Abzug, Bella (1920–1998)

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Abzug, Bella (1920–1998)

U.S. Representative, attorney, and peace activist who worked to advance the role of women in U.S. politics and win representation for women's issues. Born Bella Savitsky in New York, New York, on July 24, 1920; died of complications from heart surgery in New York City on March 31, 1998; daughter of Emmanuel (a Russian immigrant and meat-market owner) and Esther Savitsky; attended local Bronx elementary schools; graduated from Walton High School; attended and graduated from Hunter College; enrolled in Columbia Law school, 1942, but subsequently left due to World War II; returned to law school and was awarded the LL.B. degree and admitted to the bar, 1947; married Martin Abzug (a stockbroker), in June 1945; children: two daughters, Eve Gail (Egee) Abzug ; Liz Abzug.

Helped found the Women's Strike for Peace (1961) and was active in the peace movement (1960s and 1970s); was an early supporter and founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and remained active in feminist issues (late 1960–98); was active in reform politics in New York City and elected to Congress, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives

(1970–76); gained fame for her outspoken support of the women's liberation movement and supported legislation that promoted federal job programs, public transportation, and individual right to privacy; ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate from New York (1976); served as chair of the National Advisory Council on Women (1977–78); remained active in women's issues and co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus (1971), one of the largest financial contributors to women seeking political office.

Selected publications:

Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (edited by Mel Ziegler, Saturday Review Press, 1972); Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women (with Mim Kelber, 1984).

Bella Abzug was a teenager when her father died. After his death, she broke tradition in her synagogue, where segregation of the sexes disturbed her, by reciting the Kaddish, a ritual then reserved for male relatives. She would later write about the day in Gender Gap: "No one tried to stop me, and as I stood in a corner reciting my mourner's prayers, I came to understand that one way to change outmoded traditions was to challenge them."

Abzug ranks as one of the most flamboyant and politically effective women activists of the mid-20th century. As an outspoken supporter of the women's liberation movement in the United States and an early, active participant in the peace movement, she directed her career toward civil-rights and civil-liberties issues, legislation promoting job equality, the founding of the modern women's liberation movement, the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the advancement of U.S. women in electoral politics. Wrote one biographer at the outset of her years in Congress: "The Ninety-second Congress has a number of new Representatives who are impatient with archaic House rules and anxious to make the national legislative body more responsive to the needs of the people, but none is more vocal than flamboyant, fearless Bella Abzug." Indeed, this straightforward, assertive political style set her apart from other politically active women of her era.

Born in the Bronx section of New York City in 1920, Abzug was one of two daughters of Emmanuel and Esther Savitsky . Her father, a Russian immigrant, owned and operated Manhattan's Live and Let Live Meat Market. Bella attended local elementary schools in the Bronx and graduated from the all-girl Walton High School. While a student at Hunter College in Manhattan, she was elected student-body president and also became active in the Zionist movement prior to World War II. Encouraged by many to go to "the best" law school, she applied to Harvard but received a letter informing her that it did not admit women. Outraged, Abzug turned to her mother, who replied: "Why do you want to go to Harvard anyway? It's far away, and you can't afford the carfare. Go to Columbia." After graduation from New York's Hunter College in 1942, she did enroll in the Columbia Law School but dropped out after a short time to work toward the war effort in a shipbuilding factory.

Returning to Columbia Law School after World War II, Abzug became an editor of the prestigious Columbia Law Review. While there, she met her future husband Martin Abzug. Before marrying in June of 1945, the two had long discussions about "who would do what," and it was agreed that she would work at her legal career even after having children (they would soon raise two daughters). In the meantime, she completed law school in 1947 and was admitted to the bar. Abzug later referred to her husband as a "role-model feminist husband" and frequently praised him for the equality of their career and family concerns throughout their long, successful relationship. She expressed her views about career and family to a reporter for New Woman (June 1971):

You try to adjust the family situation to the realities of your life. You don't put one ahead of the other. There is a balance, and you strive to keep that balance. The family grows with it. And the kids also know that the mother is a woman, wife, and lawyer. A total person. It makes them better people.

After admission to the bar, Abzug developed two primary legal interests. First, she was a labor-law specialist who represented, among others, unions for restaurant workers, fur workers, auto workers, and the first longshoremen strikers. Outside her labor-law practice, however, she also served (often for minimal or no fee) a variety of civil-rights and civil-liberties litigants. She was chief counsel in the appeal of Willie McGee, a young Mississippi black man convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. In her defense arguments, Abzug challenged the practice of excluding blacks from Southern juries and of applying the death sentence for rape convictions only in the case of black defendants. While she lost this case and McGee was executed in 1951, it drew worldwide attention and helped establish Abzug as a noted civil-liberties attorney.

Similarly, Abzug's defense of several persons accused of subversive activities by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, in the period of his investigations of alleged communists in the 1950s, further contributed to her notoriety as an activist attorney on behalf of unpopular or controversial defendants. During the same period, she was also defense lawyer for New York State teachers accused of leftist activities. In these cases, Abzug was among the first attorneys to appeal to the First Amendment's guarantee of the rights to free speech, press, and association. In the 1950s, she also served as counsel to various tenant and minority groups, and helped write model legislation that was later incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In addition to her reputation as an active participant in the civil-rights movement, Abzug is also well known for her early and sustained involvement in the peace movement of the mid-20th century, prompting Jimmy Breslin's remark: "Some came early, others came late. Bella has been there forever." In 1961, she helped found the Women's Strike for Peace, one of the largest and most active peace organizations of this period. She led many demonstrations and lobbying efforts on behalf of this group throughout the 1960s, in favor of a nuclear test ban, disarmament, and an immediate end to the war in Vietnam. She also worked within the Democratic Party in New York to back the campaigns of a number of peace candidates, and, in 1967, she helped rally unhappy Democrats and various peace groups into a combined effort to "Dump Lyndon Johnson." She was also an active supporter of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who ran as the Democratic "peace candidate," challenging President Johnson in the 1968 presidential primaries. This candidacy is often credited with forcing Johnson's withdrawal from the presidential campaign.

In this same period, Abzug was engaged in a number of Democratic Party activities, which would later lead to her own candidacy for Congress. After the Democratic loss in 1968, she was a founder of the New Democratic Coalition, a reform movement within the party. In the New York City mayoral campaign of 1969, she contributed to the successful reelection campaign of Mayor John V. Lindsay by organizing and serving as chair of the Taxpayers' Campaign for Urban Priorities. She also served as an advisor to Lindsay.

When she announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to Congress from the 19th Congressional District of New York in March of 1970, Abzug was endorsed as the official candidate of the reform Democrats. Her campaign stressed three issues: peace and ending the war in Vietnam; reordering national spending priorities; and women's equality. Abzug believed hers was the first winning campaign in her era that stressed women's equality. When she ran, there were only nine women serving in the House of Representatives, and one in the U.S. Senate.

The victory, however, was a hard-fought one. For 14 years, the district in which Abzug was running had been represented by Leonard Farbstein, a Democrat who sat quietly in the House, attending to district issues and maintaining a moderately liberal voting record. The reform Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to unseat him in the past, and, in 1970, the incumbent was confident of again winning his predominantly Jewish but ethnically diverse district, which included both rich and poor constituents.

But the forces behind Farbstein underestimated the energies of the galvanized Bella. With "This woman belongs in the House" as her slogan, Abzug offered her constituents a new, stronger voice in Washington. She committed to working for better housing, cuts in defense spending, equal rights for women, and an immediate end to the Vietnam War. Defeating Farbstein in the May primary in her race against Republican Barry Farber, Abzug gained the support of a wide range of prominent New Yorkers, including Mayor Lindsay, peace groups, and several Broadway entertainers who campaigned on her behalf. Many young women were attracted to and worked in the campaign. As one of the most colorful political personalities in New York, Abzug drew much attention, even nationally. She was loud, good natured, and a tireless campaigner. Wrote Abzug:

I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I'm any of these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made very clear at the outset—I am a very serious woman.

The 19th Congressional District had four times as many Democrats as Republicans in 1970, so Abzug was expected to win. A number of regular Democrats, alienated by the primary battle, defected to her opponent. Others cited her manner and strong views on such controversial issues as women's liberation. The battle grew acrimonious as election day neared, but, on November 3, 1970, Abzug won easily.

As a representative, Bella Abzug made her presence known on Capitol Hill immediately. Her first day in the House, refusing to wait the rookie's traditional time before addressing that body, she introduced a resolution calling for withdrawal of all troops from Indochina by July 4, 1971, and later that afternoon fellow New York Representative Shirley Chisholm administered a special peace oath to Representative Abzug, while hundreds of supporters looked on. Abzug also campaigned early and vigorously for a seat on the Armed Service Committee—an assignment seldom granted to a new representative—on the grounds that the committee needed a woman and a critic of the military. This attempt proved unsuccessful, and she was assigned to the Government Operations and Public Works committees; she later chaired a subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights.

We women must get used to thinking of ourselves as a mighty multitude…. We can learn to become political leaders and activists, or we can sit back and let a minority of men in government, backed by powerful money and military interests, run our country and try to run the whole world. It's up to us.

—Bella Abzug

During her first year, Abzug introduced several antiwar amendments, none of which passed. She also opposed the draft, describing compulsory military service as "slavery." She met repeatedly, and very publicly, with antiwar demonstrators in Washington. After some were arrested in May 1971, she questioned the constitutionality of the mass arrests, a position the courts later upheld.

Abzug also worked from the first for the enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and other legislation of importance to women, including the Equal Credit Act of 1972 and various increases in entitlement programs benefitting women and families. She was active in the attempt to pass national childcare legislation in the early 1970s, and in oversight of the Equal Opportunity Commission's handling of gender discrimination issues, after the Equal Pay Act was extended to include professionals. Abzug also introduced an Abortion Rights Act, just prior to the Supreme Court's landmark decision extending abortion rights in Roe v. Wade (1973). She also supported Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational institutions. Those measures that were successful created dramatic changes in the lives of American women. (Thousands of women active in college sports today have Title IX to thank.) Indeed, even those causes that were unsuccessful would lay important groundwork for campaigns on similar issues that would be launched during the 1980s.

Other milestones of Abzug's House service included authoring a provision that allowed transfer of interstate highway funds to public mass transportation, and the coauthoring of the amended Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy and Sunshine laws. She also brought major programs into New York State for transportation, public works, economic development, and water and sewage. Home often, conferring regularly with constituents, Abzug was ranked by a U.S. News and World Report survey of House delegates as the third most influential member of that body.

Successful in the House and widely known as a lecturer and advocate of issues important to women, minorities, and peace activists, Abzug felt it was a "worthwhile risk" to run for the Senate in 1976. Margaret Chase Smith had been defeated, there were no women in the upper house, and no woman had ever been the nominee of a major New York party for Senate. Abzug was popular, well known, with important New York supporters; nonetheless, the chair of the state Democratic Party recruited Daniel Patrick Moynihan to oppose her in the Democratic primary. Two other well-known liberals, Ramsey Clark and Paul O'Dwyer, also entered the primary along with a millionaire builder, Abe Hirschfield. Bella Abzug lost the primary by less than one percent of the vote, and Moynihan went on to become the New York senator. Abzug credited her loss to division in the liberal ranks within New York City.

While she did not return to legislative office, Abzug remained vigorously involved in politics throughout the 1970s and 1980s, primarily through her work with the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), which she helped found in 1971. Having experienced firsthand the difficulties faced by women running for elected office, she became convinced of the need to increase political activity on behalf of women candidates. Reminding women that they are an electoral majority in the United States, the NWPC raises and contributes funds to women candidates of either party who work to advance women's issues and legislation, and promotes interest in party and election reforms favorable to women candidates. The organization grew tremendously during the 1970s and 1980s, and many women elected to office in this period credit the NWPC with contributing to their success.

From this organizational base, Abzug worked to reform the political parties, so that by 1980 women delegates became equal in numbers to male delegates in both party conventions. She served as political action director of the NWPC and worked tirelessly for many women candidates. She also served for a time as chair of the National Advisory Council on Women, resigning in a policy dispute with President Jimmy Carter over his efforts for the passage of the ERA after the Houston Conference on Women (1978). As a leader in both the NWPC and the National Organization for Women, she continued activity in support of the ERA, childcare, and other legislation favorable for women. As a lawyer, author, noted lecturer, and experienced political analyst, Abzug remained at the fore-front of women's political action during the "gender gap" years of the 1980s. At this time, women increased their political activity and began voting in patterns clearly differentiated from those of male voters.

Bella Abzug once observed: "I have been and still am often described as 'aggressive,' 'abrasive,' and 'strident.' Friends and coworkers have observed, and I concur, that had I been a male politician with my record of accomplishment in Congress and the movements for social change, the adjectives would have been transformed into 'strong,' 'courageous,' and 'dynamic.'"


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

——. Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. Edited by Mel Ziegler. NY: Saturday Review Press, 1972.

suggested reading:

LeVeness, Frank P., and Jane P. Sweeney, eds. Women Leaders in Contemporary U.S. Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1987.

Jacqueline DeLaat , Associate Professor of Political Science, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio