Wednesday, July 27, 2016

That Time I Sat Behind Bella Abzug and Her Fabulous Hat at the DNC Platform Committee Hearings

I slipped quietly into the back of the conference room at the Bond Court Hotel in Cleveland. A woman a few rows in front of me wore an enormous, beribboned hat. It was May 1992, and not many women, aside from fully turned-out church goers, wore hats during warm weather.

"Who is that?" I whispered to my companion.

"Bella Abzug," she replied, "Congresswoman from New York."

I was still learning. Learning the people, the issues, the talking points. I was a newly elected member of the executive board of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Organization for Women and I was attending the platform committee hearings for the DNC. I was rapt, listening to Nancy Pelosi, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Madeline Albright and Jesse Jackson.

Most everyone has a moment, a moment when the political becomes personal and the only option is to join the fray because staying silent is no longer possible. My moment came during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. I was not yet married and newly moved to Chicago. As I unpacked boxes and organized our apartment, I listened to the hearings on NPR.

I heard Professor Hill calmly and clearly describe the behavior of Clarence Thomas, betraying no emotion. She spoke as women speak who have learned to erect walls around themselves in order to go about their daily business unscathed by the leers, jeers and fears of men. There was no doubt in my mind that she spoke the truth. She had no motive to lie; everything to lose and nothing to gain by giving this testimony.

I listened in disbelief as the Senators questioned her, disrespectfully and disdainfully. I learned what "gaslighting" meant that autumn. And I was pissed. I had recently finished my first full year of practicing law and during that year, I was subjected to plenty of nonsense from the men I worked for, the judges I worked with, and my adversaries. It was not as though I did not know this sort of thing happened. I was, however, shocked to see it happening so publicly, even proudly, by men who were supposed to uphold the Constitution and directed toward a woman who was smart and dignified and composed.

Enough was enough.

I registered to vote in Illinois that week. I located a local chapter of NOW. I voted for Carol Mosely Braun for Senate. And I studied for the Illinois bar exam.

When we moved back to Ohio a few months later, I swung into action. I joined Greater Cleveland NOW. I studied the issues. I spoke at local events. I spoke at legislative hearings at the Ohio Capitol. I wrote to my legislators. I marched, I rallied and I picketed. And I attended the Democratic National Committee platform hearings.

(That's me, right in the middle!)

Later that year, I met Hillary Clinton. She was campaigning for her husband and when I heard her speak, all I thought was, "I want to vote for her!" I asked her, as I shook her hand, when she would be running for President. She smiled and laughed, and said "Not any time soon."

Last night, with my daughters by my side, I watched her win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. I doubt they understand why I had tears in my eyes, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that means something: to them, it's not such a big deal that a woman was nominated for President of the United States of America. 

But it is to me. 

It is to me.