Bella Abzug and the Art of the Possible


Margo Martindale does a terrific Bella Abzug in “Mrs. America,” the FX/Hulu miniseries about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. The actress appears to crawl into the skin and under the hats of the intimidating Abzug, the three-term congresswoman from New York City who organized the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.

Like Abzug – or what I remember of her from the TV news – Martindale is witty, sardonic and a little too blunt for her own good. Abzug always reminded me of my mother, of blessed memory, who was all those things and more. Martindale’s performance brings all that Jewy, outer-borough energy roaring back.

The series is an essay on how to acquire and deploy political power. Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) deftly works the media, while feminism’s bete noire, Phyllis Schlafly (a regal, frightening Cate Blanchett) organizes the grassroots (no series has ever shown more envelope-stuffing and cold-calling, the unglamorous but necessary side of organizing). And when the feminist leaders in the show debate where to apply or respond to pressure – on LGBT rights, on universal childcare, on women of color – it is Abzug’s character who represents, sometimes to a fault, the art of the possible. More than the other characters, she understands how laws are made, the compromises that are necessary, the excrement that must be eaten if progress is to be made against intractable opponents. The idealists see her as cynical, and the radicals consider her a sellout.

Here she is in a heated exchange with Byrne as Steinem, the Ms. Magazine founder who is upset that Abzug finds it expedient to include conservative women at the National Women’s Conference:

Gloria: We finally have a place that’s ours, and they’re going to ruin it.

Bella: I’ve spent almost ten years in this town; I know what I can get done and what I can’t, something you’ve never had to learn.

Gloria: I’ve learned that I’m not willing to sit on another convention floor, getting called a murderer of babies. I’m not willing to let women speak who are getting funding by the Birchers. I’m sick of trading our dreams for a bit of the middle. This was supposed to be our Eden, and you’ve let the snakes in. You were a bigger radical than me when we met.

Bella: And you were a dilettante who wanted to play politics.

“I’m sick of trading our dreams for a bit of the middle.” That’s the frustration of “Defund the Police” activists who think incremental change is no solution to the crisis of police violence. “We mean what we say we mean—police in this country need to go; defunded, abolished. And the prisons,” Taylor James, a 26-year-old from Maryland, told Vanity Fair. “We tried Band-Aiding the problem, we tried reforms, and what? Another Black man was murdered and we’re still out protesting.”

But it is Abzug’s voice you hear when pragmatists argue that radical solutions are a gift to the other side, and that real change comes through “meaningful reforms” of existing institutions and structures. Stacey Abrams could have been channeling Abzug when she was interviewed on PBS NewsHour last week. Judy Woodruff asked the Georgia politician, who is on the short list to be Joe Biden’s 2020 running mate, to respond to criticism that Biden’s calls to reform police and prisons are tepid. Says Abrams:

First and foremost, as someone who’s an activist myself, I understand the power of a rallying cry.

But I also recognize that the responsibility of policymakers is to take the vision that is being espoused, the anguish that is being expressed, and turn it into real policies that cannot only be implemented but sustained.

Until Biden’s remarkable comeback in South Carolina, that argument – say, revolution vs. incrementalism – was the Democratic Party’s dilemma. Biden’s presumptive nomination seemed to settle the debate in favor of the pragmatists, at least at the national level. Now, with the George Floyd protests, the split is being revealed once again.

Some of this is generational: Young people have a natural tendency to be more impatient than their elders. But among longtime civil rights activists, there is earned frustration about the lack of change when it comes to police violence, mass incarceration and institutionalized racism. Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which described nearly every issue being discussed in the wake of Floyd’s killing, was published in 2010.  “A return to ‘normalcy’ will not suffice,” according to a letter signed by 50 liberal groups in response to Biden. “For too many Black people, normalcy has meant violence, intimidation and fear. What we actually need is a visionary departure from ‘normal.’”

Bella Abzug was hardly the defender of the status quo, however, and often made enemies, she often mused, because she refused to compromise. But she pushed back at normal not by proposing unrealizable policies, but by organizing and building coalitions. In her 2018 biography, “Battling Bella,” Leandra Ruth Zarnow writes that by the mid 1960s, “Abzug had decided it was time to transition from being an outside agitator to an outsider agitating on the inside.”

And yet. The ERA hasn’t passed. Abzug lost her 1976 bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. If anything, we’ve gone backwards on race. Maybe it’s time to pull off the Band-Aid. 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.