As Donald Trump crashed headlong into a week of disparaging comments he made about Ghazala Khan, mother of slain Muslim American soldier Captain Humayun Khan, I had a thought: What if it’s a Muslim mother who’s the catalyst to topple Trump? And what if the experience of U.S. Jewish women political activists could help this happen?
The Democratic National Convention played like a mega-love fest to women, crowned by the nomination of Hillary Clinton. It was a moment I had dreamed of ever since I was a girl weaned on the rebel-rousing rhetoric of New York’s ultimate Jewish mother — Bella Abzug.
Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, an ethnically integrated and liberal Jewish enclave, Abzug was a permanent fixture at my block parties. She was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, this firecracker of a woman in a wide-brim hat and loud prints, filling my ears with slogans like: “Women have been told to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over!”
At the time, Marlo Thomas released “Free to Be You & Me,” a rainbow-colored ode to women’s and racial equality. Of course, the reality for most women wasn’t quite as rosy. We made 60 cents to a man’s dollar — compared to today’s 79 cents. Mothers rarely worked outside the home, and if they did, they were typists, nurses, actors and teachers. I knew no independently successful women. But I had Bella.
The first thing you noticed about Bella was her hat, which she wore not as a sign of Jewish Orthodoxy, but of unorthodoxy. Like Hillary, Bella was a lawyer first. Born Bella Savitsky to Russian immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1920, she aspired to fight for the downtrodden like so many other Jews who helped found the American Civil Rights movement. As a young lawyer and the sole woman in meetings, she was often told to fetch coffee. “So I wore hats,” she said. “It was the only way they took you seriously.”
She fought Jim Crow and Senator Joe McCarthy in equal measure and championed gay rights when no one else took note. But more than anything to me, she was an unapologetic Jewish mother, not in the cloying, overprotective sense, but in the lioness sense, in the “don’t talk to me about waging war and endangering my children” sense. You can imagine how well she went over in the WASPy days of 1960s & ‘70s Washington. But that hardly cramped her style. If anything, it emboldened her. She famously boasted that she had “more complaints than Portnoy,” a nod to Philip Roth’s vilification of the Jewish mother, much in the way pundits paint Hillary Clinton as a modern day Lady Macbeth.
Aspiring for greater impact, Abzug threw that hat of hers into the political ring. Without women on the ballot, women’s rights would never get their due, she argued. Her battle cry became: “A woman’s place is in the house — the House of Representatives.” She became one of 12 women in the U.S. Congress. She was immediately branded “Battling Bella,” a moniker she proudly owned, saying: “I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage.”
My Republican father referred to Women’s Lib (Liberation) as “women’s lip,” which only stoked the flames of my feminism. I cheered on Battling Bella as she struggled to retain her seat in Congress after her district was eliminated two years into her first run. But that didn’t stop her. She reentered the fight, eventually winning her seat back.
She bravely pressed for the Equal Rights Amendment, and when it failed to pass, she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus along with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm, vowing to knock down the very doors that shut women out. And she did. Within a year, she helped secure a whopping 35% of spots for women delegates to the national Democratic convention of 1972.
When U.S. President Obama declared at the DNC: “There has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America,” I thought of Bella, who had traveled to China in 1995 for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, where Hillary famously declared, “Women’s rights are human rights,”. She died three years later, having laid the groundwork for Hillary’s historic nomination. But what of the women’s movement she helped form?
Much has been said about the disconnect between second and third wave feminists, about Clinton’s inability to get through to millennial women, but I don’t think Bella would have fixated on intergenerational differences. Rather, she would recognize that bridging ethnic and cultural gaps would be the key to the future of feminism.
As I watched Ghazala Khan at the convention, I thought of all the other Muslim mothers and Trump-targeted immigrants. They may not shout over the Shabbat table but their dignity and conscience is a different and necessary voice, of a new era of women leaders in America in which the women’s movement can find a new strength.
Already Muslim women have heeded the call, using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow to disarm the bigotry of Disgraceful Don and others who still view them as oppressed women. “As a politics professor, I lecture to many silent men because I’m the expert in the room,” tweeted Dahlia Fahmy. Another academic, Marriam Durani tweeted: “I am a single mother who finished her PhD and am now an education researcher at Harvard. Didn’t get here by being quiet.”
It’s time for our Muslim sisters to stride the path paved by Jewish political activist mothers like Battling Bella, one that’s capable of supporting and including us all.
Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York based freelance writer and editor who has written for the New York Times, Haaretz, Elle, Billboard, InStyle, Cosmo and Redbook.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now