The (Yelling) Mothers of Us AllRoundup
tags: biography, book review, womens history, second wave feminism
Rachel Shteir is the author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, Gypsy: the Art of the Tease, and The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.
No one who knows the story of the heroines of the movement can read Leandra Zarnow’s new biography of Abzug, who died in 1998, without thinking of these disappointments and half-accomplishments. Zarnow, a historian and professor at the University of Houston, has written a tightly focused story about the political contributions of Abzug, who devoted her life to making American society less sexist and racist. It is a story that, in its selflessness and heroism, is unimaginable today. Abzug herself is also unimaginable now: she is simply too much — too strong, too loud, too opinionated, and too Jewish, of course. Based on the current political scene, I’m not sure female political figures have come a long way, baby.
Thus, we should all celebrate the fact that Zarnow rescues her subject from history’s attic, which may be as much as anyone can do.
But the book is not perfect. For one thing, Zarnow’s attempt to draw a line between the figure who was “born yelling” — as Abzug liked to say about herself — and #MeToo and intersectional politics is misleading. The second-wavers’ biggest bête noire was gender equity, not violence against women, which is one of the few things young women talk about now when they talk about feminism. And yet, Zarnow offers such a rich history in Battling Bella that I will forgive her this and other missteps, like the jejune way she often describes things (Andy Warhol is “tasked” with doing Abzug’s portrait, she writes early on).
Zarnow deserves credit just for making known Abzug’s long list of political victories, which came despite hectoring that makes Twitter look like a Hallmark card. A short list would include taking on HUAC’s anticommunists, Richard Nixon (she was one of the first to call for his impeachment), and Jimmy Carter, who dismissed her as co-chairperson of the National Advisory Committee for Women. She co-authored Title IX and supported both the Equal Rights Amendment and the Equality Act of 1974, which guaranteed the legal rights of gay people. Abzug also supported the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which banned gender discrimination in lending practices, and co-wrote the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act Amendments. Older than many of the women in the second wave, she did not identify as a feminist at first, although she was living the life of one.
Abzug, an old-school populist, coined a number of enduring slogans: “Our Great Society is sick, and the major reason is that our priorities are insane”; “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel”; and “This Woman’s Place Is in the House — the House of Representatives.”
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