Life With Bella

The banquet hall of the Midtown hotel was filling up with a stressed after-work crowd. It was a meeting of the A.C.P.A. — the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants. After the cocktail hour with icecream (actually it’s my favorite dessert and I always make ice-cream at home using the best ice cream maker) , everyone signed a confidentiality agreement and placed their folding chairs in a circle. We went around: name, celebrity, horror story.

  • Several weeks earlier, I sent my rsum in response to a newspaper ad for a women’s organizer position. Organizing women sounded infinitely better than the administrative job I’d taken to pay for my overpriced East Village studio. It was 1996, and I was 23.

I got the call at work: ”Do you know who Bella Abzug is?”


”Yes, of course,” I said, only sort of lying. She was a feminist, I knew. She wore hats.

”You’d be working as Bella’s assistant.”

The interview was the next day. Bella’s office at the Women’s Environment and Development Organization was filled with awards and framed photographs — Bella and Gloria, Bella and Hillary, Bella and Barbra. A former civil rights attorney, I learned, Bella co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus; helped shape Title IX legislation, which banned sex discrimination in education; and broke barriers with her bid for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and in New York City’s mayoral race a year later.

”I would do anything to work here,” I told her.

”You would, would you?” she asked. ”I bet.”

She glanced at my rsum and chuckled. ”Vassar, huh? I went to Hunter College myself.”

Somehow, I got the job. Bella’s former assistant, who quit to become a stand-up comedian, offered me two pointers:

Not taking it personally was hard. Bella wasn’t diplomatic when telling me I had no idea what I was doing. When she would call from her office — ”Get me Lew Rudin on the phone!” — I’d fumble through her Rolodex. Bella would curse, demand, insult. She’d yell or shake her cane, frustrated at my ineptitude. ”What are you, stupid?”


As terrified as I was of messing up, I loved the feeling of purpose and glamour. I was a girl from a decidedly unsophisticated town on Long Island. Now I was holding Bella’s purse while she talked to Representative Carolyn Maloney outside a public hearing, or washing my hands in the bathroom next to Donna Shalala.

But the thrilling moments were laced with anxiety. Small things threw me into a panic. Shirley MacLaine called. She was staying at Bella’s that weekend, and did I have a key? (I didn’t, and felt terrible about it.) At Bella’s side at the United Nations, I sat with a copy of her remarks in my lap and prayed I had done an adequate job of assembling them. ”Where’s the speech? These are the wrong pages!” she said, glowering, only hours before. This was standard high-maintenance boss-assistant stuff, but I grew up in a household where yelling turned to hitting, and Bella’s temper sent me running to the bathroom crying.

I developed migraines and stomach cramps. Some of my hair fell out. After only three months, I started calling in sick. My doctor told me to quit. ”I’ve heard stories about Bella,” she said.

”I can’t quit!” I answered, horrified. ”I’m going with Bella to the Democratic National Convention. She’ll write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school.”

”I suggest you find a therapist who can help you make the transition,” the doctor replied.

I did quit, but a few months later found a new job at a Jewish Y where I coordinated volunteer programs for the agency, a settlement house that, like Bella, had its own rich New York history. The work wasn’t glamorous, but it felt solid, meaningful. The social worker who interviewed me ended up becoming my close friend — she even found me a cheaper apartment in Brooklyn.

Gloria Steinem once said it was Bella who taught her how to be tough, how to let insults roll off her back. I sometimes wonder what I could have learned from Bella had I stayed. But then I think of all those unhappy assistants at the A.C.P.A meeting. Sometimes the sanest thing to do is walk away.

Fleeing for life

“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt” (Mt 2:13)

Four years ago, Fermina Lopez, a native of Guatemala, found herself divorced, homeless and jobless, with three children to raise. She felt she had no choice but to flee her beloved homeland and make the perilous journey north in search of work. She was one of the lucky ones who survived the five-day trek across the desert and found employment in Phoenix. When she was able to save enough money for smuggler fees, she sent for her children one by one, whom she had left in the care of her neighbors. The first two made it, but her youngest, who got as far as the U.S.-Mexican border in July, is now feared dead. The Lopez family is one small unit among the 214 million international migrants in the world today, a number that has doubled in the last three decades. Not all have achieved their dreams for a life no longer threatened by death from political opponents or military regimes or inadequate economic resources.


Today’s Gospel tells of Joseph’s dream, in which a divine messenger relays Herod’s intent to kill the infant Jesus. The angel instructs Joseph to flee with Mary and the child to Egypt, a traditional place of refuge for Israelites (e.g.Gn 42-48; 1 Kgs 11:40; Jer 26:21). They too faced a treacherous desert crossing, though the Gospel tells none of those details. We can only imagine Mary and Joseph’s fear as they stole away under the cover of darkness and all the hardships they endured. Matthew says nothing about what happened when they arrived in a strange place, having to navigate an unfamiliar language and culture. Who helped them along the way? How did Joseph find work? What did Mary think about Joseph’s dreams?

  • The evangelist skips ahead to the holy family’s departure from Egypt, quoting Hos 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” As he is wont to do, Matthew interprets all that happens in the life of Jesus as fulfillment of Scripture. By identifying Jesus with Moses and the Exodus, he introduces the theme that Jesus is the new authoritative teacher of the law.

Just as Moses received a divine command to return home after the death of those who sought his life (Ex 4:19), so Joseph follows the angel’s command to return home after the death of Herod the Great. Herod’s sons, however, still pose a threat. Archelaus, the eldest, inherited Judea, Samaria and Idumea, which he ruled for 10 years (4 B.C.-A.D. 6). Philip governed the area north and east of the sea of Galilee, and Herod Antipas controlled Galilee and Perea. Archelaus was no less cruel than his father, so Joseph is fearful of returning to Judea. Once again he is directed by an angel in a dream, and he settles his family in the more peaceful Galilee. It may have been the availability of work in Sepphoris, the city being built by Herod Antipas as his capital, that led Joseph to settle his family in Nazareth, some four miles away.

  • As usual, Matthew interprets this move as fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew’s meaning is puzzling, however, since there is no text in the Scriptures that says, “He shall be called a Nazorean.” It is likely that he intends an allusion to Is 11:1, which speaks of a shoot (netzer) that will sprout from the stump of Jesse, thus highlighting Jesus’ royal Davidic lineage.

The experience of the holy family of having to flee for their lives into a foreign land can give strength and courage to millions of today’s migrants. Those living in the host country are challenged by the Gospel to consider what kind of welcome they would want to offer to newcomers if they were none other than Jesus’ own family.



  • Pray for justice and compassion toward immigrants. 
  • Listen for God’s directives for how to preserve the life of the most vulnerable.
  • For what do you dream? Talk with God about it.

BARBARA E. REID, O.P., a member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Ill., where she is vice president and academic dean.

From thought to action


Florida Atlantic University will offer a doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) program for public intellectuals. The aim of the program, formally called PhD in Comparative Studies, is to provide an activist, socially relevant and participatory model of scholarly work for students. It offers an opportunity for intellectual growth for students while teaching them how to influence public discourse and practices. The courses in this public intellectuals program curriculum are organized into 13 concentrations instead of specific disciplines.

Full Text:

If thee is one significant gap in higher education, it is the lack of attention to public intellectual life. At Florida Atlantic University we are instituting the first PhD program with an emphasis on training public intellectuals.

Florida Atlantic, founded in 1964 as part of the Florida state system, is a relatively new and growing public university. Hence we are free to initiate and to go where no PhD program has gone before. The university is also well-situated in southern Florida on the Atlantic coast, a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. Its gender and class diversity and its growing racial diversity, drawing in Caribbean as well as Central and South American peoples, make it a place where a graduate student, especially when teaching as well as studying, can encounter the cultures of the Americas, which are too often excluded from the established universities.


Women’s Studies as a field of scholarship had its origins in the germinal interaction of activists and academics. Most Women’s Studies programs inextricably link academic subject to structures, conflicts, politics and movements in the real world. In the Summer 1998 issue of Feminist Studies, Jacky Coates, Michelle Dodd and Jodi Jensen describe “feminist action-oriented research” as research that forges links between communities, including academic communities, research which can be inscribed or enacted in popular publications, theatre, or media, and research that often involves some sort of”collaborative or participatory research strategies.” Such an activist, socially conscious and participatory model of scholarly work is also at the heart of the public intellectuals PhD.

Not surprisingly, then, our program has a feminist genesis. Teresa Brennan, curriculum designer for the PhD, provided the original design and worked it through first with Susan Buck-Morss (Cornell), then with Alice Jardine (Harvard), Kath Weston (University of Arizona), Geeta Patel (Wellesley), Greta Edwards (Harvard), Stanley Fish (Illinois, Chicago) and Jane Shaw (Oxford) before taking up her appointment at Florida Atlantic. All of these colleagues felt a real distance between their academic appointments and thesocial change they had hoped to contribute to at the inception of their academic careers, and they offered their support to Brennan in pushing on with the idea.

  • When she was asked to design an interdisciplinary PhD for Florida Atlantic, Brennan recognized a unique opportunity to launch a public intellectuals program, something she had wanted to do for some time after her own graduate experience had led to a more narrowly academic career than the life of writing and useful teaching she had envisaged.
  • Certain names come to mind when one thinks of public intellectuals historically – Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, W.E.B. DuBois, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Rachel Carson, Simone de Beauvoir, Gabriela Mistral, Bayard Rustin, C.L.R. James, Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara. Contemporary examples are too numerous to list here, but we want to stress that a public intellectual is by our definition not just a well-known name but anyone who makes communication about social change effective in real terms, whose work is action, or whose work leads to action that challenges the status quo. By this definition, a public intellectual is someone who, for example, starts a women’s refuge and offers a new way of seeing the situation of battered women. The public she reaches might be smaller than that reached by such preeminent public intellectuals as bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, or Gloria Steinem, but it is still a public. From this perspective the range of public intellectuals can include journalists, performance artists, justice advocates and activists, museum curators, environmental planners, clergy, community organizers, documentary filmmakers, artists, arts critics, academics who write for a general audience, publishers and elected officials.

Of course, it is one thing to participate in any of these professions and another to be a public intellectual. Many of these professions have their own qualifying degrees, but most course work in these degree programs is oriented toward practice and does not engage the theoretical concerns either of the field itself or of cognate disciplines. This is where our stress on the idea of action directed toward social change as well as communication of ideas to more general publics is significant. And the academy is not the only arena in which to accomplish these measures.

The public intellectuals program at Florida Atlantic University, formally titled the PhD in Comparative Studies, will begin in the fall of 1999. Comparative studies spans the humanities and social sciences and is inter- and multidisciplinary. The rationale of comparative studies is the application of various approaches within the humanities, arts and social sciences to the study of significant issues – an acknowledgment that solutions to many contemporary problems in matters of economic growth, environmental protection, social hierarchies based in race, class or sex, sexual identity, gender, and so on require strategic and theoretical work based in many kinds of knowledges and disciplines.

The public intellectuals program curriculum organizes courses into thirteen concentrations or streams, rather than specific disciplines. For the first three years of the program, the concentrations will be gender; technology, economy and globalization; the environment; race and ethnicity; new spiritualities; the media and popular culture; biological borderlines (from biotechnology through alternative medicine); postcolonialism; the arts; creative strategies; public policy and the concept of the public; social movements; theory and historical context.


There have, of course, been many interdisciplinary doctoral programs, most of which appeal to students who want a genuine and reality-based education. The public intellectuals program at Florida Atlantic adds an ideal – it supposes that some students pursue a PhD seeking both intellectual growth and a platform from which they can enter into and influence public discourse and practices, rather than an academic career. In the course of their PhD work, many students cease identifying with their prior image of themselves and their projected future and instead become embryonic academics, in part because their primary mentors are professors committed to academic careers themselves. The public intellectuals program at Florida Atlantic, though it will have academics such as ourselves teaching in it, also will have public intellectuals designing and teaching courses and serving on students’ dissertation committees. Thus far those committed to participation in the program include bell hooks, writer and lecturer; Nawal el Saadawi, doctor, novelist and activist against genital mutilation; Gloria Anzaldua, Chicana writer; Julia Kristeva, leading French feminist; Jane Shaw, scholar-priest; Juliet Mitchell, psychoanalyst; Val Plumwood and Jeremy Rifkin, environmental activists; and Jeffrey Escoffier, AIDS activist and editor. Well-known critical theorists within the academy will also be contributing to the program, among them Anthony Appiah and Drucilla Cornell.

We have not instituted a program that is in any sense anti-theoretical. To be a public intellectual today is to be au fait with, and not afraid of, theory. We draw on feminist theory, post structuralism, critical race theory, post colonial thought, psychoanalysis, archetypal theory, the original critical theory of the Frankfurt school, and non-Western paradigms for explaining the world – including, for example, Native American conceptions of reality often mis-styled “myth.” We also want to encourage challenges to the very definition of what constitutes theory, broadening that delineation and to this end exploring popular cultures and “subcultures” for the theories that do not survive in the formal academic canons.

Degree requirements include completion of two year-long required core courses (see box), a distribution of credits within concentrations as well as in elective courses, and a proficiency in two research tools. At least one of these must be any language other than English. The other tool, if not a language, should be the demonstration of a skill relevant to the life of a public intellectual: for example, planning and organizing a conference on public issues, publishing a substantial critical essay or journalistic work in a public venue, or developing a media production or live performance. Obviously there are constraints here. The production or performance needs to be one that opens the audience up to ideas they may not have encountered; it should have an intellectual as well as a public function.

  • We also are instituting practicums of varying duration, depending on the student’s research program. The academic rationale for the internship experience is that it should bear on the kinds of questions that feed back into dissertations. The point of a dissertation in the public intellectuals program may be not only to report on what one finds to the academic community but to provide information to those directly affected by the subject matter. For instance, if one is studying the impact of NAFTA on Mexican labor then working with a labor group in Mexico should make that dissertation useful to Mexican labor organizers as well as NAFTA analysts. Like traditional Phi) programs, we require a dissertation, but we also encourage its publication in the popular as well as the scholarly press.

The public intellectuals PhD program exists on the necessarily permeable boundary between the academy and the larger public world. What transpires at the university always influences what is external to it; usually, though, since most learning and teaching reinforce the status quo, it does so silently. The public intellectuals PhD program is committed to making explicit and enhancing this dialogic relationship. It recognizes the necessity to provide a graduate program that trains individuals to enter fully into wide-ranging, diverse, and world-building conversations.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Public Intellectuals Program

The goal of the public intellectuals’ curriculum is to combine theoretical with concrete analysis, and to strive for this integration in every core course we offer, producing students who are theoretically confident and knowledgeable about the world they hope to change. The curriculum assumes that there are certain areas about which anyone aspiring to be a public intellectual will want knowledge. Some of the obvious ones are feminism; new spiritualities (and old ones); economic growth; environmental protection; ethnic conflict; class and inequalities of age, race and sexual orientation; popular culture; the power of the media; and of course biotechnology, technology generally, and science. These areas are addressed in one of two required courses (“The Public Matters”) and addressed at length in the program’s thirteen concentrations. Other core courses address theories of the public (who exactly is the public? how many publics are there?) There is also the question of why people become academics or public intellectuals. The other required course directly addresses this last question, using the tools of psychoanalysis, film theory, and performance studies to investigate how it is that we come to identify with fixed roles. The aim of this course (“Rhetoric and Principle”) is to analyze the process whereby outer-directed images take over from inner ones, focusing on the power of internal and external images. We are also instituting practicums (senior internships) to establish an exchange between the academy and the world of activism.

It is our belief that an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program with another goal altogether, an explicitly extra-academic goal, will frame and make conscious much of the unformulated ambition of students who are more interested in an advanced general education than a specific academic profession. That goal might be a life as a public intellectual. By launching a public intellectuals program we hope we are recognizing a demographic constituency that already exists but which does not know itself by its name…people who want to write, think, and act.

By bringing together theory and practice, we hope to try and return to public life some of its intellectual ballast, which has been, more and more, absent of late. We are instituting a degree program that is precisely not geared to the specialized market and which leaves space to think. We hope our candidates will make contributions either to public life or the genuine teaching that helps others find their path in public life. We also hope to provide a place where those already participating in a public profession, however small their place in it, will have the chance to think through and revitalize their contributions to changing the world. Whether our candidates are fresh from their first degrees or are already working outside universities, they too will help create an environment in which both peer and mentor support can sustain the desire to make a difference.

– From the Course Catalogue

RELATED ARTICLE: The Required Core Courses

The Public Matters

This course will explore the problems that engage public intellectuals in the contemporary world. Such concerns include globalization, the impact of economic growth, environmental protection, rapidly changing technologies, ethnic conflict, shifting sex and gender roles, the state and history of the trade unions, the new social movements, biotechnologies and bioethics, neocolonialism and modern imperialism, the shift from information to entertainment in journalism, and contemporary spiritual attitudes and religious movements, to name some of the most salient public issues. The aim of this course is to educate students in the leading public matters of the moment.

Rhetoric and Principle

This two-semester sequence will cover both theoretical and practical aspects of performance and rhetoric. It will take the biographies of public intellectuals as a focus, analyzing the dialectic between rhetoric, intellect, and commitment in their writing and public engagements. The processes involved in forming, and the relation between, public image and self-image will be explored, together with what it means to maintain an “tuner directed vision” in the face of outer directed images. Students can elect to give public talks and addresses, learn what it means to be before a camera or in an interview, as well as analyze the rhetorical strategies in manuals governing media Interaction. This course will encourage synthesizing information and knowledge from various, some times unusual, sources.

TERESA BRENNAN is Schmidt Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Florida Atlantic University, co-editor of Oxford Readings in Feminism, and editor the Routledge feminist theory series Opening Out. Her books include History After Lacan; her next book is The Transmission of Affect.

JANE CAPUTI is professor of women’s studies and communications at Florida Atlantic University. She is the author of The Age of Sex Crime and Gossips, Gorgons, and Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Her next book is The Second Coming of Diana.