Bella Abzug and Florence Feldt: Contrasts in Women’s History

by Gloria Feldt on March 31st, 2011
in Inspiration, Know Your History, Personal Relationships, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Since we’re wrapping up Women’s History Month, this tribute to my mother, Florence Feldt, and feminist icon Bella Abzug–two very different women from the same generation who died on this day in 1998–seems a fitting close.

I hope that you’ve been inspired by this month’s posts, and that they help you create the future of your choice!

My mother Florence Feldt died March 31, 1998.

Me, my cutie pie sister Candy, and our mother, Florence

So this date, which is of course also the last day of Women’s History Month, is always fraught for me–bittersweet and tinged with more than a little irony.

You see, my Mother was a woman of her time, deferential to my ebullient father despite her sharp intelligence and extraordinary work ethic. She actually worked as office manager and bookkeeper in his business—the very fact she thought and spoke of it as “his business” though she ran a big part of the show says it all, doesn’t it? And she did this at a time when few women worked outside the home.

At age 55, she took and passed the CPA test, despite never having finished her college degree or formally studying accounting. Still, she never let her own light shine, never behaved as though she felt she had the power to determine her own fate. She never even hung out her CPA shingle; even when she had private clients, she called herself a bookkeeper. She said she just wanted to have the CPA for her own satisfaction.

Born in Temple, TX, and raised there with Southern sensibilities about proper roles and etiquette for ladies, Mother wasn’t an activist. She must have wondered where my activism came from! Late in life she made a point of voting for almost any woman who was running for office, however. So I know she had a feminist political instinct though she rarely spoke of it, and she must have had a sense of injustice that made her angry. She certainly took passive-aggressive in personal matters to new heights. That’s what you do with anger when you don’t feel you have power.

Florence’s outlook and her life contrasted sharply with that of Bella Abzug, the brash, ballsy New York feminist politician, lawyer, and activist, who also died March 31, 1998.

Bella and my mother were quite close in age but couldn’t have been farther apart from each other in how they lived their lives. Both lost their fathers when they were just 13 years old. But whereas Bella insisted that she be allowed break the male-only tradition and publicly recite Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) for her father, Florence quietly mourned. And in both instances, the way they approached that defining moment predicted how each would approach other such moments of loss as they went through life.

Florence and Bella together represent the arc of women’ history in the 20th century. One was inclined to shape herself to the culture and the other was a leader in reshaping the culture to her vision of what she thought it should be.

A tip of Bella’s signature hat to the women like herself who brought us to where we are in this unfinished but relatively advanced revolution. That includes the women chronicled by the amazing guest posters and myself on the 9 Ways Blog during March, Women’s History Month, those who’ve been spoken of here, and on Facebook pages and Twitter, and many other venues around the clock and around the globe.

But let’s also give a nod to the women like Florence, who didn’t make it into the headlines or history books (when I Google her, I find only her birth and death certificates and yet I know how much there was in between) and who most of the time was captive to the oppressive culture in which she grew up. Her life, too, teaches us why we must continue to work for equality and justice for all, and why we must tell our stories to each generation that comes after us.

I was privileged to know Bella in her later years after she had lost her Congressional seat and went on to found WEDO, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. I’m pretty sure Florence would have agreed with one of Bella’s most often-quoted pronouncements:

Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.

Today is the last day of Women’s History Month, but let us make sure it is just the beginning of a year of remembering those on whose shoulders we stand so that we can envision the heights we as women writing the future will reach.

For as Bella was fond of saying, “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.”

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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