by Larisa Skuratovskaya, Global Council Member, International Museum of Women, Friend of WEDO
Once, my friend Zossia brought me to meet a young man who’d come to Moscow from Seattle because he’d fallen in love with a Russian girl. The man, Mitchell, and I engaged in common conversation until Zossia told him that I was friends with a few women’s activists from the United States. Mitchell asked me: “Who do you like the best?” “Bella Abzug,” I replied. As it turns out, Mitchell is Bella’s nephew; he told me his family would be so happy to hear how famous Bella and her work had become, that a Russian woman was not only familiar with Bella, but also that she was thought about so highly.
I was first introduced to Bella Abzug in 1989 in Moscow; it was the first meeting of women from the Soviet Union and the United States, and we decided to draft our goals for the upcoming summit in Malta between President Bush and President Gorbachev. During one day of the meetings, we got news of the tragedy at Tiananmen Square in China. The government in China cruelly dispelled demonstrations and many people were unjustly arrested and put to trial. At that time, Gorbachev and the USSR’s Ministry of National Affairs were very active in collaboration with China. Bella told us that we must send an appeal with our protest to the government; she very clearly articulated why, and what, we must write to the USSR.
The next time I saw Bella was in May 1990 at Hunter College in New York City, where women from the Soviet Union and the United States who had prepared “From Daycare to Disarmament,” a common vision for the summit between Bush and Gorbachev, were meeting to speak with students. After a short presentation, the floor was open for questions. The first question was: “Do gay people exist in the USSR?” The members of our delegation wondered who would answer, but I volunteered myself and answered that yes, gay and lesbian people exist in the USSR and that, more importantly, people in the Soviet Union have sex! I said: “We must talk openly about sexual culture and family planning. It is a gendered aspect of human rights and I hope that you, young generation, will take a part in this movement. We need your action.”
While on the way back to my seat, Bella stopped me to give me a warm hug and kisses. Only later did I understand why that question and an honest answer from a female doctor from a different part of the world was so important to her – it was a time when she and a few colleagues were thinking about founding an organization devoted to women’s rights and the environment, WEDO.
I saw her next at the first International Women’s Conference on the Environment, held in Miami in late 1991. It was organized through the initiative of a few women from New York, Bella included, and brought together thousands of women from around the globe to discuss their issues related to the environment and how to take part in the development of human rights. Many of the same women will take part in the UNCSD Conference at Rio de Janeiro in June.
At the conference, Bella was everywhere, without rest. Only once did I see her without her trademark hat on – she was an older, beautiful woman with gray hairs and sharp eyes, simple and friendly.
From there, my relationship with Bella continued to develop. She told me that her parents immigrated to the United States from Chernichov, Ukraine, near Kiev, and was happy to talk and find out about the roots of her family. Once, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, she presented me with a copy of her book The Gender Gap, inscribed with touching words.
Sometimes, when I am not sure what to do, I remind myself of something Bella once told me. She said: “You see, Larisa, you are following the way of myself and Eleanor Roosevelt: we all studied at Columbia, had the floor at Hunter College, and work for global prosperity and human rights. I am glad to know that.”
I wonder how many women are now following “that way?” I’ve met many of them; the movement is constantly growing, and I am happy to see WEDO active and engaged in the issues surrounding climate change. When we discuss gender aspects of climate change, we are discussing all aspects of human rights. Bella will forever be in my heart.