During one of my last days of paternity leave this winter, my 11-month-old son Noah and I plopped down together on the couch one snowy morning to read “My First Book of Famous Jews,” a children’s book that highlights the contributions of Jews throughout history with lovingly rendered illustrations. A-List famous Jews (Spielberg, Streisand, Einstein, RBG) are featured on the cover. Inside are Jews whose contributions to society are still impactful, even if their names are a little less recognizable.
And that’s where, on page 18, I found my and Noah’s cousin, former U.S. Congresswoman and women’s rights pioneer Bella Abzug, staring up at us — next to her groundbreaking counterparts in the women’s movement, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Born in 1920, Bella grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by a large Jewish family. Among the relatives that she would often play with was my grandpa, Eli Tanklefsky. His grandfather, Hillel, and Bella’s grandpa, Wolf, were brothers. That makes Bella my son’s (bear with me as I consult the family tree) second cousin thrice removed.
For those unfamiliar with Bella, she was something akin to a 1970s AOC. A liberal firebrand known for her brash talk, big hats and bold ideas, Bella incurred the wrath of the right the same way Alexandria Ocasio Cortez boils their blood today. Bella was a one-woman wrecking crew of the gendered status quo, fighting for women’s rights, gender parity, and economic justice with her trademark wide-brims, famous campaign slogans (“This Woman’s Place Is in the House, the House of Representatives”) and a sharp-elbowed reputation.
“She did not knock politely on the door,” New York congresswoman and vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro once said . “She took the hinges off it.”
Bella spent much of her political life fighting for policies that improved gender equity. She took the lead in pushing for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which passed the House and Senate but remains unratified to this day.
I thought of Bella and her unfinished work as I wrapped up my last week of paternity leave this January. I took two sleep-deprived months off when he was born last February (our family watched a tremendous amount of the Beijing Olympics, bleary-eyed and live at 4 a.m.), and then took another month in smaller increments throughout the year.
Taking time off to share parenting responsibilities can set up a more equitable division of parental labor in the years to come and help breakdown traditional gender roles that often prioritize men’s careers over women’s. Studies have also shown health benefits to infants and mothers when parents receive paid leave (infants whose parents take paid leave have increased immunization and check-up rates and PFL leads to an increased likelihood and duration of breastfeeding, among other benefits).
The U.S. remains the only one of the richest 41 countries on Earth to not have mandated federal paid leave, but many states have put their own policies in place. In 2021, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law granting up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave.
Over the course of Noah’s first year, I took the full 12 weeks. It was not always comfortable. The system was — big surprise — sometimes confusing to navigate, and I struggled with feeling guilty for taking time off. Though my company was wonderfully supportive, I wondered how work responsibilities would get done without me (newsflash: just fine, file under: “The World Will Go On Zooming Without You”). But paid family leave is not a vacation and shouldn’t be thought of as one. It’s just a different type of work — one that society has historically undervalued and (another big surprise) placed on the weary shoulders of women.
I’ve tried to do my small part by talking to others, particularly new dads, about paid leave. Since it’s still a relatively new policy, many don’t know it’s available to them or how to take full advantage of it. And we still have work to do in breaking down the stigma that taking time off to help at home means you’re not serious about your career. But these are conversations that can help lead to a shift in understanding: taking the family leave you’re entitled to is an act of feminism and gender equity. It’s a part of what Bella worked so hard to advance, whether she was in legislative office or not.
After losing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1976, and the New York City Mayor’s race in ‘77, Bella was done with electoral politics, but she continued fighting for women’s rights both in the U.S. and overseas. She died 25 years ago, on March 31, at 77.
I like to think I’m honoring her by taking my leave. And one day I’ll tell Noah about his cantankerous, brash, stubborn, funny-hat-wearing, feminist icon of a family member, and the legacy she left behind.