Bella Abzug

Battling Bella, Activist and Member of Congress

Eleanor Smeal and Bella Abzug at 1982 Women's Rights Rally in New York City
Eleanor Smeal and Bella Abzug at 1982 Women's Rights Rally in New York City. Diana Walker / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Bella Abzug Facts:

Known for: feminism, peace activism, first Jewish Congresswoman (1971-1976), organization founder, instituted Women's Equality Day. Her large hats and fiery personality brought her considerable public attention.

Occupation: member of the US House of Representatives, lawyer, writer, news commentator
Dates: July 24, 1920 - March 31, 1998
Education: Hunter College: B.A., 1942. Columbia University Law School: L.L.B., 1947.


Honors: Editor of Columbia Law Review; National Women's Hall of Fame, 1994
Also known as: Bella Savitsky Abzug; Bella S. Abzug; Battling Bella; Hurricane Bella; Mother Courage

Bella Abzug Biography:

Born Bella Savitsky in the Bronx, New York, she attended public school and then Hunger College.  There she became active in Zionist activism. She started Columbia University Law School in 1942, then interrupted her education for a wartime shipyard job. After marriage to Martin Abzug, then a writer, and she returned to Columbia Law School and graduated in 1947. She was editor of the Columbia Law Review.admitted to the New York Bar in 1947.

In her legal career, she worked in labor law and for civil rights. In the 1950s she defended some accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Communist associations.

While pregnant, she went to Mississippi to try to stave off a death sentence for Willie McGee.  He was a black man accused of raping a white woman.

She continued her work on his case despite death threats, and was able to win stays of execution twice, though he was put to death in 1951.

While working against Willie McGee's death sentence, Bella Abzug adopted her custom of wearing hats with wide brims, as a way of signaling that she was a working lawyer and should be taken seriously.

In the 1960s, Bella Abzug helped to found Women Strike for Peace, and she worked as a legislative director, organizing protests and lobbying for disarmament and against the Vietnam War.  In Democratic politics she was part of the "Dump Johnson" movement in 1968, working for alternative peace candidates to challenge Lyndon B. Johnson's renomination.

In 1970, Bella Abzug was elected to the U.S. Congress from New York, with support from the reformers within the Democratic Party. Her slogan was "This woman's place is in the House." She won the primary, though she was not expected to, and then defeated an incumbent who had held the seat for many years, despite his accusations she was anti-Israel.

In Congress, she was especially noted for her work for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), national day care centers, ending sex discrimination, and working mothers' priorities.  Her outspoken defense of the ERA, and her work for peace, as well as her trademark hats and her voice, brought her widespread recognition.

Bella Abzug also worked against American involvement in the Vietnam War and against the Selective Service System, as a junior member of the Armed Services Committee. She challenged the seniority system, ending up as chair of the House subcommittee on government information and individual rights.

She advocated for separate statehood for New York City and helped to win the "Sunshine Law" and the Freedom of Information Act.

She lost the primary in 1972, with her district redrawn so she would compete with a strong incumbent Democrat.  She then won an election for the seat when the candidate who had defeated her died before the fall election.

Bella Abzug ran for the Senate in 1976, losing to Daniel P. Moynihan, and in 1977 was defeated in a primary bid for the office of mayor of New York City. In 1978 she again ran for Congress, in a special election, and was not elected

In 1977-1978 Bella Abzug served as co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women. She was fired by President Jimmy Carter, who had originally appointed her, when the committee openly criticized Carter's budget for cutting women's programs.

Bella Abzug returned to private practice as a lawyer until 1980, and served for a time as a television news commentator and magazine columnist.

She continued her activism work, particularly in feminist causes.  She attended international women's caucuses at Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and her last major contribution was at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.

Bella Abzug's husband died in 1986.  Her health failing for several years, she died in 1996.

Family:

Parents: Emanuel Savitsky and Esther Tanklefsky Savitsky. Husband: Maurice M. (Martin) Abzug (1944). Children: Eve Gail, Isobel Jo.

Places: New York

Organizations/Religion:

Russian-Jewish heritage
Founder, Women Strike for Peace (1961)
Co-founder, National Women's Political Caucus
Co-chair, President's National Advisory Committee for Women, 1978-79
President: Women-USA
Women's Foreign Policy Council
National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year
Commentator, Cable News Network (CNN)
Also: National Organization for Women, National Urban League, American Civil Liberties Union, Hadassah, B'nai B'rith

Bibliography:

  • Bella Abzug and Mim Kleber. Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984. Paperback.  Hardcover.
  • Bella Abzug and Mel Ziegler. Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.
  • Doris Faber. Bella Abzug. Children's book. Hardcover.  Illustrated.