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A New Film Puts Firebrand Bella Abzug Back in the Spotlight

Bella Abzug was 50 when she was first elected to Congress. A PBS documentary covers the outsized impact one bold woman in outsized hats can make.

When producer Jamila C. Fairley first heard that writer/director Jeff Lieberman’s next project would be a comprehensive documentary for PBS on the 1970’s New York City Congresswoman, Bella Abzug, she immediately wanted to be involved.

The charismatic lawmaker was elected to the House of Representatives in 1971, and served until 1977, representing parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. During that time, Abzug vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, introduced the first federal gay rights bill, and co-sponsored legislation that made it possible for women to get credit cards and loans.  

Bella understood that sometimes progress required a sacrifice, and she was willing to make it.

“Bella knew that her greatest good was in fighting for the rights of others,” Fairley told NextTribe in an exclusive interview. “Bella got her strength from knowing that her effort could and would be useful in helping someone else. She seemed to have a very radical understanding about some of the truths of this world. She understood that sometimes a mere contribution would not be enough to enact change; sometimes progress required a sacrifice, and she was willing to make it.”

Fairley was also immensely impressed by Abzug’s swagger and ambitious nature. “Those who know of Bella and her legacy often try to categorize her as a feminist or a civil rights activist, but really she was a humanist. That fierce advocacy was a part of her character from a very early age. In that way I feel very much inspired by Bella.”

Read More: Telling the Story of Women’s Rights, The Glorias Recharges Feminist Batteries

Relevant Again

Bella Abzug documentary Jamila Fairley

Bella! Producer Jamila C. Fairley

As decades have past, Abzug’s name has been out of the news, which is something Fairley wants to remedy. “Bella’s current lack of exposure is a terrible misfortune of history. Her legacy had been nearly buried and I knew I wanted to be a part of the team that would bring a spotlight back to her contributions to America and to the promise of democracy,” 

The loving, supportive and doting relationship between Bella and her husband, Martin, is particularly endearing.

During the editing process, Fairley talked to her family about the making of the film and Abzug’s background. “My mother, who married in the ‘70’s, and raised children in the late 70’s and early ‘80’s, shared how important Bella‘s work had been and how widely known she was in those prime years of service as a political leader,” Fairley says. “We discussed how surprised I was to discover just how easily Bella could fit into today’s America. We have so many of the same unresolved issues—violations of civil rights, gerrymandering and disenfranchisement, accessible child care, equal pay, women’s health care, abortion rights, and  LGBTQ+ rights.”

She adds: “Bella’s strategic mind, quick wit, and radical boldness could go toe to toe with today’s politicians and pundits. She was truly before her time!’

Fairley was equally surprised when she learned more about Abzug’s husband. “I found the loving, supportive and doting relationship between Bella and her husband, Martin, to be particularly endearing. Often a super-woman archetype with such a big personality, such strong opinions, and such fierce drive is considered intimidating and is challenged to find a complement who can appreciate that level of intensity, especially as a woman in a heterosexual relationship in that era,” she notes.

Abzug’s Example

Abzug’s passionate way of living will forever color how the producer lives her own life, deeply impacting her thoughts about getting older.

Age is not our nemesis, but rather our superpower.

“In an era when listicles of 20 under 20, 30 under 30, and 40 under 40 are the celebrated norm, I appreciate that we focus Bella! on her work during the 1970s,” Fairley enthused. “Born in 1920, the year women got the vote, she’s 50 years old when she enters Congress and she’s just getting started. She continues her career of service, advocacy, and leadership up until nearly the turn of the century!”

When asked what Abzug would have advised  women about aging boldly, Fairley exclaimed: “Keep going! Age is not our nemesis, but rather our superpower. Life can only be won through active pursuits, experience, and an authentic commitment to making this world a better place. So keep going!”

Bella! This Woman’s Place is in the House will air on PBS as part of their “American Masters” series on October 31st. Featured in the film are Barbra Streisand, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, Maxine Waters, Shirley MacLaine, Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Charlie Rangel, Scott Stringer, and David Dinkins.

Read More: All Hail RBG! How Her Story Came to the Screen

By Susan Hornik


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