Abzug, Bella Savitsky

views updated May 29 2018


Bella Savitsky Abzug served as a Democratic congresswoman in the 1970s and became one of the most outspoken advocates for women's rights in the United States. After she left Congress in 1976, she remained involved in political and social issues both nationally and internationally.

With her raspy voice, New York accent, and trademark floppy hat, Abzug was one of the most recognizable public figures in recent U.S. history.

Bella Savitsky was born on July 24, 1920, in New York City and was raised in the Bronx. The daughter of Russian immigrant Jews, her father was a butcher who operated the "Live and Let Live" meat market. As a young girl, she raised and collected money on behalf of Zionism. After she graduated from high school, she attended Hunter College, where she was president of the student government. Following graduation in 1944, she attended Columbia Law School, where she was the editor of the law review and an outstanding student. In 1946, she married Martin Abzug, who would go on to become a successful stockbroker.

After graduating in 1947, Abzug concentrated her legal practice in the fields of labor law and civil rights, while also becoming active in left-wing politics. As an attorney for the american civil liberties union, Abzug went to Mississippi in 1950 to argue the appeal of Willie McGee, an African-American man who had been convicted of raping a white woman. She also defended individuals whom Senator joseph r. mccarthy (R-Wisc.) had accused of Communist subversion. During the 1950s, Abzug managed to juggle her legal and political careers, while being a mother to two daughters.

"Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over."
Bella Abzug

In the 1960s, Abzug organized opposition to nuclear arms testing by founding Women's Strike for Peace. In 1970, she was elected as a Democratic congresswoman from New York City. She was an outspoken critic of the vietnam war and the policies of President richardm. nixon. After the watergate scandals erupted in 1973, Abzug was the first public official to call for Nixon's impeachment.

Although Abzug antagonized many of her male colleagues in Congress by insisting on gender equality inside and outside of the Capitol, in 1974 she served as an assistant whip to House Speaker tip o'neill (D-Mass.). She chaired a subcommittee on government information and individual rights and co-authored the freedom of information act and the Privacy Act. Abzug also worked on behalf of the ill-fated equal rights amendment, which failed to acquire the necessary number of states for ratification.

A national figure by the mid-1970s, Abzug sought the democratic party nomination for the Senate in 1976. She lost a close race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Several campaigns for New York City mayor and Congress followed, but Abzug never served in elective office again. Despite these defeats, she remained active in efforts for women's rights. She was president of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, cofounder of the National Women's Political Caucus, and the founder of the International Women's Environmental and Development Organization. In 1995, she played a major role in a world conference on women's issues, held in Beijing, China.

Abzug remained active in the women's movement despite numerous health problems that began in the mid-1980s. She died on March 31, 1998, in New York City following heart surgery.

further readings

Abzug, Bella S., with Mim Kelber. 1984. Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Abzug, Bella S. 1972. Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. New York: Saturday Review Press.

Faber, Doris. 1976. Bella Abzug. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.

Intimate Portrait: Bella Abzug (videotape). 1998. Lifetime Productions.

Rogers, Kathy. 1998. "Bella Abzug: A Leader of Vision and Voice." Columbia Law Review 98 (June).


Equal Rights Amendment.