Jill Johnston: ‘A Woman Like Bella’


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October 19, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 42

‘A woman like Bella’
by Jill Johnston

NOTES: note 1. I quote hentoff quoting frederic morton: “Of course, I agreed with my callers she should never have run against Bill. Of course Teddy Kennedy should have avoided Chappaquiddick. Yet how many of those whose anti-Bella exclamations I heard (or read) would write off Teddy the way they write off Bella?” And hentoff goes on, “Nothing Bella Abzug is accused of is nearly so serious as what Ted. K. did and did not do in the immediate aftermath of Chappaquidick. But I would have supported Kennedy for President this year and will support him if McGovern loses his campaign, in 1976.” — I wasn’t aware that bella had committed an act of manslaughter.

Did bella’s drunken driving cause william ryan to die of cancer? It’s difficult in any case to imagine bella leaving martin home for the weekend and entertaining boiler room boys in the woods and driving one of them off afterward to the beach for a private screw. I guess you boys’d better rethink yr analogy. So far we as we women’s concerned ted kennedy killed a woman and we don’t care what he did in the “immediate aftermath” as we see it he was let off by the law of orestes and any court of women in the world would have him behind bars now. The man called ryan had an operation for cancer of the throat before bella declared her candidacy and even if he hadn’t (had the operation) he was a contestant in the open political arena which by democratic custom requires an opponent, the rules of contention are mutually understood, there is no moral basis within the system dictating any choice of opponent, one might of course question the judgment and responsibility of a sick man running for office and the assessment of his abilities to serve his constituents, what I’m pointing out here is the patent absurdity of accusing anybody of an immoral choice in opponents (it’s not like boxing, or is it?) and further of casting criminal insinuations at any one opponent concerning the private fate of the other. As to the kennedy woman slaughter, really, the colossal sexist indulgence of kennedy and his chappaquidick affair is one thing, but the further use of the affair as the specious analogy impugning the character of a(nother) innocent whoman is something else and I think we all know what that is and none of it is friendly to women. The awful fact of that primary was that a strong woman was running against a sick man. The first awful fact was that this strong woman was gerrymandered out of her district. The opponents of bella (including those wonderful analogy makers) conveniently forgot that the original gangup was by an entire group of powerful males against a single strong woman who in any case as was proven was no match for a sick man with a good record. The sympathy vote for her opponent I understand very well, this was a human consideration, and any sick man has as much right to run as a healthy woman, i just wonder under what circumstances any woman like bella is considered to have a right to run at all, as her friend and associate mim kelber said wryly she is having to make four campaigns for one lousy congressional seat, my own sympathy vote goes to bella just aside from an ordinary vote for her exceptional qualities and accomplishments and for her status as the first woman of her kind in washington I mean a feminist! I think things are more or less properly set up right now however since by elimination the pieces on the board consist of three women who at least represent a less outrageous situation in their capacity for mutual political extermination and the victory of one woman over other members of her own sex. I know bella successfully ran against men before, but I don’t think anybody knew how much noise she was capable of making, and the backlash against feminism had not yet been launched. A lot of people just want her off the scene. The relative competence and popularity of past or future male candidates is not very pertinent to the general problem posed for men (as a class) by “a woman like bella.” Clearly with a few more bellas in congress the men would seriously be on their way out. We want feminists in congress, not just “another woman.” Anyway what is it that “bella abzug is accused of” that is not “nearly so serious as what Ted K. did and did not do in the immediate aftermath of Chappaquidick.” I for one don’t need this weird kind of recommendation for a congressional leader of my own sex. If the boys are going to recommend bella why don’t they just come out and say it and stop officially pardoning her for something she never did and stop implying by so doing that women have the same criminal stature as men. Besides, the kennedy chappaquidick affair was no special disgrace, it was just an ordinary everyday run of the mill male crime. The kennedys are no exception and in my opinion they’re worse than most and the third will make a fitting successor to nixon in ’76, the unknighted states of amerika deserves them all, and jean and eunice and patricia will live long enough to see “a woman like bella” reverse all the laws of orestes by which their brothers found it possible to run in the first place. The victory of bella will be a test case representing the turning point in the power balance between women and men. The loss of mcgovern will be no big deal in the struggles of the good guys against the bad guys in the pantheon of guys. The competition between the new york phillies and the dykes of toledo will provide new guidelines for disregarding all such struggles until such time as more women like bella make it worth our while to get involved. The horse and dog and flower shows will provide further distraction from the dying spectacle of the embattled brotherhood.

Note 2. rita mae brown: We are not attacked by a uniformed army. We are stalked by seemingly ordinary men. Our enemy is an army of neighbors.

Note 3. Jane o’wyatt went to buy the current Ms. with mcgovern on the cover and remarked out loud that she didn’t understand it and the newsstand man said he didn’t either, it was like having pat nixon on the cover of field & stream.

Note 4. Many women oppose the participation of other women in male electoral politics. As a dyke nationalist I can’t see our place ultimately beside the men in a male conceived system of two fraternal parties and a constitution geared to the psychologies of restless boys even with equal numerical representation and concessions to the demands of women the women would not basically have their way unless they tipped the power balance in which case the women would rewrite the constitution and we would eventually have a woman’s state anyway. I think at this point it’s a waste of time contesting the various means of asserting woman power, that is, of attempting to discourage any woman from her particular approach to power and influence, not only is it a waste of time but it’s a serious restraint on the development of a female psychology at large which would no longer reflect a powerless and deprived condition. If, for example, you disapprove of bella’s strategy in taking on the man, you could appreciate the encouraging effect of bella’s noise and initiative on other women. Anyway what I’m saying besides that is that we have to dig where we’re coming from and respect other women’s situations, like bella was trained and experienced in the male legal system and at 52 she’s not likely to find a more appropriate channel for her energies than the limited options which that particular system offers and already, within that frame, as a feminist, she’s challenged the hierarchical base of the male structuring (specifically, the seniority system in congress) which I believe is inimical to female psychology and which women would reorder in our return to power if it’s possible to use the word power to describe the kinds of structures we might arrive at. Whatever that is, in the meantime, many women oppose not only women who participate in the male system but women who take any initiative to do anything whatsoever. And as for the male system we all participate in the male system whether we think we do or not. The fear of women of other women doing things is a legitimate fear based on the territorial limitations of our token status and on the knowledge that traditionally most women who do things have not been in a position to wield their influence on behalf of their own sex and in fact have been profoundly conditioned to serve the man in whatever capacity they serve. The daughters in other words do not yet have any firm reason to believe that the mothers will pay more and better (if not merely equal) attention to them than to their sons their brothers. And by daughters of course I mean the mothers, I mean that the mutual antagonism between mothers and daughters reflects a single mother/daughter psychology of historical mistrust and competitiveness and cancellation derived from an early prohibition on female alliances to the exclusion of any male. One can then translate the mother/daughter problem into the Sisterhood problem and see how a number of properly cynical feminists have arrived at such phrases as Sisterhood is Vicious or Sisterhood is Impossible or Sisterhood is Sororicide etc. The mothers and the daughters constitute the Sisterhood. I don’t think we can move forward without acknowledging our impoverished psychology by admitting that the activities of other women especially of other women active in our own domain or related domains threaten our survival and recognition (bread and love and the confidence to continue) since if we don’t acknowledge it its very suppression can only lead to unconscious violence. We need to organize around our own problem and encourage other women to do everything in the teeth of our very fears and even if we disagree with the strategy of other women but we also need to be able to call women on their continued attentions to the sons and brothers at the expense of sisters somehow without damning such a woman for just doing something it’s all very difficult.

Note 5. The above is a generalization which I believe applies in varying degrees to all women, I know that some women are particularly fortunate in a relatively supportive early background, but no matter how supportive it is no little girl can escape the prevailing social sentiment…here’s one relevant quote, by nancy milford: “In the end is it so difficult to understand that as long as we continue to maintain the dichotomy of male as generative and female as gestative that the creative woman (as well, I believe, as the creative man) must face exceptional conflicts in her development.”

note 6. How can we separate personal solutions from ideological or theoretical stances. People get uptight from thinking they’re not living up to a challenging ideological position. Although it’s true that if your’e not part of the solution you’re part of the problem every woman is in a different phase of the revolution in consciousness and in options open to her for acting on a progressive consciousness.

Note 7. In 1895 elizabeth cady stanton organized a committee of women to reinterpret the biblical texts from a woman’s point of view…she wanted some hebrew and greek scholars, versed in biblical criticism, to gild out the pages with their learning. Several distinguished women were urged to do so, but they were afraid that their high reputation and scholarly attainments might be compromised by taking part in an enterprise that for a time might prove very unpopular. Hence stanton didn’t think she would be able to get help from that class.

note 8. Two weeks ago my copy was somewhat mangled (Quid Pro Quaquaquaquaqua) and I wish to correct the key phrase in the piece. it should’ve read “No man knows what’s good for the woman’s revolution, I repeat, no man knows what’s good for the woman’s revolution.”

note 9. all power to dyke nation!

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