Bella Abzug

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"Abzug" redirects here. For the song by Kraftwerk, see Trans-Europe Express (album).
Bella Abzug
Bella Savitsky Abzug.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 20th district
In office
January 3, 1973 – January 3, 1977
Preceded by William Fitts Ryan
Succeeded by Theodore S. Weiss
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 19th district
In office
January 3, 1971 – January 3, 1973
Preceded by Leonard Farbstein
Succeeded by Charles B. Rangel
Personal details
Born Bella Savitsky
July 24, 1920
New York City, New York
Died March 31, 1998(1998-03-31) (aged 77)
New York City, New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Martin M. Abzug
Alma mater Hunter College
Columbia University
Religion Judaism

Bella Savitsky Abzug (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998), nicknamed "Battling Bella", was an American lawyer, U.S. Representative, social activist and a leader of the Women's Movement. In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan to found the National Women's Political Caucus. She declared, "This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives," in her successful 1970 campaign. She was later appointed to chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year and to plan the 1977 National Women's Conference by President Gerald Ford and led President Jimmy Carter's commission on women.

Early life

Bella Savitsky was born on July 24, 1920, in New York City.[1] Both of her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants.[2] Her mother, Esther (née Tanklefsky),[1] was a homemaker and her father, Emanuel[1] ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market.

Known to her colleagues, family and friends, she was a "passionate perfectionist," an ideal leader and someone who followed her own principles without being shaken by anyone else. Ever since she was young, was a competitive person and would beat everyone, including the boys in all sorts of competitions.[3] As she grew up and appealed to the public with her feminism ways, she was attacked with words such as "savage," "arrogant," "fierce," and "aggressive." However, that didn't stop her from being an abdicate for those in need.[4]

When her father died, Abzug, then 13, was told that her orthodox synagogue did not permit women to say the Mourner's Kaddish, since that rite was reserved for sons of the deceased. However because her father had no sons, she went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the prayer, defying the tradition of her orthodox congregation.[5]

Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City, where she was class president,[2] and went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York, later earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1947.[1] She then went on to do further post-graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Legal and political career

Abzug was admitted to the New York Bar in 1947, and started practicing in New York City at the firm of Pressman, Witt & Cammer, particularly in matters of labor law. She became an attorney in the 1940s, a time when very few women practiced law. During this time, she began wearing wide-brimmed hats to work to ensure that she wasn't mistaken for a secretary. The hats became her trademark.

Early on, she took on civil rights cases in the South. She appealed the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted in 1945 of raping a white woman in Laurel, Mississippi and sentenced to death by an all-white jury who deliberated for only two-and-a-half minutes. Abzug lost the appeal and the man was executed.[6] Abzug was an outspoken advocate of liberal causes, including the failed Equal Rights Amendment, and opposition to the Vietnam War.[1] Years before she was elected to the House of Representatives, she was a co-founder[1] of Women Strike for Peace.[7] Her political stands placed her on the master list of Nixon political opponents. She has been nicknamed "Battling Bella".[8][9]

In 1970, she challenged the 14-year incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, in the Democratic primary for a congressional district on Manhattan's West Side. She defeated Farbstein in a considerable upset, and then defeated talk show host Barry Farber in the general election. In 1972 her district was eliminated via redistricting and she chose to run against William Fitts Ryan, who also represented part of the West Side, in the Democratic primary. Ryan, though seriously ill, defeated Abzug. However, Ryan died before the general election and Abzug defeated his widow, Priscilla, in a party convention to choose the new Democratic nominee. In the general election Priscilla Ryan challenged Abzug on the Liberal Party line, but was unsuccessful.[10] In the general election she was reelected easily in 1974. For her last two terms, she represented part of The Bronx as well.

She was one of the first members of Congress to support gay rights, introducing the first federal gay rights bill, known as the Equality Act of 1974, with fellow Democratic New York City Representative, Ed Koch, a future mayor of New York City.[11]

Bella also chaired historic hearings on government secrecy. She was chair of Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights. She was voted by her colleagues the third most influential member of the House as reported in U.S. News & World Report. Bella was known for her keen intelligence, her flamboyance and her colorful wide-brimmed hats.[citation needed] Often recognized by these vibrant hats, Bella reminded all who admired them: "It's what's under the hat that counts!" [12]

Representative Bella Abzug at press conference for National Youth Conference for '72, November 30, 1971.

Abzug's career in Congress ended with an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 1976, when she narrowly lost to the much more moderate-to-conservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to be elected and served four terms.[1]

Abzug was defeated in a four-way primary race for the Senate in 1976 by less than one percent. However, she was not mentioned in the news and the coverage was only about the male candidates.[13] After she lost, many of her supporters and colleagues felt very despondent about the news and wondered what she would do next. However, Abzug continued to act in high spirits and continued to pursue for a career in the government. 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."

Abzug was a supporter of the Zionist movement. As a young woman she was a member of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement of Hashomer Hatzair.[14] In 1975 she led the fight against United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 (revoked in 1991 by resolution 46/86), which "determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination". She supported various international peace movements, which in Israel was led by Shulamit Aloni and others.

Later life and death

Abzug never held elective office again after leaving the House, although she remained a high-profile figure and was again a candidate on multiple occasions. She was unsuccessful in a bid to be the Mayor of New York City in 1977, and in attempts to return to the US House from the East Side of Manhattan in 1978 and from Westchester County in 1986.

She was the author of two successful books, Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington[15] and The Gender Gap,[16] the latter co-authored with friend and colleague, Mim Kelber. She also lectured widely throughout the United States and internationally, tirelessly campaigning for the rights of women.

Ever open to new approaches, Bella continually devised innovative strategies to further her vision of equality and power for women in the United States and abroad. Abzug founded and ran several women's advocacy organizations, in 1979 Women U.S.A. and continued to lead feminist advocacy events, for example serving as grand marshal of the 1980 August 26 Women's Equality Day New York March.[17]

In the last decade of her life, in the early 1990s, with colleague Mim Kelber, she co-founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO),[18] a global women's advocacy organization working towards a just world that promotes and protects human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment. As WEDO president, Abzug became an influential leader at the United Nations and at UN world conferences, working to empower women around the globe. Among its early successes was the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet,[19] held in Miami in 1991, where 1,500 women from 83 countries produced the Women's Action Agenda 21.[20] Extending its perspective into the next century, this is a blueprint for incorporating women's concerns into development and environmental decision-making at all levels.

Following through on her belief that women's direct participation is absolutely necessary for social change, Bella developed the Women's Caucus, which used new methods to get women involved in every phase of planning and development for UN conferences. The Women's Caucus analyzed documents, proposed gender-sensitive policies and language, and lobbied to advance the Women's Agenda for the 21st Century at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Bella and WEDO went on to play a leading role at the UN. They worked through the Women's Caucus to highlight issues of greatest concern to women in both ongoing policy-making and at major UN conferences, including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The Women's Caucus has become an institution at the UN, modeling new ways to proceed and empowering others.

During UN conferences, governments would make commitments, promising to meet some of the goals furthered by the conference. WEDO developed strategies to monitor governments and make the results public. For example, at six months and at one year after the Beijing Women's Conference, Bella presented reports informing governments of their progress in meeting goals.

Abzug with New York Mayor Ed Koch (left) and President Jimmy Carter (1978)

During her last years, Bella kept up her busy schedule of travel and work, even though she traveled in a wheelchair. Bella led WEDO until her death, giving her final public speech[21] before the UN in March 1998.

After battling breast cancer for a number of years, she developed heart disease and died on March 31, 1998 from complications following open heart surgery. She was 77.[22] Bella Abzug was interred at Old Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens County, New York. She was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls and is the recipient of numerous prestigious national and international awards. A year before her death, Bella received the highest civilian recognition and honor at the U.N., the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award.[23]

She appeared in the WLIW video A Laugh, A Tear, A Mitzvah, Woody Allen's Manhattan (as herself), a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live, and the documentary New York: A Documentary Film.


Congresswoman Abzug was married to Martin Abzug, whom she met on a bus in Miami on the way to a concert by Yehudi Menuhin, from 1944 until his death in 1986. The couple had two children, Eve and Liz.


In 1979, the Supersisters trading card set was produced and distributed; one of the cards featured Abzug's name and picture.[24]

In 2004, her daughter Liz Abzug, an adjunct Urban Studies Professor at Barnard College and a political consultant, founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute (BALI) to mentor and train high school and college women to become effective leaders in civic, political, corporate and community life.

To commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the first National Women's Conference, a ground-breaking event held in Houston in 1977 and over which Bella Abzug presided, BALI hosted a National Women's Conference on the weekend of November 10–11, 2007, at Hunter College, New York. Over 600 people from around the world attended. Besides celebrating the 1977 Conference, the 2007 agenda was to address significant women's issues for the 21st century.[25] In 1994 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and was honored, on March 6, 1997, at the United Nations as a leading female environmentalist. The following year, Ms. Magazine named her a role model.[1]

In 2010, BALI hosted their 2nd Annual Bella and Bella Fella Awards Banquet.[26] Notable winners of the awards include Gloria Steinem,[27] Jennifer Raab[28] and Ken Sunshine.[29]

"Bella Abzug: In Her Own Words"[30] was produced by Progressive Source Communications[31] for the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute[32]

Selected bibliography


  • Abzug, Bella (author); Ziegler, Mel (editor) (1972). Bella!: Ms. Abzug goes to Washington. New York: Saturday Review Press. ISBN 9780841501546. 
  • Abzug, Bella; Kelber, Mim (1984). Gender gap: Bella Abzug's guide to political power for American women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395354841. 
  • Abzug, Bella (1995). Women: looking beyond 2000. New York, New York: United Nations. ISBN 9789211005929. 


  • Abzug, Bella; Jain, Devaki (August 1996). Women's leadership and the ethics of development (Gender in Development Monograph Series #4). New York: UNDP United Nations Development Programme.  Link.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Kathryn Cullen-DuPont (1 August 2000). Encyclopedia of women's history in America. Infobase Publishing. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved 28 November 2011. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Barbara J. Love (2006). Feminists who changed America, 1963-1975. University of Illinois Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-252-03189-2. Retrieved 4 January 2012. 
  3. "Bella Abzug | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved 2015-11-10. 
  4. Levy, Alan Howard. The Political Life of Bella Abzug, 1920 - 1976 Political Passions, Women's Rights, and Congressional Battles. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2013. Print.
  5. Jaffe-Gill, Ellen, editor The Jewish Woman's Book of Wisdom, Citadel Press, 1998 Abzug, Bella "No One Could Have Stopped Me" p. 4, p. 74
  6. 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, ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way, authored by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, (ISBN 0-374-29952-8), pp. 49–56,
  7. Faber, Doris. Bella Abzug. Lothrup, Lee and Shepard, 1976. pp. 61–69. Juvenile book.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Maria Braden (1996). Women Politicians and the Media. University Press of Kentucky. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-8131-0869-8. Retrieved 6 December 2012. 
  9. Baer, Susan (April 1, 1998). "Founding, enduring feminist Bella Abzug is dead at 77 'Battling Bella' served three terms in House". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved December 6, 2012. 
  10. "Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman And a Founding Feminist, Is Dead". The New York Times. 
  11. "Narrative: The Task Force's commitment to ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans has a long history". National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 
  12. Rozensky, Jordyn. "Halloween: JWA Style". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved 25 September 2014. 
  13. Levy, Alan Howard. Political Life of Bella Abzug, 1976–1998 : Electoral Failures and the Vagaries of Identity Politics. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2013. Print.
  14. Zion, Noam Sachs; Spectre, Barbara (2000). A different light : the Hanukkah book of celebration : a how-to guide to a creative candle lighting ceremony : blessings, songs, stories, readings, games and cartoons to engage adults, teenagers and children on each of the eight nights. New York: Devora Pub. ISBN 9781930143319. 
  15. Bella Abzug (1972). Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. Saturday Review Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-8415-0154-8. Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  16. Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber (1984). The Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women. Houghton Mifflin. p. 79. ISBN 0-395-36181-8. Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  22. Mansnerus, Laura (April 1, 1998). "Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman And a Founding Feminist, Is Dead". New York Times. 
  24. Wulf, Steve (2015-03-23). "Supersisters: Original Roster". Retrieved 2015-06-04. 
  25. BALI News and Events published online, Fall 2007.
  30. Video on YouTube

Further reading


External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Leonard Farbstein
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 19th congressional district

Succeeded by
Charles B. Rangel
Preceded by
William Fitts Ryan
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 20th congressional district

Succeeded by
Theodore S. Weiss