Jan 042013

November 19th, 2012 ; “With gratitude for bringing us Bella’s words”, wrote Gloria Steinem, on a clean blank page of my copy of Bella S. Abzug’s autobiography; BELLA!. I had Bella’s book with me, knowing the glorious Gloria would be at The Manhattan Borough President’s office in New York City and see my Bella Abzug performance (excerpted from SHE’S HISTORY! The Most Dangerous Women In America…Then And Now, my play and school program about women who make and made history).  I keep reading it and pinching myself.  “Yes”, I say, “this did happen.  You were there.  She was there.  It happened.”

Here’s what happened.

August 10th, 2012, there I was in Los Angeles, having just moved for the second time in nine months, unexpectedly child-free for the first time in twenty years, an unplanned empty nester, surrounded by boxes, in my new apartment, depressed, disgusted and enraged with The Family Legal System and with all of life’s injustices. I find myself at 7AM in Peet’s Coffee shop, reading an email from Diana Mara Henry, Bella Abzug’s photographer. “If you are in New York City on November 19th, we would be delighted to have you ‘say a few words’ as Bella Abzug! “

I read it again and again.  “I must be dreaming”, I thought, and for the first time in a long time, I felt something other than sad.  So I pinched myself, ordered a large low-fat wet cappuccino, went back to my box-filled apartment, called Diana Mara Henry and said “why yes, I DO plan on being in Manhattan on November 19th (I had NO INTENTION of being in Manhattan on November 19th) and would love to say a few words as Bella”.

For the uninitiated, Bella Abzug was a pioneering feminist, activist, pacifist, lawyer, mother, loud mouth hat wearing revered New York Congresswoman.   And she was best friends with Gloria Steinem.

“Give ‘em hell Bella”.  That’s what I heard growing up in New York and distinctly remember seeing and hearing her on televsion with her big hats – and big mouth. You could not miss her.   It wasn’t until I became a mom raising two girls and started my women’s history journey, that I learned about Bella and I learned that I didn’t know ANYTHING about her.  This herstorical ignorance which permeates our world is what inspires me – now at the tender age of 56, with two teenage daughters, to turn the world on to all the fabulous females we don’t know about with SHE’S HISTORY!

Don’t know who took this photo – got it from the Internet.
If anyone knows, please contact me so I can give credit.

I had the honor of meeting Bella’s buddy, Ms. Steinem, twice before, and we had chatted about SHE’S HISTORY! but she had never seen me perform.  What brought us together was WOMEN ON THE MOVE – the 35th anniversary celebration of an amazing event that no one knows about.  The 1977 Houston Woman’s Conference, planned, and organized by Bella, who was appointed by President Carter to head the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year “to promote equality between men and women”.

Ahhhh.  “Promote equality between men and women.”

So many things made November 19th-21st, 1977 so special, so amazing, so life-changing for so many women AND men. Bella got the whole thing started and got the government – for the first and only time – to pay for this National Woman’s Conference. One hundred and fifty thousand people participated in the planning of the conference with every state being represented.  Twenty thousand people attended the conference, including Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony II (the grand niece of her namesake), Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Betty Friedan, Barbara Jordan, Billie Jean King, and New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, the youngest woman to have been elected to the House of Representatives. And Diana Mara Henry captured it all, as official photographer of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, sponsor of the conference and the 50 state meetings that preceded it to elect delegates and formulate a plan of action.

The very first woman’s conference was held in 1848, in Seneca Falls New York.  The notice in the paper said: “A Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman”.   In other words, to “promote equality between men and women”.  A Declaration of Sentiments was hammered out (modeled after the Declaration of Independence) including the resolution that “all men AND WOMEN” are created equal.  Caused quite the stir! It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was passed giving American women the right to vote, but back in 1848,  Elizabeth Cady Stanton had the nerve to demand that a woman’s right to vote be included in the Declaration of Sentiments.  It was, and all hell broke loose.  The New York Herald called it “the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

On September 29th, 1977,  forty-nine days before the conference, a torch was lighted in Seneca Falls and carried by a relay of runners to Houston – 2600 miles away.  Maya Angelou wrote a new Declaration Of Sentiments that was signed along the way. Do you have goose bumps yet? Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy and Sylvia Ortiz were the three runners who carried the torch for the last mile.

Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

From left to right: Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot and Michele Cearcy

Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

And there they were – running that last mile, left to right: Billie Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michelle Cearcy, and Betty Friedan!

Grand openingcolor_000


Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

They presented it to (above) LADY BIRD JOHNSON, ROSALYNN CARTER and BETTY FORD.

That’s Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman in the background applauding, with Bella Abzug, and Donna de Varona, Suzy Chaffee and Michelle Cearcy at right, and in foreground, Peg Kokernot and Sylvia Ortiz.

Both Ms. Holtzman and Ms. Steinem, as well as most of the people in the audience for whom I performed, including the torch runners, were at the anniversary celebration in New York City.  Most had attended the Houston conference in 1977, and many were friends and colleagues of Bella’s, knew, loved, was inspired by, and miss Bella (she died in 1998).

I am not used to performing for people who actually know or knew the “dangerous” women I portray on stage, so it was thrilling and nerve-wracking, but ultimately, ended up being one of the coolest things I have done.

Photo by Robin L Gallagher
Chatting with Gloria Steinem, after my Bella performance.  She was telling me the best Bella biographies to read.

Photo by Robin L Gallagher

This is Elizabeth Holtzman, former New York Congresswoman, who I grew up admiring!While in congress, she played a key role in the impeachment of President Nixon and was a dedicated Nazi-Hunter.

This celebration was a reunion for the people of ’77, and the theme that kept emerging as the speakers took their turns was “unfinished business”.  They all spoke of how inspiring and energizing the Houston Conference was but how there is still SO MUCH TO DO!

Please visit Diana Mara Henry’s website and see the photos and read the speeches and words of Billie Jean King, many of the delegates and others including Lucy Komisar of the Komisar Scoop, who talked about the last conversation she had Sept.4, 2005, with Betty Friedan, at her house in Sag Harbor.


Photo by Robin L Gallagher
Here I am with Diana Mara Henry – who made it all happen.  Her book “Women On The Move” is amazing!

Back in August when I got the email inviting me to NYC, I planned a fabulous four days and ended up doing four shows.  I was definitely a Woman On The Move!

And I got lucky.  An old friend and colleague from my New York Improv days is a Director at The Henry Street Settlement, a not-for-profit social service agency that provides social services, arts programs and health care, catering to low-income families in the Lower East Side of New York City – where my mom and her family – immigrants from Eastern Europe –  grew up.  Founded by another fabulous female I want to turn the world on to Lillian Wald, – a rich and privileged nurse, activist and humanitarian who inspires me.  She spent her life making the world better. When I mentioned to my dad “I am doing a show for the Henry Street Settlement.  Have you ever heard of it daddy?”.  He told me, “Yeah, they sent me to camp when I was eight years old”.   More goosebumps.

I brought two books about Lillian Wald with me.  A biography “Always a Sister; The Feminism of Lillian Wald”, that I planned to donate to the school and one of her autobiographies,  “The House On Henry Street” hoping to get the twenty-four middle school students I was performing for to sign.  I love performing SHE’S HISTORY! for the kids.  They are always so surprised to hear the stories and nothing engages like theatre.  I was there BEFORE the Newtown shooting and I bring this up because I told them about Malala Yousafzai, the fourteen year old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban on her school bus for trying to go to school.  A theme of my show is “quiet woman, stand in the back and let the men do the talking”. They were mesmerized by Malala’a story.  “In the head”, I answered, when the little boy in the front row asked where exactly was she shot?  Details, they wanted details.  I show her picture in my slideshow and suddenly she was very real.  You could see the effect it had on them.

Of course, now, after Newtown, I wonder if I did the right thing telling them about Malala.   It did not occur to me (or anyone) that this kind of violence could happen to an American Elementary school student.  Malala is miraculously recovering in a London hospital.  (Left the hospital on Friday January 4th 2013)

I only had thirty-five minutes to perform but they loved it and afterwards, I asked if I could have a picture with them.  They rushed to encircle me and one of the boys grabbed a flag I use to drape a table and held it up. The energy was delicious.  Then I held up my copy of Lillian Wald’s House on Henry Street and asked “can you all sign your name in my book because I know you will each grow up and do something amazing and I want to say I knew you”.  Well.  You should have seen them run to do it and patiently wait their turn.  One girl came up to me holding the biography of Lillian Wald that I donated.  “You are just giving this to us?, she asked?  She could not believe it.  It was so rewarding and heartbreaking and heartwarming to be able to perform for these kids, many of whom I was told, lived in shelters, and also just survived Hurricane Sandy.

henry street kids

Photo by Robin L Gallagher

After that, I was taken on a tour of Lillian Wald’s home – the actual House On Henry Street, a five story block long building where it all started and now serves as the administrative headquarters.  Goosebumps all over the place.

The Henry Street show started my four days in New York.  The next night, I did a fundraiser for The Museum Of Motherhood (museumofmotherhood.org).  The founder is my friend, fabulous female, Joy Rose, who is the founder. Whenever I am in New York with the show, I do a fundraiser for the Museum.

joy & Amy 3-12joy-m.o.m.

October 2011 Fundraiser                                                  March 2012 Fundraiser

joy intro

Photo by Robin L Gallagher

Joy Rose Introducing The Show

My friend Kim works for the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women.  She came with her boss Norma, the director.  After the show we had a fascinating talkback, which began with the a discussion of the word prostitute, inspired by Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President in 1872, who has a big part in my show and who is known as The Prostitute Who Ran For President.  “We prefer using the term “prostituted” a verb, as in ‘she was prostituted’. Something was done to her.  You don’t call someone that which is done to them”, explained Norma, and we went on to discuss a variety of subjects, all inspired by the trail-blazing women in the show.

Back in August, after I agreed to be Bella, I realized it took place three days before Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  I knew this would be a really tough one, so I decided to fly from New York to Florida (where all the old New York Jews are required to live) and spend Thanksgiving with my eighty-seven year old super cool father. My mom died in 2009. My dad, a WWII veteran, used to drive a cab in New York, is quite the character, a history buff, my hero, and sharp as a tack.  His body is another story – but his mind?  Fahgetaboudit.  Every Wednesday morning, I do a live segment of Fabulous Female Facts on radioornot.com, Nicole Sandler’s political internet radio program. The day after arriving in Florida, when I went on the air chatting about my New York adventures, I was sitting with my dad in his kitchen.   He was reading during the segment and when I was recounting the story of the runners with the torch I said, “and they delivered it to three first ladies; Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and ……..” and then I totally blanked!  So I said “oh, I am totally blanking”, and my dad looks up and says “Lady Bird Johnson”.  I told him the story ONCE.  What a guy!

daddy kiss

I spent the rest of the week, relaxing, enjoying my dad, reliving my New York adventures and being so thankful for the opportunity to perform SHE’S HISTORY!


With gratitude for bringing us Bella’s words”.   Sometimes, all it takes is a little appreciation.