"Find out if your girlfriend is a feminist befire you get too far into it," Phyllis Schley told assembled students at The Citadel milltarry academy in April. "Some of them are pretty. They don't all 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 cliche 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 …