: a set of mastodon bones brought from Germany. Read more at Atlas Obscura.

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