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Bella Savitzky (Abzug) was born in New York City on 24th July 1920. After attending local public schools she obtained a degree from the Columbia University Law School in 1945.
Admitted to the New York Bar in 1947, Abzug concentrated on trade union and civil rights cases. This included the Willie McGee case. McGee, a 36-year-old black truck driver from Laurel, Mississippi, was convicted of raping a white woman despite evidence that the couple had been having a relationship for four years. The trial lasted less than a day and the jury took under three minutes to reach a verdict and the judge sentenced McGee to be executed. Abzug argued that no white man had ever been condemned to death for rape in the deep South, while over the last forty years 51 blacks had been executed for this offence.
Despite a nationwide campaign led by the American Communist Party McGee was executed on 8th May 1951. It was claimed by James Cogley wrote in Commonweal: "The Communists vigorously espoused McGee's cause, but their support nowadays is rather a kiss of death." Mary Mostert, writing in The Nation agreed: "Willie McGee was convicted because he was black and supported by Communists, not on any conclusive evidence."
Abzug also represented a large number of left-wing activists who were persecuted by Joseph McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During this period Abzug was described by McCarthy as one if the most subversive lawyers in the country.
A strong opponent of the Vietnam War, Abzug was an initiator of Women Strike for Peace Movement that was established in 1961.
A member of the Democratic Party, Abzug was elected to the 92nd Congress. She was also successful in the 93rd and 94th and served between January 1971 and January 1977. During this period she campaigned for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Vietnam, a Freedom of Information Act, gay and lesbian civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and comprehensive child care.
Abzug was an unsuccessful candidate for nomination to the United States Senate in 1977. She was co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women (1978-79) and the co-founder of the Women's Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO). Bella Abzug died in New York City on 31st March 1998.
Rosalee McGee, a diminutive 28-year-old woman who looked much older, had never before been out of Mississippi. On the first lap of her plane journey from Jackson to New York, many hours in those pre-jet days, she had forgotten to bring the lunch that neighbours had packed for her, and arrived famished. Stewardesses had solicitously offered meals which she refused, having no idea they were free.
From her account of life in Laurel, and the genesis of the rape charge against her husband, one began to see the macabre contours of oppression in the deep South. If McGee were executed, she said, he would be the third man in her family to die violently at the hands of white Mississippi. "I saw my my nephew lynched by six white hoodlums, and my first cousin was put to death in the electric chair."
Mrs. Hawkins, the white accuser, had pursued McGee relentlessly for years, said Mrs. McGee. "People who don't know the South don't know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no. Down South, you tell a woman like that no, and she'll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do? That's why I never got angry at Willie."
Eventually, after years of acquiescence to Mrs. Hawkins, McGee did decide to break off the affair. It was at this point that she pressed the rape charge. According to her testimony at the trial, McGee had come into her bedroom in the middle of the night; she did not cry out, she said, for fear of waking her husband and baby who were sleeping in the next room.
The recent Willie McGee case was a striking illustration of the desperate tactics Communists use to gain ground for their cause. They spent at least $100,000 in defense of Willie McGee, a proven rapist, not because they cared anything whatever about the defendant, but they were boldly and impudently seeking to create disrespect for law and order among Negroes throughout the nation, and especially in Southern states. The Communists tell the Negro's plight in all the far corners of the earth. It is their greatest weapon against the Marshall Plan and places us in a false light, especially to the yellow and black races.
To Communists all over the world, the case of Willie McGee had become surefire propaganda, good for whipping up racial tension at home and giving U.S. justice a black eye abroad. Stirred up by the Communist leadership. Communist-liners and manifesto-signers in England, France, China and Russia demanded that Willie be freed. Not only Communists took up the cry. In New York, Albert Einstein signed a newspaper ad protesting a miscarriage of justice. Mrs McGee, a captive of the Communists, addressed party rallies.
There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. But whatever I am - and this ought to be made very clear at the outset - I am a very serious woman.
Bella Abzug - History
Bella S. Abzug, New Yorker, feminist, antiwar activist, politician and lawyer, died yesterday at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. She was 77.
She died of complications following heart surgery, said Harold Holzer, who was her spokesman when she served in Congress. She had been hospitalized for weeks, and had been in poor health for several years, he said.
Ms. Abzug represented the West Side of Manhattan for three Congressional terms in the 1970&aposs. She brought with her a belligerent, exuberant politics that made her a national character. Often called just Bella, she was recognizable everywhere by her big hats and a voice that Norman Mailer said &apos&aposcould boil the fat off a taxicab driver&aposs neck.&apos&apos
She opposed the Vietnam War, championed what was then called women&aposs liberation and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. Long after it ceased to be fashionable, she called her politics radical. During her last campaign, for Congress in 1986, she told The New York Times, &apos&aposI am not a centrist.&apos&apos
Bella Abzug was a founding feminist, and an enduring one. In the movement&aposs giddy, sloganeering early days, Ms. Abzug was, like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, an icon, the hat bobbing before the cameras at marches and rallies.
After leaving the House in January 1977, she worked for women&aposs rights for two more decades. She founded an international women&aposs group that worked on environmental issues. And she was a leader of a conference of nongovernmental organizations that paralleled the United Nations&apos fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
Even then, she continued to rankle. Former President George Bush, on a private visit to China that coincided with the Beijing conference, said to a meeting of food production executives: &apos&aposI feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese, having Bella Abzug running around. Bella Abzug is one who has always represented the extremes of the women&aposs movement.&apos&apos
When told of Mr. Bush&aposs remark, Ms. Abzug, 75 and in a wheelchair, retorted: &apos&aposHe was addressing a fertilizer group? That&aposs appropriate.&apos&apos
Her forceful personality and direct manner made her a lightning rod for criticism from those who opposed the idea of holding a women&aposs conference. After Bob Dole, then the Senate majority leader, said he could not imagine why anyone &apos&aposwould want to attend a conference co-chaired by Bella Abzug,&apos&apos she responded that she was not running the meeting but simply participating with more than 30,000 other women over how best to achieve equal rights.
But much of what Ms. Abzug agitated for -- abortion rights, day care, laws against employment discrimination -- was by that time mainstream political fare.
In Congress, &apos&aposshe was first on almost everything, on everything that ever mattered,&apos&apos said Esther Newberg, Ms. Abzug&aposs first administrative assistant and one of many staff members who quit but remained devoted. &apos&aposShe was first to call for Richard Nixon&aposs impeachment, first to call for an end to the war.&apos&apos
Ms. Abzug made enemies easily -- &apos&aposSometimes the hat and the mouth took over,&apos&apos Ms. Newberg said -- but Ms. Abzug saw that as a consequence of a refusal to compromise, as well as a matter of sport. Of her time in the House, Ms. Abzug wrote in a journal that was published in 1972 as &apos&aposBella,&apos&apos &apos&aposI spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.&apos&apos
She worked relentlessly at organizing and coalition-building. A founder of Women Strike for Peace and the National Women&aposs Political Caucus, she spent a lifetime prodding for change, with a lawyer&aposs enthusiasm for political channels, through organizations from the P.T.A. to the United Nations.
She made friends easily, too. &apos&aposShe&aposs fierce and intense and funny,&apos&apos said her longtime friend Gloria Steinem. &apos&aposShe takes everyone seriously. When she argues with you fiercely, it&aposs because she takes you seriously. And she&aposs willing to change her mind. That&aposs so rare.&apos&apos
Her First Speech, In a Subway Station
Bella Savitzky Abzug was born on July 24, 1920 in the Bronx, the second daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father, Emanuel Savitzky, whom Ms. Abzug later described as &apos&aposthis humanist butcher,&apos&apos ran (and named) the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.
She said she knew from the age of 11 that she wanted to be a lawyer, and not long afterward gave her first public speech, in a subway station, while collecting for a Zionist youth organization. She went from Hunter College, where she was student body president, to Columbia University Law School, where she was an editor of The Law Review, to a practice representing union workers.
Ms. Abzug traced the wearing of her trademark wide-brimmed hats to those days. She once recalled: &apos&aposWhen I was a young lawyer, I would go to people&aposs offices and they would always say: &aposSit here. We&aposll wait for the lawyer.&apos Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously.
&apos&aposAfter a while, I started liking them. When I got to Congress, they made a big thing of it. So I was watching. Did they want me to wear it or not? They didn&apost want me to wear it, so I did.&apos&apos
All the while, she was a leftist and an agitator. Later, exasperated with her Congressional aides, she wrote: &apos&aposI just don&apost understand young people today, quite frankly. Our struggle was political, ideological and economic, and we felt we couldn&apost make something of ourselves unless we bettered society. We saw the two together.&apos&apos
In the 1950&aposs, Ms. Abzug&aposs law practice turned to other cases identified with the left. One client was Willie McGee, a black Mississippian convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. Ms. Abzug, who was pregnant at the time, argued the case in Mississippi while white supremacist groups threatened her. Though the Supreme Court stayed the execution twice, Mr. McGee was eventually executed.
She also represented people accused of Communist activities by Senator Joseph McCarthy&aposs Congressional committee and its counterpart in Albany.
In the 1960&aposs, Ms. Abzug became an antiwar activist. A founder of Women Strike for Peace, she became its chief lobbyist, protesting nuclear testing and, later, the Vietnam War. She organized insurgent Democrats into other groups, too, becoming a leader of the movement against President Lyndon B. Johnson and a prominent figure in the 1968 Presidential campaign of Senator Eugene McCarthy.
During those years, Ms. Abzug started navigating New York City politics. She and her husband, Martin, moved from Mount Vernon, the Westchester suburb where they had raised their two daughters, to a town house at 37 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. In 1970, Ms. Abzug ran for Congress.
The 19th Congressional District, which snaked from lower Manhattan to the West 80&aposs, had four registered Democrats to every Republican and had been represented in Congress for seven terms by Leonard Farbstein, a solid but rather somnolent liberal. Ms. Abzug won the Democratic primary with 54 percent of the vote.
Campaign Became A Women&aposs Crusade
At this point, Bella Abzug became national news, a flash of local color in a political year. She seemed to be everywhere, clapping backs and jabbing biceps. Her campaign headquarters next to the Lion&aposs Head, a writers&apos and journalists&apos bar in Greenwich Village, was also a day-care center for her legions of female volunteers. The women&aposs crusade she led brought considerable, if sometimes derisive, attention.
Though she eventually took 55 percent of the vote, she had genuine Republican opposition, unusual in an era when New York&aposs main political action consisted of various Democratic factions knifing one another. The Republican-Liberal candidate was Barry Farber, a well-known radio talk show host. Mr. Farber drew many Democrats who resented Mr. Farbstein&aposs humiliation or were simply put off by Ms. Abzug&aposs style.
To her chagrin, Mr. Farber accused Ms. Abzug, who advocated direct negotiations between Israelis and Arabs, of flagging in her support of Israel. For years after that, she made a point of stating her Jewish credentials, dating to childhood: her family was religious and she went regularly to synagogue (though she was bothered that women were relegated to the back rows of the balcony), studied Hebrew and was enrolled for a time at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
When Ms. Abzug went to Washington, she sought an appointment to the Armed Services Committee. She wanted a resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and she vowed to take on the military-industrial complex. She wanted to end the draft. She wanted national health insurance, money for day-care centers and housing, and more money for New York City, all to be paid for with billions siphoned from the Pentagon&aposs budget.
She got little of this, but during the next six years &apos&aposshe was indefatigable,&apos&apos Ms. Newberg recalled. &apos&aposShe yelled a lot,only because she couldn&apost get everything done.&apos&apos And if she couldn&apost, Ms. Newberg added, it was partly because &apos&aposher agenda was too pure for her moment in time.&apos&apos
Ms. Abzug did become expert at parliamentary rules, worked them skillfully and was famously well prepared for every vote, hearing and committee spat. The &apos&apossunshine law&apos&apos requiring governing bodies to meet publicly came out of a subcommittee she headed. She coaxed funds for New York from the Public Works Committee. She was a co-sponsor of the women&aposs equal rights amendment. &apos&aposShe was one of the most exciting, enlightened legislators that ever served in the Congress,&apos&apos said Representative Charles B. Rangel of Manhattan, with whom Ms. Abzug sometimes collaborated and sometimes sparred.
From her first day on Capitol Hill -- the day she dismayed her colleagues by introducing her Vietnam resolution -- Ms. Abzug derided the Congressional club, the seniority system, the log-rolling and back-scratching. She did not spare fellow Democrats when she spoke of liberals, it was usually dismissively. She badgered the House leadership over committee appointments and votes.
She badgered the President, too. Invited to a reception at Richard Nixon&aposs White House, she accepted (while writing in her journal, &apos&aposWho wants to listen to his pious idiocies?&apos&apos), then announced to Nixon in the receiving line that her constituents demanded a withdrawal from Vietnam.
For all of her railing against Democrats who went along to get along, Speaker Thomas P. O&aposNeill named her one of his dozen assistant whips, and by most accounts she worked well with some of the crustiest fixtures in the House.
Still, a 1972 report by Ralph Nader estimated that Ms. Abzug&aposs sponsorship of a measure often cost it 20 to 30 votes. Her reputation as an irritant came from all quarters. Jimmy Breslin wrote of a campaign worker who repaired to the Lion&aposs Head one night, holding his side and swearing never to work for Ms. Abzug again. &apos&aposShe punched me,&apos&apos he explained, in a quarrel over scheduling. The next day, Mr. Breslin reported, Ms. Abzug called the aide. &apos&aposMichael, I called to apologize,&apos&apos she said. &apos&aposHow&aposs your kidney?&apos&apos
Mr. Breslin also recounted the Congresswoman&aposs introduction to Sol Linowitz, the former chairman of the Xerox Corporation and a Democratic Party luminary: &apos&aposAre you the man that used to be head of the Xerox?&apos&apos Ms. Abzug asked. &apos&aposThat&aposs right,&apos&apos Mr. Linowitz replied. &apos&aposI&aposm glad to meet a big shot,&apos&apos Ms. Abzug said. &apos&aposI&aposm in hock $35,000 on my campaign.&apos&apos
Ms. Abzug acknowledged loneliness in her years in Congress. &apos&aposOutside of Martin and the kids, I don&apost feel very related to most people at this point,&apos&apos she wrote in 1971. &apos&aposI feel detached in social situations. I&aposm always thinking about other things, about Congress, about the issues, about the political coalition I&aposm trying to organize. It never leaves me. I even have trouble relating to some of my closest friends, though God knows I still love them, even if they don&apost know it.&apos&apos
Always, she returned to Manhattan to spend weekends with her husband.
She had married Martin Abzug in 1944. The two New Yorkers met on a bus in Miami, when both were on the way to a Yehudi Menuhin concert. Mr. Abzug, a stockbroker and an author of two published novels, had next to no interest in politics. In an interview in 1970, he murmured, while his wife was out of the room, &apos&aposThe political bug is a curious bug.&apos&apos But he was, she said, her best friend and supporter, and &apos&aposone of the few unneurotic people left in society.&apos&apos
Corrosive Ambition Hampers a Career
Ms. Abzug&aposs own ambition was too corrosive for many people, even -- or, perhaps, especially -- for her fellow New York Democrats. When the State Legislature sliced up her district in 1972, they urged her to challenge one of the two conservative incumbent Democrats in adjoining districts, Representative John J. Rooney or Representative John M. Murphy. Instead, she opposed a liberal Democrat, William Fitts Ryan, in the 20th District, encompassing the Upper West Side and the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
The primary was bitter and, eventually, politically expensive to Ms. Abzug. Bill Ryan was one of the earliest heroes of the city&aposs insurgent Democrats, an early opponent of the Vietnam War and a genuinely well-liked man who, as many of his constituents knew, was waging a gallant fight against cancer.
Mr. Ryan defeated Ms. Abzug in the Democratic primary but died before the general election. The Democratic County Committee appointed Ms. Abzug as the candidate to replace him, but she was challenged by Mr. Ryan&aposs widow, Priscilla, who ran on the Liberal line. Ms. Abzug won in November, but she had made dedicated enemies who believed she was an overly aggressive politician who would not hesitate to attack anyone who got in her way. Ten years later, she was denied a seat in the state&aposs delegation to the national party&aposs biannual conference because New York leaders considered her disruptive.
In 1976, she gave up her House seat to run for the Senate. She lost in the primary, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by a margin of only 1 percent. Two more campaigns quickly followed. (In a 1978 interview, she said: &apos&aposI&aposm a politician. I run for office. That&aposs my profession.&apos&apos) She lost to Edward I. Koch in a crowded mayoral primary in 1977. The next year, running for the House again, she lost, again by just 1 percent, to a little-known Republican, S. William Green.
She was appointed co-chairwoman of President Jimmy Carter&aposs National Advisory Committee on Women, and then, after disagreeing with him over economic policy, was dismissed. The majority of the committee members resigned in protest. Ms. Abzug, unapologetic, said with a shrug, &apos&aposI&aposve got to find myself another big, nonpaying job.&apos&apos
Her next and last campaign was in 1986, this time for a House seat in Westchester County. She won the primary in a burst of the old, ebullient campaigning style, but lost in November to Joseph J. DioGuardi, the Republican incumbent.
It was during that campaign that Martin Abzug died. Her friends said Ms. Abzug never recovered. Nine years later, she said, , &apos&aposI haven&apost been entirely the same since.&apos&apos
There was one more bid for office, for her old House seat on the Upper West Side, when she announced her candidacy to replace Representative Ted Weiss on his death just before the 1992 election. But she was quickly eliminated from the field at the party convention.
During the next decade, Ms. Abzug suffered from ill health, including breast cancer, but continued to practice law and work for women&aposs groups. She wrote a book, &apos&aposGender Gap,&apos&apos with her old friend Mim Kelber. She started a lobbying group called Women U.S.A. and founded the Women&aposs Environment and Development Organization, a group that works with international agencies.
In addition to her daughters, Eve and Liz, Ms. Abzug is survived by her sister, Helene Alexander of Great Neck, N.Y.
&apos&aposI&aposve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man hater, you name it,&apos&apos Ms. Abzug said of herself in &apos&aposBella.&apos&apos &apos&aposThey call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy.&apos&apos
&apos&aposThere are those who say I&aposm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I&aposm 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.&apos&apos
Meet the Woman Behind Women’s Equality Day
O n Aug. 26, 1970, 50,000 women marched down New York City&rsquos Fifth Avenue in an undeniable display of the strength of second-wave feminism. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, but they were also protesting the limits and expectations placed on American womanhood, demanding changes to childcare and abortion policies and education and employment opportunities. Many abandoned their usual domestic duties for the day, with spiritual sisters across the country staging sit-ins and takeovers of all-male bars.
One year to the day after the Women&rsquos Strike for Equality March, Congress passed a resolution designating Aug. 26 as Women&rsquos Equality Day, and 45 years later, the day continues to be a moment to reckon with how far women&rsquos rights have come, and how far they have yet to go.
Though in truth there are many women to thank for establishing Women&rsquos Equality Day&mdashdating back to the suffragists who gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848&mdashthe woman most directly responsible was Congresswoman Bella Abzug, a Democrat from New York, who introduced the bill that would formally establish the day of recognition.
Abzug&rsquos push for Women&rsquos Equality Day was, in fact, far more symbolic than many of the more concrete policies she made a reality in her six years in Congress, not to mention in the two decades prior to her election, which she spent as a lawyer fighting for human rights and civil rights. While in Congress, she co-founded the National Women&rsquos Political Caucus along with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, working to secure more elected positions for women in politics. She later introduced the first federal gay-rights bill, along with future New York City mayor Ed Koch. Failed bids for Senate and New York City mayor hardly slowed her roll, and she would continue fighting for equal rights until her death in 1998.
But Abzug is remembered as much for her accomplishments as for the way she went about realizing them: neither quietly nor politely, thank you very much. She was known for being brash and outspoken, described in the pages of TIME as &ldquotruculent and courageous,&rdquo with a New York City accent Norman Mailer said “could boil the fat off a taxi driver’s neck.&rdquo She spoke, almost always, from beneath a wide-brimmed hat which she began wearing in her early days as a lawyer when she was repeatedly mistaken for a secretary. As TIME wrote of her just 10 days before that 1971 resolution was passed: &ldquoNo one, friend or enemy, denies that Bella Abzug has a certain presence.&rdquo
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
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). 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.
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Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women&rsquos Archive (JWA). For more information on Bella Abzug, go to JWA&rsquos Women of Valor online exhibit.
&ldquoSometimes I&rsquom asked when I became a feminist, and I usually answer, &lsquoThe day I was born.&rsquo If I was born a rebel, I attribute it to my family heritage.&rdquo &ndashBella Abzug
An Early Blow for Liberation
Bella Abzug was born in 1920 in the Bronx. Even as a little girl, Bella was attuned to inequality in her religious heritage. &ldquoWe were a religious family. My grandfather went to the synagogue twice a day, and whenever I wasn&rsquot 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&hellip. It was during these visits to the synagogue that I think I had my first thoughts as a feminist rebel. I didn&rsquot like the fact that women were consigned to the back grows of the balcony.&rdquo
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. &ldquoIn 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 (&ldquoBella on Bella,&rdquo Moment, vol. 1.7, 1976).&rdquo
Five Cents on the Subway
&ldquoWhen I was young, it wasn&rsquot 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.&rdquo
&ldquoIn 1942 only 3 percent of the nation&rsquos lawyers were women. I was outraged (I&rsquove always had a decent sense of outrage), so I turned to my mother. In those days there was no women&rsquos movement, so you turned to your mother for help. &lsquoWhy do you want to go to Harvard, anyway?&rsquo she asked. &lsquoIt&rsquos far away and you can&rsquot afford the carfare. Go to Columbia University. They&rsquoll probably give you a scholarship, and it&rsquos only five cents to get there on the subway (Gender Gap: Bella Abzug&rsquos Guide to Political Power for American Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1984).&rsquo &ldquo
Abzug then worked as a lawyer for the next twenty five years, specializing in labor and tenants&rsquo rights, and civil rights and liberties cases. During the McCarthy era she was one of the few attorneys willing to fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee. While she ran her own practice, she was also raising two daughters together with her husband Martin.
Women Across the Country
In the 1960&rsquos, Abzug helped start the nationwide Women Strike For Peace (WSP), in response to U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing, and soon became an important voice against the Vietnam War.
WSP&rsquos peace work, &ldquoflowed naturally into the campaign to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam,&rdquo and Abzug was active both nationally&ndashlobbying and leading WSP delegations to Washington&ndashand locally. In Manhattan, she organized peace action committees and built coalitions among &ldquothe peace movement, liberal Democrats and Republicans, women&rsquos groups, poor people, blacks and other minorities, and young people&rdquo 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 (Gender Gap: Bella Abzug&rsquos Guide to Political Power for American Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1984).
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&rsquos attention. But with that fame often came a furious backlash, and many in the press claimed she was too &ldquoirritating&rdquo and &ldquobrash,&rdquo too unwomanly to be effective.
Abzug&rsquos reputation inside Congress was an entirely different story. &ldquoWithout a doubt, the hardest working Member,&rdquo she was always prepared on the issues. She built strong coalitions and developed &ldquobrilliant, effective&ndashand winning&rdquo 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&ndashbehind only Speaker Carl Albert and Majority Whip Tip O&rsquoNeill.
Congress&rsquos Hardest Working Member
A leader of the women&rsquos 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&rsquos Political Caucus.
When she was not fighting for an end to the Vietnam War or for women&rsquos 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&rsquos 1975 resolution equating &ldquoZionism with Racism.&rdquo 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&rsquo 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.
On November 18, 1977, 20,000 women, men, and children gathered in Houston to witness an unprecedented event: the first federally-funded National Women&rsquos 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.
Because the bill which created the &ldquoSpirit of Houston&rdquo event mandated &ldquospecial emphasis on the representation of low-income women, members of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and women of all ages,&rdquo 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.
In 1990, Bella moved on to co-found the Women&rsquos Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international activist and advocacy network. As WEDO president, Abzug became an influential leader at the United Nations and at UN world conferences, working to empower women around the globe.
Passing the Torch
Bella Abzug died in 1998, at the age of 77. 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, &ldquoremain open from this day forth. Bella&rsquos legacy shall endure (WEDO News and Views, June 1998).&rdquo
At Abzug&rsquos funeral, Geraldine Ferraro phrased it another way: &ldquoShe didn&rsquot knock politely on the door. She didn&rsquot even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever.&rdquo
Remembrances from both friends and enemies filled the press. Hillary Clinton told of women around the world introducing themselves as, &ldquothe Bella Abzug of Russia, or&hellip the Bella Abzug of Uganda,&rdquo while her husband commented that, &ldquoOur society is more just and compassionate,&rdquo because Abzug, &ldquolived and worked among us.&rdquo
Bella Abzug Began Her Career as an Anti-Racist Lawyer
As an outspoken lawyer, the future congresswoman defended a Black man accused of raping a white woman.
July 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bella Abzug. As Kathy Rodgers of the National Organization for Women wrote after Abzug’s death in 1998, she is probably best remembered as a feminist congresswoman. During her time in office, from 1971 to 1976, she pushed against gender discrimination and for abortion rights, housing, child care, and peace.
From her childhood, Rodgers writes, Abzug broke down gender lines, playing marbles in the street with boys and saying Kaddish for her father, defying the tradition that barred women from that role.
As historian Leandra Zarnow argues, Abzug’s feminism was what Kimberlé Crenshaw might call “intersectional,” a term Crenshaw coined in 1989. Inspired by her family’s Jewish values and her membership in leftist Popular Front organizations, Abzug focused her legal career on labor and civil rights issues.
In 1948, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) hired her to defend Willie McGee, a Black Mississippi man accused of raping a married white women, Wiletta Hawkins.
Prior to Abzug’s hiring, McGee had already been convicted twice. Abzug traveled to Mississippi and assembled a new team of lawyers, but with no more luck. Despite McGee’s testimony that police had coerced his confession, another jury convicted him.
In 1951, Abzug and the CRC got another chance to appeal. Working with progressive Florida lawyer John Coe, Abzug introduced new lines of defense that others had seen as too explosive. They pointed out that Mississippi had historically applied the death penalty in rape cases only to Black men. And they argued that McGee and Hawkins had been engaged in a consensual affair.
McGee and his wife, Rosalee, put forward this second narrative. They said that the affair began while McGee was working for Hawkins and her husband, Troy, as a handyman and gardener. When Troy Hawkins discovered the relationship, the McGees argued, Wiletta Hawkins accused McGee of rape in an effort to maintain her own status in the community.
“Abzug brought this sexual element into the legal record during the appeals process,” Zarnow writes. “She underscored that rape law was misused in the South to police racial, sexual, and gender boundaries rather than to protect women.”
This was an argument that reformers like Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been making since the nineteenth century, but Abzug brought it into the legal arena.
Predictably, Abzug’s work made her a target. She faced shouting mobs outside the courthouse. When she arrived in Jackson in 1951 for a court appearance, eight months pregnant, every hotel in town refused her a room. She took refuge at a bus station and realized someone was watching her when she was paged. She spent the night sitting in a stall in the women’s restroom. The next day, she argued McGee’s case to a judge.
Abzug miscarried her pregnancy, an event she blamed on the stress of the night in the bus station. And, on May 8, 1951, the state executed Willie McGee. But Abzug’s experience fighting against white supremacy undoubtedly affected her outlook. She became one of the most notable leaders of the twentieth-century women’s movement.
To have a greater impact on the political process, Abzug ran for Congress in 1970, winning a seat in the House of Representatives. She took office in 1971, and she made a bold move on her first day in Congress. Abzug introduced a bill to remove all U.S. troops from Vietnam. While the measure didn&apost pass, the bill was just the first of many efforts by Abzug to advance the causes she believed in.
Abzug became famous for and oftentimes criticized for her outspokenness on the issues. She fought tirelessly for women&aposs rights and for civil rights in general. In 1975, Abzug made history when she introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress. She became one of Washington&aposs most colorful characters, usually sporting one of her trademark hats. But the hats weren&apost just an interesting fashion choice. She once explained that when she started her career that "working women work hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously," according to the Boston Globe.
Feminist Activist Bella Abzug Paved the Way for Women Politicians
“This woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives,” declared Bella Savitsky Abzug when she launched her campaign for Congress in 1970. It was a typical Abzug quote, combining colorful wit with an attack on an injustice: the lack of women in elected office.
A database of women in Congress by the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center for American Women and Politics is revealing on this front. When Abzug first took office in 1971, there were only 13 women in the House. By the time she left, in 1977, she was one of 18 women in that chamber. Today there are 101. When she ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate from New York, in 1976, there were no women in the Senate today there are 26.
Abzug was a precursor to several current members of Congress — including John Lewis, Jan Schakowsky, Karen Bass, Raúl Grijalva, Pramila Jayapal, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who began their careers as organizers and still use those skills to give a voice to and help represent the people left out of the political process.
New generations of Americans may have been introduced to Abzug recently, thanks to the nine-part miniseries, Mrs. America, which featured three-time Emmy-winning actor Margo Martindale as “Battling Bella,” as Abzug was known. The show depicted Abzug as one of the key feminist agitators of the 1970s who went to battle with conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly over the Equal Rights Amendment.
Abzug spent most of her career as an agitator for civil rights, unions, peace, and women’s equality. But after she arrived on Capitol Hill, she had to balance her role as both a pioneering congresswoman (an insider) with her instincts and talents as a defiant organizer and activist (an outsider).
As part of the Women’s Rights Movement, Abzug and other feminist leaders — including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Jill Ruckelshaus, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, and Midge Costanza — debated how to balance their principled views and pragmatic goals of persuading the Democratic Party to adopt women’s rights positions in its official platform. These conversations took place in the early 1970s, before same-sex marriage was legal and sexual harassment and rape were mainstream public issues, so advocacy for these topics was viewed as radical by most Americans. As a pragmatic politician, Abzug was used to making compromises and calculating trade-offs to win legislative victories that improved people’s lives. She was often the broker between different factions within the women’s movement, mentoring fellow feminists about when to push for one-step-at-a-time reforms and when to pursue overthrow-the-patriarchy revolution. She spent her adult life walking that tightrope.
Abzug was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York City, in 1920, the same year that women won the right to vote. Her father, a World War I pacifist, ran a butcher shop, which, after the onset of World War I, he renamed the Live and Let Live Meat Market. He died when Abzug was 13. Her family’s Orthodox synagogue forbade women to recite the “Mourner’s Kaddish,” the mourning prayer, a duty traditionally reserved for males 13 and over, but Abzug went to the synagogue every day for a year and recited the prayer anyway. According to Alan H. Levy’s book, The Political Life of Bella Abzug 1920-1976, she later recalled: “I stood apart in the corner. The men scowled at me, but no one stopped me. It was those mornings that taught me you could do unconventional things." Her Jewish upbringing gave her a strong sense of outrage against anti-Semitism, discrimination against women, and other forms of injustice.
According to Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom’s oral history and biography on Abzug, Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad From the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way, she was elected senior-class president at the all-girls Walton School, and graduated during the Depression, in 1938. As president of Hunter College’s student council and a leader of the radical American Student Union, she led demonstrations against Nazism and fascism in Europe, supported the unionization of the college’s staff, pushed to introduce African American and Jewish history courses in the curriculum, and challenged the firing of faculty members accused of radicalism.
After college, she applied to law schools, and won a scholarship to Columbia University Law School. Abzug interrupted her law school education to work in a shipbuilding factory during World War II. She was one of only seven women out of 120 students in her class at Columbia, but nevertheless managed to become an editor of the Columbia Law Review, and graduated in 1944.
The history of the feminist movement is often told with the “first wave” of women’s suffrage activists, from 1848 to 1920, fighting for the right to vote, and then the rise of “second wave” feminism, beginning in the 1960s, expanding the agenda of women’s political issues. It is well-known that many of the leading first-wave feminists had roots in the abolition movement against slavery. But often overlooked is the fact that many of the leading figures of that second wave — including Abzug, Betty Friedan, Ella Baker, Esther Peterson, Gerda Lerner, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, and others — had engaged in what was called “the woman question,” particularly the concerns of working-class and Black women, in the 1940s and 1950s through their involvement in socialist, communist, and labor union organizations. In college, law school, and afterward, Abzug traveled in these left-wing circles. For years, she was the subject of FBI surveillance in a secret memo, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even called her “dangerous.”
These political views and social ties led Abzug, after law school, to join a progressive firm that represented workers and their unions. She took cases that challenged the twin evils of Jim Crow racism and Cold War McCarthyism. Yet even in her progressive law firm, Abzug faced constant sexism. As detailed by Leandra Zarnow in the journal Law & Social Inquiry, one of the firm’s partners even insisted that Abzug carry his briefcase to court. She never learned how to type because, according to Braun Levine and Thom’s book, she once explained, “If I knew how, the lawyers would’ve always asked me to type things, and I just decided I was not gonna learn how to type.” (Early in their marriage, her husband, Martin, typed her legal briefs.) Although Abzug was hardly shy, she realized that some of the union leaders and other lawyers paid less attention to her than to the male attorneys. So she decided to wear wide-brimmed hats, which drew notice and soon became her trademark.
Abzug achieved notoriety for her defense of Willie McGee, a Black man who was falsely accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi and sentenced to death in a 1945 trial. Abzug was hired by the left-wing Civil Rights Congress to help with McGee’s appeals, and was eight-months pregnant when she traveled to the Magnolia State, in 1951, to argue his case to the court.
As a white, Jewish, radical female lawyer from New York, she was attacked by white supremacists and local newspapers, including the Jackson Daily News, which wrote, as Abzug retold it, that “they should burn Willie McGee’s white woman lawyer along with him in the electric chair.” According to Braun Levine and Thom’s book, when Abzug arrived in Jackson, the hotel where she had made a reservation claimed not to have a reservation on the books and sent her away. Other hotels also refused to give her a room, so she wound up spending the night in the city’s bus station.
In court, she argued that McGee’s civil rights had been denied because Black Americans could not serve on juries and an all-white jury had convicted him after just two and a half minutes of deliberation. Unlike the male lawyers who represented McGee in three previous trials, Abzug argued that her client’s sexual relationship with his white accuser was consensual, which focused attention on the social taboo of interracial sexual relations. In doing so, she challenged the racist practice of applying the death sentence for rape convictions only in the case of Black defendants.
The case became a cause célèbre among liberals and leftists in the United States and internationally. Despite the best efforts of Abzug and other attorneys, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. McGee was executed in an electric chair in May 1951. His execution was broadcast live on local radio. The strain involved in that case caused Abzug to have a miscarriage.
In the 1950s, the heart of the McCarthy era, Abzug was one of the few attorneys willing to represent people unfairly accused of being members of or having close ties to the Communist Party. Her clients included actors, schoolteachers, and public figures, such as folk singer Pete Seeger, and they were dragged before congressional committees and blacklisted for their radical beliefs and affiliations.
While breaking new ground as a trial lawyer, Abzug also became involved in the peace movement. In 1961, she helped organize the Women Strike for Peace, which, at the height of the Cold War, opposed the arms race and nuclear testing. The group later became a key part of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Abzug viewed the arms race, racial discrimination, welfare rights, equal job opportunities, and Social Security — along with gay rights — as “women’s issues.” As a feminist activist, she recognized the untapped potential of women as a progressive voting bloc and as elected officials.
Activists, including Abzug, stand behind a “Keep Abortion & Birth Control Safe and Legal” banner during the March for Women's Lives demonstration in Washington, DC, on April 9, 1989. (Getty Images)
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.
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Feminist seders have provided an important context for developing women’s spirituality. In 1975, a group of Israeli and American women decided to create their own Passover seder based on their experiences as Jewish women. Now an annual event held in Manhattan, it has been attended by Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Bella Abzug, Grace Paley and several other "Seder Sisters" who have played important roles in the development of Jewish feminism. Shown here are Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler and Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the Women's Seder in 1991.
A formidable leader of the women’s movement, Bella Abzug fought to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and other vital legislation for the rights of women. Early in her career, Abzug earned distinction as one of the few attorneys willing to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee. During her three terms in Congress, she advocated for groundbreaking bills, including the Equal Rights Amendment and crucial support of Title IX. In 1977, she presided over the historic first National Women’s Conference in Houston. Towards the end of her career, she focused on global issues of women’s rights and human rights, ensuring that those issues were continually addressed by the United Nations.
Born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, Bella (Savitzky) Abzug predated women’s right to vote by one month. A tireless and indomitable fighter for justice and peace, equal rights, human dignity, environmental integrity, and sustainable development, Bella Abzug advanced human goals and political alliances worldwide.
As co-creator and president of the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization (WEDO), a global organization, Abzug galvanized and helped transform the United Nations agenda regarding women and their concerns for human rights, economic justice, population, development, and the environment. WEDO represented the culmination of her lifelong career as public activist and stateswoman.
Known by her colleagues as a “passionate perfectionist,” Abzug believed that her idealism and activism grew out of childhood influences and experiences. From her earliest years, she understood the nature of power and the fact that politics is not an isolated, individualist adventure. A natural leader, although a girl among competitive boys, she delighted in her prowess at marbles, or “immies.” When the boys tried to beat her or steal her marbles, Abzug defended herself fiercely with unmatched skill. She also played checkers, traded baseball cards, climbed trees, became a graffiti artist, and understood the nuances, corners, and risks of city streets, which were her playground.
In synagogue with her maternal grandfather, Wolf Taklefsky, who was her babysitter and first mentor, Bella used her beautiful voice and keen memory to delight the elders with the brilliance of her prayers, and with her ability to read Hebrew and daven [pray]. Although routinely dispatched to the women’s place behind the Synagogue partition between men and women mehizah , by the time she was eight she was an outstanding student in the Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20 th c. U.S. Talmud Torah school she attended, and a community star.
Her Hebrew school teacher, Levi Soshuk, recruited her to a left-wing labor Zionist group, Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir [the young guard]. By the time she was eleven, Abzug and her gang of socialist Zionists planned to go to Israel together as a A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families. kevuzah . In the meantime, they were inseparable and traveled throughout New York City, hiked in the countryside, danced, and sang all night, and went to free concerts, museums, the theater, picnics, and meetings. Above all, they raised money for a Jewish homeland—with Abzug in the lead. At subway stops, she gave impassioned speeches, and people tended to give generously to the earnest, well-spoken girl. From her first gang, Abzug learned about the power of alliances, unity, and alternative movements.
Bella Abzug at the Women's Seder with Phyllis Chesler and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, 1991.
The poster reads "This woman's place is in the House. the House of Representatives! Bella Abzug for Congress."
Idealist and activist, champion of progressive causes, Bella Abzug ran for Congress in 1970 on a women’s rights/peace platform, and New York agreed that "this woman's place is in the House."
Courtesy of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress.
Crusader of women's rights, champion of change, Bella Abzug forged a global sisterhood of women across the planet working for decency, justice, and peace. She joins here in passing the torch to young feminists at the 20th anniversary of the Spirit of Houston.
Left to right: Melissa Poe, Selhinah Hamlin, Kate Haubenreich, Courtney Alexander, Tali Edut and Alexandra Lockett, in 1997.
Hitler came to power the year her father, Emanuel, died, and Abzug emerged as an outspoken thirteen-year-old willing to break the rules. Although prohibited by tradition from saying Lit. (Aramaic) "holy." Doxology, mostly in Aramaic, recited at the close of sections of the prayer service. The mourner's Kaddish is recited at prescribed times by one who has lost an immediate family member. The prayer traditionally requires the presence of ten adult males. kaddish for her father in synagogue, Abzug did so anyway. Every morning before school for a year, she attended synagogue and davened. The congregants looked askance and never did approve, but nobody ever stopped her. She simply did what she needed to do for her father, who had no son—and thus learned a lesson for life. Be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart, she advised others: “People may not like it, but no one will stop you.”
Abzug never doubted that her father would have approved. Manny Savitzky adored his daughters. The butcher whose shop bore his personal mark of protest during and after World War I— “The Live and Let Live Meat Market” in the Clinton-Chelsea section of Manhattan—had a profound impact on his daughter’s vision. Protest was acceptable activism took many forms. After all, he had learned to tolerate Abzug’s pack of socialist Zionist friends who kept her out all night from the age of eleven. There was always music in her parents’ home. Her father sang with gusto, her sister, Helene (five years older), played the piano—the grand piano that filled the parlor—and Bella played the violin. Every week, the entire family, including grandparents, congregated around music, led in song by her father.
Abzug’s mother also supported her rebellion—all her rebellions. Esther Savitzky appreciated her younger daughter’s talents and encouraged her every interest. By the age of thirteen, a leader in the crusade for women’s rights, equal space, dignity, and empowerment for girls was in active training. According to her mother, “Battling Bella” was born bellowing. A spirited tomboy with music in her heart and politics in her soul, Abzug was both vastly popular and determinedly studious.
She continued violin lessons through high school. From Talmud Torah she went to Florence Marshall Hebrew High School after classes at Walton, and to the Teachers Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary after classes at Hunter College. She earned additional money for her family by teaching Hebrew, and also committed herself to political activities. Elected class president at Walton High School in 1937 and student government president of Hunter College in 1941, Abzug made a profound impression on teachers, contemporaries, and history.
As student council president at Hunter College, she opposed the Rapp-Coudert committee, which sought to crush public education and was on a witch-hunt against “subversive” faculty. A political science major, Abzug was active in the American Student Union and was an early and ardent champion of civil rights and civil liberties. At Hunter, she was at the center of a permanent circle of friends who remained political activists and lifelong champions of causes for women, peace, and justice. Journalist Mim Kelber, who first met Abzug at Walton, was editor of Hunter’s student newspaper the Bulletin, remained a political partner, co-founded WEDO, and now edits its impressive newsletter and publication series.
With her brilliant college record and leadership awards, Abzug won a scholarship to Columbia University Law School. (Harvard, her first choice, turned her down its law school did not accept women until 1952.) Her record at Columbia was splendid. She became an editor of the Law Review, and her reputation as tough, combative, diligent, and dedicated grew. In addition, two new enthusiasms entered Bella’s life during law school: poker and Martin Abzug.
She met Martin Abzug while visiting relatives in Miami after her graduation from Hunter. At a Yehudi Menuhin concert for Russian war relief, she saw a young man staring and smiling at her. They met they dated he left for military service they corresponded. Upon his return, he wanted to party. She wanted to study. He would meet her at midnight at the law library. A writer, Martin Abzug knew how to type she never did. He typed her briefs and promised that even when they married and had children she would continue to work—her major concern at the idea of marriage.
They married on June 4, 1944. The son and partner of an affluent shirt manufacturer (A Betta Blouse Company), who published two novels and later became a stockbroker, Martin Abzug encouraged all of his wife’s interests and ambitions—including those that were demonstrably dangerous during the McCarthyite years of the Cold War. He admired her integrity, vision, and combative style, and until his death remained her steadfast supporter. For forty-two years, their marriage, based on love, respect, and a generosity of spirit unrivaled in political circles, enabled Abzug’s activities. His death in 1986 affected her deeply and she published a moving article about him, entitled “Martin, What Should I Do Now?”
Immediately after law school, Abzug joined a labor law firm that represented union locals. Routinely overlooked when she entered an office to represent the United Auto Workers, or the Mine, Mill and Smelting Workers, or local restaurant workers, she decided to wear hats. Hats made all the difference when it came to recognition and even respect, and they became her trademark.
For fifteen years, Abzug, her husband, and their two daughters—Eve Gail, called Eegee, born in 1949, now a sculptor and social worker and Isobel Jo, called Liz, born in 1952, now an attorney and political consultant—lived in Mount Vernon, an integrated suburb that the parents believed the girls would benefit from. When the family moved to Greenwich Village, a center of urban activity, everybody was happier.
During the 1950s, Abzug was one of very few independent attorneys willing to take “Communist” cases. With her husband’s encouragement, she opened her own office, defending teachers, entertainment, radio, and Hollywood personalities assaulted during the witch-hunt.
She also defended Willie McGee. In an internationally celebrated case, McGee, a black Mississippian, was falsely accused of raping a white woman with whom he had had a long-term consensual relationship. Abzug appealed the case before the Supreme Court and achieved two stays of execution when she argued that “Negroes were systematically excluded from jury service.” But she did not achieve a change of venue, and after the third trial and conviction, all appeals were denied.
On her trip south to Jackson for the special hearing board appointed by Mississippi’s governor, Abzug never thought much about her personal safety, even though she was pregnant at the time. She realized she was in trouble, however, when the hotel room she had booked was denied her and no other room made available. When a taxi driver offered to take her fifteen miles out into the country to find a place to stay, she returned to Jackson’s bus station and spent an unsettling night.
At court the next morning, she argued fervently for six hours on behalf of racial justice, protesting the clear conspiracy to deny Willie McGee’s civil rights, as well as the long tradition of race prejudice and unfair discrimination. Canceling his death sentence, Abzug argued in 1950, would restore faith in U.S. democracy throughout the world. Despite worldwide publicity, protest marches, and Abzug’s passionate plea to prevent another legal lynching, McGee went to the electric chair. Abzug had a miscarriage, but her dedication to the cause of justice was strengthened by her days in Mississippi.
In 1961, Abzug and her Hunter circle (Mim Kelber, Amy Swerdlow, and Judy Lerner) joined others (including Dagmar Wilson, Claire Reid, and Lyla Hoffman) to create Women Strike for Peace. During the next decade, they lobbied for a nuclear test ban treaty, mobilized against Strontium-90 in milk and protested against the war in Indochina. In the 1960s, Abzug became a prominent national speaker against the war and against poverty, racism, and violence.
A leading reform Democrat, a successful attorney, a popular grass-roots activist, Abzug was urged to run for Congress, which she agreed to do at the age of fifty in 1970. Stunning and galvanizing, with her hats and her homilies, she became a household symbol for dramatic change. Representing Greenwich Village, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, the West Side, and Chelsea, she was the first woman elected to Congress on a women’s rights/peace platform and the second Jewish women elected to the House. New York agreed, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”
In the House, she cast her first vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. As a member of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, she brought more than six billion dollars to New York State in economic development, sewage treatment, and mass transit, including ramps for people with disabilities and buses for the elderly.
As chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, she coauthored three important pieces of legislation: the Freedom of Information Act, the Government in the Sunshine Act, and the Right to Privacy Act. Abzug’s bills exposed many secret government activities to public scrutiny for the first time. They allowed her and others to conduct inquiries into covert and illegal activities of the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies. The first member of Congress to call for Nixon’s impeachment, Abzug helped journalists, historians, and citizens to combat the disinformation, misinformation and generally abusive tactics that marked so much of the Cold War and blocked for so long the path toward human rights.
Above all, Abzug achieved splendid victories for women. She initiated the congressional caucus on women’s issues, helped organize the National Women’s Political Caucus, and served as chief strategist for the Democratic Women’s Committee, which achieved equal representation for women in all elective and appointive posts, including presidential conventions. She wrote the first law banning discrimination against women in obtaining credit, credit cards, loans, and mortgages, and introduced pioneering bills on comprehensive childcare, Social Security for homemakers, family planning, and abortion rights. In 1975, she introduced an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to include gay and lesbian rights.
Reelected for three terms, Abzug served from 1971 to 1977 and was acknowledged by a U.S. News & World Report survey of House members as the “third most influential” House member. In a 1977 Gallup poll, she was named one of the twenty most influential women of the world. The pipe-smoking Republican member of the House, Millicent Fenwick, once said that she had two heroes, two women she admired above all: Eleanor Roosevelt and Bella Abzug. They shared one thing, Fenwick said: They meant it! Women of vast integrity, they spoke from the heart, and they spoke truth to power. Although she agreed politically with Abzug on virtually nothing, Fenwick explained, Abzug was her ideal.
After Abzug was defeated in a four-way primary race for the Senate in 1976 by less than one percent, President Carter appointed her chair of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year and, later, co-chair of the National Advisory Commission for Women.
Active in the UN Decade of Women conferences in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985), Abzug became an esteemed leader of the international women’s movement. She also led the fight against the Zionism Is Racism resolution passed in 1991, which was repealed in 1985 in Nairobi. Long active in supporting Israel, especially in Congress and in Israeli-U.S.-Palestine peace efforts, she insisted that Zionism was a liberation movement.
In November 1991, WEDO convened the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet. Fifteen hundred women from eighty-three nations met in Miami, Florida, to produce the Women’s Action Agenda for the twenty-first century. This agenda became the focus of UN conferences throughout the preparations for the UN Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 and created an international women’s caucus that transformed the thinking and policies of the UN community. Abzug promoted the program around the world.
In the face of personal medical challenges, including breast cancer and heart disease, Abzug continued to confront global problems of poverty, discrimination, and the violent fallout of this “bloodiest century in human history.” As chair of New York City’s Commission on the Status of Women (1993–1995), and in partnership with Greenpeace and WEDO, she launched a national grass-roots campaign against cancer called “Women, Cancer and the Environment: Action for Prevention.”
She ate macrobiotically, swam regularly, and played poker fiercely, maintained a loving relationship with her daughters, with whom she shared a vacation home, and entertained her countless and loving friends (her “extended family”) with her great good humor and her love of song. Her friendships with people from Hollywood to New York are legion. Woody Allen directed her in Manhattan, she played alongside Shirley MacLaine in Madame Sousatzka, and her magical rendition of “Falling in Love Again” inspired feminist troubadour Sandy Rapp to compose a ballad, “When Bella Sings Marlene.” One line of the song reads, “On the second refrain of ‘moths to the flame,’ spirits fill the room.”
Shameless about enlisting her friends and colleagues to her causes, Abzug was also known for her boundless generosity. She remained an optimist, and her mission, her challenge and her legacy are clear:
It’s not about women joining the polluted stream. It’s about cleaning the stream, changing the stagnant pools into fresh, flowing waters.
Our struggle is [against] violence, intolerance, inequality, injustice.
Our struggle is about creating sustainable lives, and attainable dreams.
Our struggle is about creating violence-free families… violence-free streets, violence-free borders.
Our call is to stop nuclear pollution. Our call is to build real democracies not hypocrisies. Our call is to nurture and strengthen all families. Our call is to build communities, not only markets. Our call is to scale the great wall around women everywhere.
Bella Abzug’s understanding of the need for an international network of women working across this troubled planet for decency, justice, and peace fortified a global sisterhood never before imagined. With a song in her throat and a very high heart, she was a boundless source of hope for the future. Abzug, who died on March 31, 1998, lived every day to the fullest and blessed every day with the spiritual fervor of her responsibility and commitment to all people—one life, one weave.
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