Bella Abzug worked for civil and women's rights as a lawyer and as a politician. Throughout her long political career, she used her sharp tongue and unusual style to advance the issues that were her deepest concern. As she wrote in her autobiography, "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."
An early interest in women's rights
Bella Stavisky was born on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx, New York. She was the daughter of Emanuel and Esther Stavisky, Russian Jewish immigrants who owned a 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, leaving her mother to support the family with his insurance money and by taking jobs in local department stores.
Bella's interest in women's rights began at a young age. Her family was deeply religious. While attending synagogue (a place for Jewish worship of God) with her grandfather, she was offended that women were not treated the same as men. According to the rules of Orthodox Judaism (a branch of the Jewish faith that strictly follows customs and traditions), women were forced to sit in the back rows of the balcony in synagogues.
Making a difference
Bella Stavisky attended an all-female high school in the west Bronx, where she was elected president of her class. She then went on to Hunter College, where she served as student-body president and graduated in 1942. She taught Jewish history and Hebrew on the weekends. She marched in protests against the harm being done to Jewish people in Europe and against British and American neutrality in the Spanish Civil War. (The war was a revolt led by the military against Spain's Republican government that lasted from 1936 to 1939). During World War II (1939–45) she was one of thousands of American women entering war production industries, working in a shipbuilding factory. In 1944 she married Maurice Abzug, a stockbroker and writer. The couple had two daughters.
Bella Abzug decided that she could do more to help people if she became a lawyer. She entered Columbia Law School, where she became editor of the Columbia Law Review. After graduating in 1947, she worked as a labor lawyer and represented civil rights workers. She became committed to helping poor people gain justice and a decent life in the days following World War II.
In the 1950s Abzug became deeply involved in the early civil rights movement. In 1950 she agreed to defend an African American man named Willie McGee. McGee was accused of raping a white woman with whom he had been having an affair, found guilty, and sentenced to death under the harsh laws in place in Mississippi during that time. Although she lost the case, Abzug succeeded in delaying the man's execution for two years by appealing the ruling twice to the Supreme Court.
In the late 1960s Abzug continued to do what she could to help ethnic minorities, women's groups, and the poor. During these years she became active in the Democratic Party. After the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 she joined with other like-minded Democrats to found the New Democratic Coalition. She also joined in the movement to ban nuclear testing, a movement that became more of an antiwar movement as the United States deepened its involvement in the Vietnam War (1955–75). In this war, the United States supported the anti-Communist government of South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by the Communist government of North Vietnam.
Elected to office
In 1970, with the support of labor organizations and the Jewish population, Abzug was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York City's Nineteenth District. She quickly gained national attention for her bold ideas and for the wide hats she wore within the halls of Congress. On her first day on the job she introduced a bill calling for American troops to be pulled out of Vietnam by July 4, 1971. Although the bill was defeated within a week, Abzug had made a name for herself as a politician with a tough style who was unafraid of her opponents.
While in office she coauthored the 1974 Freedom of Information Act (a law that gives people in America the right to access otherwise secret information from government agencies) and the 1974 Privacy Act (a law that gives U.S. citizens and permanent residents the right to access many government files that contain information about them). She was the first to call for the impeachment (a process in which a public official is put on trial in Congress with the Senate acting as the judge) of President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) for his involvement in criminal activity. She also cast one of the first votes for the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that if passed would have guaranteed equality of rights to both men and women.
In 1972 New York City changed the way its congressional districts were set up, eliminating Abzug's district. She decided to run against the popular William Fitts Ryan (1922–1972) in the Twentieth District. She lost the primary, but Ryan died before the general election in November. As a result, Abzug became the Democratic candidate in the general election. She won and went on to serve in the House until 1976, when she gave up her seat to run for the Senate, a race she lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–). She then ran in the Democratic mayoral primary in New York but was defeated by Edward Koch (1924–). Never one to give up, she told reporters not to assume that she was finished with politics.
Abzug continued to fight for peace and women's rights long after leaving office. President Jimmy Carter (1924–) appointed her as cochair, or joint leader, of the National Advisory Committee for Women. However, after the committee met with President Carter and pointed out that recent cuts in social services were having a negative effect on the nation's women, Abzug was dismissed from the committee. This led to the resignation of several other members, including the other cochair, and caused a massive public outcry against Carter.
Abzug devoted her energies to women's rights up to the final years of her life. As chair of New York City's Commission on the Status of Women, she directed a national campaign to increase the number of women in public office. Her presence at the United Nations 4th Women's Conference in Beijing, China, in 1991, attracted a great deal of attention. On March 31, 1998, after an operation on her heart, Abzug died in New York, bringing to an end a lifelong fight to improve the lives of women, minorities, and the poor.
For More Information
Abzug, Bella. Bella. Edited by Mel Ziegler. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.
Abzug, Bella, with Mim Kelber. Gender Gap. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Faber, Doris. Bella Abzug. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1976.
Abzug was born the second daughter of Emmanuel Savitsky, a butcher who emigrated from Russia in 1905 after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, and Esther Tanklefsky. Her father, who died when she was thirteen, was a pacifist, and his ideas had a strong impact on Abzug.
After receiving a B.A. at Hunter College of the City University of New York in 1942, Abzug earned a scholarship to attend the Columbia University School of Law, where she was one of only six women. She received her LL.B. in 1947. During her early days as a female lawyer, she began wearing her trademark wide-brimmed hats. She once recalled, "When I was a young lawyer, I would go to people's offices and they would always say, 'Sit here. We'll wait for the lawyer.' Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously." She continued to wear a hat throughout her career, and was particularly happy to do so after her election to Congress, since "they didn't want me to wear it." Some of her hats have been donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
While attending Columbia, she met Martin Abzug, an aspiring novelist and businessman, and they married on 4 June 1944. Though they had two daughters, it was agreed early in their relationship that she would pursue her legal career even after they had children.
Abzug first came to national attention in 1951 when she traveled to Mississippi to defend Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman with whom he had consensual sex. She succeeded in obtaining two stays of execution, but he was eventually executed. Abzug was pregnant at the time, and according to her daughter, Liz, she miscarried late in that pregnancy because of the efforts she exerted during the trial.
During the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, Abzug defended the civil rights of several individuals indicted for leftist activities. At the same time she counseled tenants and minorities, and her work had considerable influence upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her social activism in the fifties spilled over into antiwar activism in the sixties. Abzug wrote in her book Gender Gap, "As an instinctive feminist all my life, I came to political feminism by way of activities in the women's peace movement and involvement in Democratic Party reform politics."
Abzug's true political involvement began in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union and the United States resumed nuclear testing. With former Hunter College colleagues Mim Kelber, Amy Swerdlow, and Judy Lemer, she cofounded Women Strike for Peace (WSP) in 1961. WSP, which actively demanded a comprehensive nuclear test ban, was the first national group to draw massive attention to the danger of radioactive material in milk. Abzug later remarked, "We held one demonstration after another at the United Nations and at the White House, and we lobbied in Congress. I served as both political action director and legislative director." In 1963 the limited nuclear test ban treaty was signed, and WSP later expanded its mission. It began protesting the war in Vietnam, and Abzug soon became a prominent speaker against the poverty, racism, and violence that, as Swerdlow wrote, "mocked the promise of democracy in America."
In New York City, Abzug organized groups to work for the election of peace candidates; most prominent was Paul O'Dwyer, who was defeated in his run for the Senate in 1968. Abzug was appalled that President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was elected in 1964 on a pledge of "no wider war," escalated the war in Southeast Asia, and she took center-stage among New York Democrats in the "Dump Johnson" movement of 1967 and 1968. She mobilized peace forces to campaign for the evacuation of troops from Vietnam.
Subsequent to Johnson's fall from power, Abzug founded the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, which supported the antiwar presidential candidacies of senators Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. In the summer of 1968 she helped form the Coalition for an Open Convention. After the Democratic defeat in 1968, she founded the New Democratic Coalition. In 1969, when the Republican Party denied renomination to the liberal New York mayor John Lindsay, Abzug organized a coalition to help him gain the right to run on an independent ballot line on which antiwar, pro–civil rights Democrats could vote for him. Regarding her participation in the peace movement, the columnist Jimmy Breslin remarked, "Some came early, others came late. Bella has been there forever."
In 1970 Abzug ran for Congress after experiencing her own personal "click," her feminist epiphany. She observed, "I had been working hard all those years to elect men who weren't any more qualified or able than I, and in some cases they were less so." When she ran for Congress, there were only nine women among the 435 members of the House, and Abzug's rallying cry was, "This woman belongs in the House—The House of Representatives." After an energetic campaign, Abzug defeated Barry Farber, the popular host of a local radio show in New York City. In Congress, Abzug immediately began her campaign to get the troops out of Vietnam. During six years in Washington, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus, authored such landmark legislation as the Freedom of Information Act and the first gay rights bill, cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment, and was the first to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation.
The media never tired of Abzug and her plain-talking, good-natured style. Calling her "Battling Bella," "Mother Courage," and "Hurricane Bella," they enjoyed inventing new epithets to describe her bellicose personality. In 1976 she gave up her safe congressional seat to run for the Senate and lost by only one percentage point to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Abzug never again held political office, but she continued to practice law and work for women's groups. She started a lobbying group called Women U.S.A. and founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).
Abzug died at the age of seventy-seven from complications following heart surgery. She was eulogized for three hours and five minutes at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City by many of her compatriots from the 1960s, including Jane Fonda, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. Joseph Bologna, the actor, lovingly predicted that Ms. Abzug's first action would be "to immediately begin petitioning God for better conditions—for the people in hell." Abzug is buried in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Glendale, New York.
Some material derived from an interview with Liz Abzug, younger daughter of Bella S. Abzug. Autobiographies include Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972), and (with Mim Keller) Gender Gap (1984). Interesting biographical articles includeEsther Stineman, American Women in Politics: Contemporary and Historical Profiles (1980), and Gloria Steinem, "Bella Abzug," Ms (Jan. 1996). Tributes at the time of her death include Adam Nagourney, "Recalling Bella Abzug's Politics and Passion," New York Times (3 Apr. 1998), and Gloria Steinem, "Born to Be a World Leader," Ms. (July.–Aug. 1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times (1 Apr. 1998) and the Nation (20 Apr. 1998).
Margaret Garry Burke