Bella Stavisky Abzug

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Bella Stavisky Abzug

Liberal lawyer and unconventional politician, Bella Stavisky Abzug (born 1920) works energetically for civil and women's rights. She served three terms as a New York Congresswoman.

Bella Stavisky Abzug was born on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx, New York. She was the daughter of Emanuel and Esther Savitsky, Russian Jewish immigrants who owned a local meat market. During her youth she worked in her father's store until it failed in the 1920s and he turned to selling insurance. In 1930 her father died, which left her mother to support the family with his insurance money and jobs in local department stores. She attended an all-female high school in the west Bronx and eventually entered Hunter College, where she excelled as a student, earning her degree in 1942.

Student Activist

Abzug was elected as president of her high school class and later as student body president at Hunter College. She taught Hebrew and Jewish history on the weekends and marched in protest against the spread of Nazism in Europe and against British and American neutrality during the Spanish Civil War. In World War II she joined the ranks of thousands of American women entering war production industries and worked in a shipbuilding factory. In 1944 she married Maurice Abzug, a stockbroker and novelist. They had two daughters.

By the time she entered Columbia Law School Bella's career as a litigation lawyer, politician, and activist was well along. At Columbia she was editor of the Columbia LawReview. After her graduation in 1947 she joined a firm that specialized in labor law, one of the most confrontational areas of law practice. In the 1950s she worked as a labor lawyer and represented civil rights workers. She launched a lifelong commitment to helping poor and oppressed people gain justice and a decent life in the days following World War II. During this time such commitments were viewed with suspicion as part of the "red scare." She defended many individuals, such as New York school teachers accused of subversive activities during the anti-communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Civil Rights

In the early 1950s she was deeply involved in the early Civil Rights movement. While carrying her second child in 1962, she undertook a case to defend an African American man accused of raping a white woman with whom he had been having an affair. Although she ultimately lost the case, Abzug was able to delay the man's execution for two years by appealing the conviction twice to the Supreme Court. Her arguments in the case were nearly two decades ahead of their time, and the Warren and Burger Courts would eventually accept similar arguments made for guaranteeing a fair trial and prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

During the 1960s Abzug joined in the movement to ban nuclear testing. She helped to found the Woman's Strike for Peace organization, leading the organization in demonstrations that took place in New York and Washington, D.C. After the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty she helped to refocus the antinuclear movement into an antiwar movement as the U.S. became more deeply involved in the Vietnam War.

In the late 1960s Abzug struggled to forge a broad, progressive coalition across party lines to address the concerns of the poor, ethnic minorities, and women's groups in shaping a new national agenda. During these years she became active in the Democratic party, and after the insider fiasco at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 she joined with other liberal Democrats to found the New Democratic Coalition.

Elected to office

Running for office in 1970, supported by her ties to labor and a strong backing from the Jewish vote, Abzug was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York City's 19th ward. During her first year in Congress she gained national attention by her bold and daring political initiatives on behalf of liberal causes, as well by wearing her wide, trademark hat within the halls of congress. On her first day in office she introduced a bill calling for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam by July 4, 1971. Although conservative forces in Congress defeated the bill within a week, Abzug established herself immediately as an unconventional politician who would take on her opponents using a brusque and often confrontational style. During her tenure she co-authored the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, she was the first to call for President Nixon's impeachment in the 1970s, and she cast one of the first votes for the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1972 redistricting eliminated Abzug's congressional district, and she decided to run in the 20th district against a popular liberal incumbent, William Fitz Ryan. She lost the primary, but Ryan died before the general election in November, and Abzug became the Democratic nominee. She won in the November election and served in the House until 1976 when she gave up her seat to run for the Senate, a race she lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She then ran in the Democratic mayoral primary in New York, but was defeated by Edward Koch. Never one to give up, she told reporters who assumed she was finished with politics, "I'll thank you not to write my obituary."

Continuing Activism

Abzug continued to make headlines fighting for peace and women's rights long after leaving office. President Jimmy Carter appointed her as co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women, but was apparently unprepared for the demands that the committee would make. When the committee met with President Carter, several of the members spoke to him about the cuts in social services and pointed out their negative impact on the nation's women. After that meeting Abzug was dismissed from the committee, an action that sparked the resignation of several members, including the other co-chair, and gave rise to a massive public outcry against Carter for the firing.

Throughout her long and controversial political career, Abzug has retained a place in the limelight with her characteristic sharp tongue and unconventional style. Her hats along with her defiance of codes of dress and demeanor have won her a reputation as a nonconformist. But above and beyond the flair of her personality, it is the issues she supports that are her deepest concern. As she wrote in the introduction to her autobiography, "I am not evoking a wild fantasy when I claim that I'm going to help organize a new political coalition of the women, the minorities and the young people, along with the poor, the elderly, the workers, and the unemployed, which is going to turn this country upside down and inside out."

Abzug continues to devote her energies to women's rights and reproductive freedom. As chair of New York City's Commission on the Status of Women she directs a National Parity Campaign to increase the number of women in elective office. In 1991, she presided over the Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet and her presence at the United Nations 4th Women's Conference in Beijing garnered considerable attention. She is also co-chair of the Women's Environmental Development Organization (WEDO), and as senior advisor to UNCED Secretary General Maurice Strong she successfully campaigned to incorporate key issues of the women's agenda into official statements approved at the Earth Summit.

Further Reading

Bella Abzug has written her own autobiography, Bella, edited by Mel Ziegler and published by the Saturday Review Press in 1972. While it chronicles Abzug's political career up to that time, she remained in Congress four more years and was active later. There is a biography of her by Doris Faber, Bella Abzug (William Morrow, 1976). She is listed in Political Profiles: The Nixon/Ford Years, Facts on File, v. 5 (1979). She has also been written up in the New York Times Biographical Service in February and December, 1978. Numerous contemporary articles have appeared about her in publications such as Time, Newsweek, The New Republic, and Life.