Bella Abzug Biography

Bella Abzug, feminist and civil rights advocate, embodied many Americans’ discontent with the political establishment in the tumultuous Vietnam War era. She gained notoriety as one of the most colorful and controversial House Members during the 1970s. Once quoted as saying “women have been trained to talk softly and carry a lipstick”—a play on Theodore Roosevelt’s famous declaration that on foreign policy, America “should speak softly and carry a big stick”—the determined New York Congresswoman spent much of her life refuting the notion that women should remain on the political sidelines. 1 Despite serving in Congress for only three terms, Abzug’s political flair and unwavering determination helped inspire an entire generation of women and created a new model for future Congresswomen. “She was such a trailblazer,” a former aide noted after Abzug’s death in 1998. “It wasn’t that she was the first woman in Congress. It was that she was the first woman to get in Congress and lead the way toward creating a feminist presence.”

The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants Emmanuel and Esther Tanklefsky Savitzky, Bella Abzug was born Bella Savitzky in the Bronx, New York, on July 24, 1920. She received an AB from Hunter College in Manhattan in 1942 and immediately entered Columbia University Law School. In 1944 Bella Savitzky married Martin Abzug. As a stockbroker and novelist, her husband had little inclination toward politics. Nevertheless, Bella Abzug counted him as her closest confidant and supporter: “one of the few unneurotic people left in society.” 3 The Abzugs raised two children: Eve and Liz. After interrupting her studies to work in a shipyard during World War II, Bella Abzug served as editor of the Columbia Law Review, and graduated with an LLB in 1947. For the next two decades Abzug practiced law on behalf of people whom the existing legal and social structures bypassed, citizens she once described as being “on the outside of power.” 4 She defended Willie McGee, an African-American man convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for raping a white woman. She also represented individuals whom Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy’s investigatory committee tarred as communist agents. In 1961 Abzug cofounded Women Strike for Peace, a group that protested the nuclear arms race and, later, the American military commitment in Vietnam. She served as a leader in the “Dump Johnson” movement to remove embattled President Lyndon B. Johnson from the 1968 Democratic ticket. Reflecting on this long record, Abzug later conceded that she was at heart an activist rather than a politician.

ABZUG, Bella SavitzkyIn 1970, at the age of 50, Abzug made her first attempt at elected office, when she decided to enter the race for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Manhattan’s wealthy, liberal Upper West Side. Employing the campaign slogan “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!” Abzug ran on an antiwar and pro-feminist platform. Her insistence that she would have a stronger voice and more active presence on Capitol Hill than her opponent helped Abzug earn 55 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and unseat the seven-term incumbent, Leonard Farbstein. 6 In the general election, Abzug defeated Republican-Liberal Barry Farber, a radio talk show host, in a three-way election, with 52 percent to Farber’s 43 percent. 7 Throughout the campaign, Abzug benefited from the support of celebrity entertainers and New York City Mayor John Vliet Lindsay. The national media focused on her effort, foreshadowing the publicity she would attract as a sitting Representative.

After taking the official oath of office for the 92nd Congress (1971–1973) on January 3, 1971, Abzug took a “people’s oath” on the House steps administered by her New York colleague Shirley Chisholm. Onlookers cheered, “Give ’em hella, Bella!” By seeking a seat on the coveted Armed Services Committee, Abzug also flaunted House decorum, which expected freshman to accept lower-level committee assignments. The request was denied (she eventually accepted positions on the Government Operations and Public Works committees). Undeterred, she worked on devising methods to dismantle the entrenched House seniority system that prevented most newly elected Representatives from receiving influential assignments. Despite her freshman status, Abzug made waves in Congress by supporting a variety of controversial causes. On the first day of the session, she introduced legislation demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. She authored a bill to end the draft, an institution she likened to “slavery” motivated by “insane priorities,” and she asked for an investigation into the competence of widely feared Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover. 9 “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure,” Abzug wrote in her journal, published in 1972. 10 “Battling Bella,” a nickname she earned because of her tenacity and confrontational demeanor, also had the distinction of being one of the first politicians to publicly call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon, even before the 1973 congressional outcry about his Vietnam policy in early 1972.

Writer Norman Mailer once described Abzug’s voice as an instrument that “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.” 12 Cognizant that her personality often prompted discussion and, at times, dismay from onlookers, Abzug retorted, “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 clear from the outset—I am a very serious woman.” 13 Easy to spot in her trademark wide-brimmed hat (which she began wearing as a young female professional because she believed it was the only way men “would take you seriously”), Abzug waged a highly publicized battle to protect her right to wear it on the House Floor. Her colorful style attracted as many dedicated opponents as it did admirers and allies. A 1972 report by Ralph Nader estimated that Abzug’s sponsorship of a bill often cost it as many as 30 votes. 14 Nevertheless, she inspired young women, many of whom became prominent politicians. “Let’s be honest about it: She did not knock politely on the door,” New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro said. “She took the hinges off of it.” The 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate conceded, “If there never had been a Bella Abzug, there never would have been a Gerry Ferraro.”

In 1972, when Abzug’s district was merged with a neighboring one, she decided to run against popular reform Democrat William Fitts Ryan in a newly created district which extended her former west Manhattan district’s boundaries farther south and east. The primary was a bitter contest, even by New York City’s standards. Ryan defeated Abzug but died two months before the general election. The Democratic committee appointed Abzug as its replacement candidate. She defeated Ryan’s widow, Priscilla, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket in another divisive campaign. Abzug took 56 percent of the vote to Ryan’s 28 percent in a five-way race. In 1974 Abzug easily defeated her GOP opponent, Stephen Posner, with 79 percent of the vote.

Abzug’s sustained clash with the conventions of Congress and her party’s political machine mitigated her ability to fulfill her ambitious political agenda, but she did achieve some solid results. Her most noteworthy contributions, particularly the “sunshine” laws under the Freedom of Information Act, came as a member of the Government Operations Committee. She worked to make government, particularly national security policies, more transparent. The “sunshine law,” which required government hearings to be held in public, came out of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, which she chaired. 17 During her first term, she coauthored the Child Development Act with Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. When promoting the legislation on the floor of the House, she emphasized that the bill concerned women as much as children, commenting, “Without adequate, low-cost day care facilities, women are doomed to occupy low-paying, low-prestige jobs; without day care, women must remain economic serfs.” 18 Abzug also introduced groundbreaking legislation aimed at increasing the rights of gay Americans. The bill called for amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual or affectional preference.”

In 1976 Abzug chose not to run for a fourth House term, instead waging a close but unsuccessful campaign against Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Democratic primary for an open Senate seat. In 1977 she also failed in her bid for the New York City Democratic mayoral nomination. When the winner of the mayor’s race, Edward Irving Koch, resigned from Congress, Abzug tried but failed to win his vacant seat on New York’s Upper East Side. President Jimmy Carter named her the co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women in 1978, though Abzug later was replaced when she criticized the administration’s economic policies. In 1986 Abzug made another bid for the House of Representatives, this time in Westchester County, New York. After winning the Democratic primary, however, she lost in the general election to the Republican incumbent, Joseph J. DioGuardi. 20 Her last attempt to regain a place in Congress came six years later when Abzug announced her intention to run for the open seat in her old district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, following the death of Congressman Ted Weiss. Abzug’s desire to return to politics was cut short when party leaders failed to back her candidacy.

In her two-decade, post-political career, Abzug remained a respected and visible figure in the feminist movement. She addressed international women’s conferences in Beijing, Nairobi, and Copenhagen. She also established the Women USA Fund and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, both nonprofit advocacy groups that worked to give women’s issues more prominence on the United Nations’ agenda. New York Mayor David Dinkins appointed her to chair his commission on the status of women and she served from 1993 to 1995. Her health declined as she battled breast cancer and heart disease. Abzug died in New York City on March 31, 1998.

Bella was “born yelling” in 1920. A daughter of Russian immigrants, she grew up poor in the Bronx. By the age of thirteen, she was already giving her first speeches and defying convention at her family’s synagogue. At tuition free Hunter College, Bella was student body president, and on scholarship at Columbia she was one of only a minuscule number of women law students across the nation.

An Early Blow for Liberation

Even as a little girl, Bella was attuned to inequality in her religious heritage. “We were a religious family. My grandfather went to the synagogue twice a day, and whenever I wasn’t in school, he took me along. I learned to recite the solemn Hebrew prayers like such a wizard that he always made it a point to show me off to his friends. It was during these visits to the synagogue that I think I had my first thoughts as a feminist rebel. I didn’t like the fact that women were consigned to the back rows of the balcony.”

When her father died Bella was only 12. Although the custom of saying Kaddish is traditionally reserved for sons, she stood by herself in synagogue each day for a year to say the mourning prayer. “In retrospect, I describe that as one of the early blows for the liberation of Jewish women. But in fact, no one could have stopped me from performing the duty traditionally reserved for a son, from honoring the man who had taught me to love peace, who had educated me in Jewish values. So it was lucky that no one ever tried.”

Bella Abzug Biography

Notes:

  1. “We were a religious family. ” quote from Bella Abzug, Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, Mel Ziegler, ed (New York : Saturday Review Press, 1972) 85.
  2. “When my father’s weak heart. ” quote from Bella Abzug, “Bella on Bella,” Moment, vol. 1.7 (1976) 26-7.

Five Cents on the Subway

“When I was young, it wasn’t easy to challenge the traditions of Harvard Law School. When I was ten, I had decided that I wanted to be a lawyer, and at the all-women Walton High School and at Hunter College I had been elected student body president, good training for the law. Everyone told me that if I wanted to be accepted as a lawyer, I should go to the best law school, but when I applied to Harvard, I received a letter stating that it did not admit women.

“In 1942 only 3 percent of the nation’s lawyers were women. I was outraged (I’ve always had a decent sense of outrage), so I turned to my mother. In those days there was no women’s movement, so you turned to your mother for help. ‘Why do you want to go to Harvard, anyway?’ she asked. ‘It’s far away and you can’t afford the carfare. Go to Columbia University. They’ll probably give you a scholarship, and it’s only five cents to get there on the subway.’

Columbia did give me a scholarship, the subway did cost only five cents in those days, and that’s how I became an advocate of low-cost public transportation.”

Notes:

  1. Entire quote from Bella Abzug, Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women, with Mim Kelber (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1984) 158-9.

An Unconventional Courtship

Bella Abzug discusses her family to students at Kingsborough Community College, 1985.

Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

“While I was at Columbia, my future husband, Martin Abzug, courted me in an unconventional manner. He typed my term papers while I studied in the library, and before we married we had long discussions about who would do what. It was agreed that I would work at my legal career even after we had children. Our informal understanding of respect for each other’s work has endured throughout our marriage…”

Bella Savitsky met Martin Abzug in 1942 while on vacation in Florida. But it was back in New York that he won her heart, not only with his typing, but with his deep respect for her and the role she hoped to play in the world. Martin and Bella raised two children—Eve Gail, born in 1949, and Isobel Jo (Liz), born in 1952. While Bella practiced law, Martin wrote novels and worked as a stockbroker. Together they weathered a pervasive hostility against families with working mothers.

Over the years, Bella pointed repeatedly to Martin’s support as her crucial foundation in a hostile world. And as she later liked to say, “I think he even voted for me.”

Notes:

  1. “While I was at Columbia. ” quote from Bella Abzug, Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power forAmerican Women, with Mim Kelber (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1984) 159.

Mississippi Bus Station

“I became involved in my first civil rights case [as chief counsel of appeals proceedings in 1950]. The man I defended—Willie McGee—was accused of raping a white woman, even though he and the woman had had a long-standing sexual relationship. That fact, of course, only made the crime all the more heinous to the Mississippi jury, and McGee was sentenced to death. Challenging the traditional practice of excluding blacks from the jury and arguing that Southern judges and juries reserved the death penalty for ‘rape’ as a cruel and inhuman punishment for blacks only, I managed to get the Supreme Court to stay the execution twice.”

Yet the Supreme Court refused to rule on the case, and McGee’s execution date approached once again. In the final few days, Abzug traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for a last minute clemency hearing. Local whites were incensed and had been threatening violence throughout the trials and appeals. When she arrived in town she found that no hotel would take her. Alone, and also pregnant, Abzug spent the night awake in the locked bathroom stall of a bus station to avoid the Ku Klux Klan.

The next day Abzug argued before the state Governor for six hours, but despite extensive publicity and protests organized by the Civil Rights Congress, McGee was executed in 1951.

Notes:

  1. “I became involved in my first civil rights case. ” quote from Bella Abzug, Bella! : Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, Mel Ziegler, ed (New York : Saturday Review Press, 1972) 86.
  2. On the McGee trial and Abzug in Mississippi see Papers of the Civil Rights Congress: microfilm collection part 1, reels 10-11, Willie McGee clippings and fact sheets, Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (New York: Knopf, 1977), Sarah Hart Brown, Standing Against Dragons: Three Southern Lawyers in an Era of Fear (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1998), Liz and Eve Abzug, Speeches, “Celebrating Bella,” Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York, 13 March 1999 and Blanche Weisen Cook, “Bella Abzug,” Jewish Women In America, vol. 1, eds. Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore (New York : Routledge, 1997) 7-8.

Women Across the Country

“It all started when the Soviet Union and the United States resumed nuclear testing. Almost overnight [in 1961], women across the country, I among them, began to protest. We founded Women Strike for Peace… Calling for a ban on the bomb, we warned of the danger of radioactive contamination in our children’s milk resulting from nuclear test fallout. We held one demonstration after another at the UN and at the White House, and we lobbied in Congress. I served as both political action director and legislative director for WSP.

“In 1963 the limited nuclear test ban treaty gave us a limited victory. Testing of hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere was outlawed. But underground testing continued. and the arms race just continued to mount and mount.”

WSP’s peace work, “flowed naturally into the campaign to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam,” and Abzug was active both nationally—lobbying and leading WSP delegations to Washington—and locally. In Manhattan, she organized peace action committees and built coalitions among “the peace movement, liberal Democrats and Republicans, women’s groups, poor people, blacks and other minorities, and young people” to pressure candidates to adopt anti-Vietnam stances. Abzug continued her influential political work for peace throughout the sixties, until finally, in 1970, she decided to run for office herself.

Bella Abzug Biography

Notes:

  1. “It all started. ” quote, first two paragraphs, and “the peace movement, liberal. ” quote, third paragraph, both from Bella Abzug, Bella! : Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, Mel Ziegler, ed (New York : Saturday Review Press, 1972) 86-7.
  2. “flowed naturally” quote from Bella Abzug, Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women, with Mim Kelber (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1984) 160.

Passionate Politics

Tossing aside the conventional advice that newcomers ought to keep quiet, Congresswoman Abzug was an outspoken advocate and activist from the start. On just her first day in office, she introduced a resolution demanding a set date for withdrawal from Vietnam. With her passionate politics and famous hats, the charismatic Abzug immediately captured the nation’s attention. But with that fame often came a furious backlash, and many in the press claimed she was too “irritating” and “brash,” too unwomanly to be effective.

Abzug’s reputation inside Congress was an entirely different story. “Without a doubt, the hardest working Member,” she was always prepared on the issues. She built strong coalitions and developed “brilliant, effective—and winning” strategies, particularly through her mastery of the arcane Rules of the House. Abzug won even her staunchest enemies respect with her dedication and determination. By her third term, she had become one of the most powerful members of the House, and was voted third more influential Congressperson by her colleagues- behind only Speaker Carl Albert and Majority Whip Tip O’Neill.

Notes:

  1. “Without a doubt. ” quote from Tip O’Neill, “Special Order Tributes to Bella Abzug,” Congressional Record, 94th Congress, Second Session, Vol. 122, 30 Sept. 1976, no. 150, part III, 34267–72.
  2. “brilliant, effective—and winning” quote from Herman Badillo, “Special Order Tribute.”
  3. US News and World Report vote for Abzug as third most influential Congresswoman cited in “Congresswoman Bella S. Abzug,” Personal Bio from Administrative Files, Sept. 1976, Bella Abzug Papers, Columbia University.

Congress’s Hardest Working Member

Bella Abzug describes her own experiences with Nixon’s corrupt practices during a speech at Cooper Union, 1972.

Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

A leader of the women’s movement, Abzug was a vigilant sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and continually struggled to pass legislation on issues like childcare and abortion. She succeeded in pushing through a number of feminist amendments and bills including the Equal Credit Act, providing women with fair access to consumer credit, Title IX regulations, and the enforcing equal opportunity for women in federally funded educational institutions. Abzug was also one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

When she was not fighting for an end to the Vietnam War or for women’s rights, Abzug was making other important contributions. A committed environmentalist, she co-authored the Water Pollution Act of 1972, and was a staunch supporter of affordable public transportation. She called for freedom for Soviet Jewry, supported aid to Israel, and led the fight to condemn the UN General Assembly’s 1975 resolution equating “Zionism with Racism.” In 1974, Abzug introduced the first Federal bill to support gay and lesbian civil rights. She co-authored the groundbreaking Freedom of Information Act as well as other landmark legislation to guard against Federal agencies’ abuse of power. She was also the first to call for the impeachment of President Nixon. And in her six years as Congresswoman, she brought a total of almost 6 billion dollars in funding to New York state.

Notes:

  1. For more information on Abzug’s work in Congress, see “Major Legislative Accomplishments 1971-1976,” Abzug Scrapbook, Bella Abzug Papers, Columbia University.

The Spirit of Houston

Bella Abzug explains woman power for a documentary, 1975.

On November 18, 1977, 20,000 women, men and children gathered in Houston to witness an unprecedented event: the first federally-funded National Women’s Conference.

Over the course of three days, a diverse group of 2,000 delegates ratified a National Plan of Action dealing with everything from the Equal Rights Amendment to Civil Rights to disarmament. This set of recommendations was then presented to the White House and to Congress.

Two years earlier, Abzug had paved the way for the conference by authoring a bill which provided its funding. With a 5 million dollar budget (less than a nickel for each female in the country), regional meetings were then held in each state to choose delegates and to vote on potential planks for inclusion in the National Plan.

Because the bill which created the “Spirit of Houston” event mandated “special emphasis on the representation of low-income women, members of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and women of all ages,” a large portion of funding was spent on grants enabling women to attend. The result was one of the few truly representative national gatherings in U.S. history.

Notes:

  1. For more on the conference see United States National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, The Spirit of Houston: The First National Women’s Conference: An Official Report to the President, the Congress and the People of the United Stated (Washington: National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, 1978) 9-12.
  2. On the conference’s diversity, see Gloria Steinem, Speech, “Celebrating Bella,” Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York, 13 March 1999 and Lindsy Van Gelder, “Four Days That Changed the World,” Ms., March, 1978.

Bella Abzug discusses why she formed WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Courtesy of Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Bella Abzug discusses international feminism at a meeting of the National Organization of Women.

Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University.

“Concerned about a rising incidence of environmental calamities around the world,” Abzug came together with an international group of activists to form WEDO in 1990. That year she was shocked to find that documents for the upcoming United Nations “Earth Summit” made no connection between protecting the planet and empowering women. In response, WEDO created the first World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet where, in 1991, 1,500 women from 83 developed and developing countries met to create their own agenda. WEDO then organized a strong caucus of women advocates at the Earth Summit itself, successfully ensuring that the official documents included key segments of the women’s agenda.

Demanding that the UN no longer function without “a strong voice for women,” WEDO then began organizing the Women’s Caucus and preparing documents for every UN meeting. And while WEDO continued to push for commitments on paper, it also vigilantly monitored governments on their actions. As Abzug often said, “We’ve had a lot of words on equality. Now we want the music, which is action.” From the Beijing World Conference on Women to co-sponsoring the First World Conference on Breast Cancer, WEDO, with Bella’s leadership, became a powerful international network, working on both global and grassroots levels to empower women.

Notes:

  1. “Concerned about a rising incidence. ” quote from Bella Abzug, Undated, Untitled Article for the Latin American Alliance, <http://www.latinsynergy.org/unifem2.htm>.
  2. “a strong voice for women. ” quote and general information from Bella Abzug, “Proposed Text to be Printed in Colloquy Highlights—Women’s Empowerment: the United Nation’s Role, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia Education Fund,” in Abzug file at WEDO, 6 May 1995.
  3. “We’ve had a lot of words on equality. Now want the music, which is action,” quoted in “A Battalion of Bellas,” New Yorker 4 September 1995 <www.wedo.org>.

For more info see WEDO News and Views vol. 11, no 2 “Special Memorial Issue,” June 1998, 2-13.

Passing the Torch

Bella Abzug talks about women being on the frontlines of activism.

Courtesy of Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Tributes to Abzug included an unprecedented memorial meeting in the UN General Assembly chamber. There Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, pledged to ensure that the doors Bella had opened would, “remain open from this day forth. Bella’s legacy shall endure.”

At Abzug’s funeral, Geraldine Ferraro phrased it another way— “She didn’t knock politely on the door. She didn’t even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever.”

Remembrances from both friends and enemies filled the press. Hillary Clinton told of women around the world introducing themselves as, “the Bella Abzug of Russia, or. the Bella Abzug of Uganda,” while her husband commented that, “Our society is more just and compassionate,” because Abzug, “lived and worked among us.

In Kenya, Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, memorialized Bella as “a pioneer” who, “dared to walk into the unknown. ” In the U.S., Gloria Steinem remembered her as not just, “the woman who fought the revolution. She was the woman we want to be after the revolution.” And many recalled one often repeated quote: “In a perfectly just republic,” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in 1984, “Bella Abzug would be president.”

Notes:

  1. Kofi Annan, President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Wangari Maathai all quoted in WEDO News and Views vol. 11, no 2 “Special Memorial Issue,” June 1998, 2-13.
  2. Steinem and Ferraro quotes from Verena Dobnik, “Bella Abzug Remembered,” Associated Press 3 April 1998 <http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/DailyNews/abzug0331.html>.
  3. John Kenneth Galbraith quoted on book jacket of Bella Abzug, Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women, with Mim Kelber (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

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