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Bella Bella: Celebrating a Groundbreaking Champion of Feminism

In the ’70s, the one-named political icon Bella was as well-known as Oprah, and as famous as her first-name-only gal pals: Gloria (Steinem), Lily (Tomlin), Shirley (MacLaine), and Barbra (Streisand), who headlined the “Broadway for Bella” concert at Madison Square Garden, just before Election Day in 1970. That campaign, which put Bella in Congress, introduced the legendary slogan “A woman’s place is in the house—The House of Representatives.”

Harvey Fierstein, the four-time Tony award winner, wrote Bella Bella, in which he interprets the feisty firebrand politician Bella Abzug. Directed by Kimberly Senior, Fierstein affectionately lauds the brash Bronx native, who was born in 1920, the same year the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified.

harvey fierstein bella abzug

Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The 90-minute monologue takes place at 2am in John Lee Beatty’s starkly simple set, an oversized bathroom at Manhattan’s The Summit Hotel; where Bella, the senatorial candidate, anxiously awaits the results of the 1976 five-way Democratic primary, which she lost by 1% to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Barefoot, and dressed in black by costumer Rita Ryack, Fierstein reveals—and often quotes—the candidate, while standing near a poster-stuffed bathtub in front of a uniquely Bella-style red coat dress and big-brimmed hat. (That signature headcover was a symbol of power initiated after her forever-husband, Martin Abzug, suggested that men don’t expect a woman wearing a hat and gloves to carry their coffee.)

Fierstein, the writer/actor/activist, shares humor-filled and heart-felt mid-century history, which some of us remember. And he gives the audience a sense of Abzug's passion, strength, challenges, and this particular failure. The actor’s own passion, comedic talents, and, of course, raspy voice, hit the mark, as do his snapped T’s; though Fierstein’s over-the-top New Yawk accent somewhat reduced the stature of the highly accomplished, Columbia University-educated labor lawyer. As an author, Fierstein’s script is warm and fast-paced, though it sprinkles in more Yiddish expressions than my friend and I recall from Abzug’s powerful professional appearances and, perhaps, reflect a private vocabulary that we never heard.

harvey fierstein as bella abzug

Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

In fact, many of the entertaining anecdotes and intimate insights gleaned from family and friends were new to me. They spanned the gamut from caring or funny to tragic. The saddest occurred during Abzug’s pre-congressional career as a civil rights activist, when she ardently defended Willie McGee, who was wrongly accused, convicted, and electrocuted for rape in 1945. The case put Abzug figuratively out on a limb, where she literally might have ended. On a sisterly note, the oral history illustrated the interconnections among the era’s feminist leaders. For example, Abzug unabashedly admired Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 made history as the first black female elected to congress and in 1972 as the first black major-party candidate to run for President of the United States. The scene soars when Abzug’s snarky side surfaces, with her critiques of JFK, Harry Truman, and Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminist Mystique is credited with raising women’s consciousness—although it appeared some decades after Abzug began her ascent.

Abzug was a formidable presence whose arrival into any room was an event, even amidst the New York notables who flocked to Jimmy’s, a West 52nd Street restaurant. By the time she ran for senate in 1976, women were hopeful about future female representation. By 1972, the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded; Ruth Bader Ginsburg co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, which litigated against institutionalized gender discrimination; Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin co-founded Ms. magazine; and Brooklyn’s Liz Holtzman was elected to Congress. (Holtzman served on the Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Nixon.) Carol Bellamy had been elected to the New York State Senate and Mary Ann Krupsak was inaugurated as state Lieutenant Governor. States were ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment and many of us believed that simple statement of equality would be passed.

bella abzug

Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine, 1971.

This generation of feminists were my heroes because they inspired multitudes to become involved, including this once young, suburban, married-mom-teacher-feminist. Seeing Bella Bella (and I felt that way about Gloria: A Life) is more than entertaining. It’s a good way to introduce young people to predecessors who tried to improve the world and who sometimes succeeded. (Bella got the law passed that permitted women to access their own credit cards without their husband’s signature after American Express refused her one, while she was in Congress!)

Bring other generations to see Bella Bella; then, share your own stories.


Bella, Bella is playing at Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center, Stage I (131 W. 55th St.) through December 1st. For tickets call 212-581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org.

Irvina Lew, author of You Can’t Do It All: Ideas that Work for Mothers who Work (MacMillan, 1986; Berkeley, 1988), is a freelance writer who served as President of the Suffolk Women’s Democratic Caucus.

About the Author

Irvina Lew, a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Society of American Travel Writers, is an author and an award-winning freelance food and travel writer. She’s also a mom, grandmother to two “city kids,” and a former New York City public school Spanish teacher. You can learn more at irvinalew.com.

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