Bella Savitsky Abzug (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998) was a American Congresswoman and a leader of the women’s movement. She famously said "This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives" in her successful 1970 campaign to join that body. Later in her career, Bella was often referred to as "Battling Bella", "Mother Courage", and "Hurricane Bella".
Bella Savitsky was born on July 24, 1920. Both of Bella’s parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants in the United States. Her mother, Esther was a homemaker and her father, Emanuel ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market.
When Bella was 13, her father died. According to Jewish tradition, Bella would not be allowed to say Kaddish for her father in synagogue, but this would not stop her. Bella said that she had to do this for her father because he did not have a son that could do it for him. This was an early indication that the rebellious Bella was never going to take "no" for an answer.
Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City, and went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York, later earning a law degree from Columbia University. 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 did so, and took on civil rights cases in the South. Abzug was an outspoken advocate of liberal causes, including support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and opposition to the Vietnam War. This placed her on the master list of Nixon political opponents.
Abzug was a supporter of the Zionist movement. 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.
In 1976, Abzug ran for the U.S. Senate, but was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She was also unsuccessful in a bid to be the Mayor of New York City in 1977, and in attempts to return to the U.S. House from the East Side of Manhattan in 1978 and from Westchester County in 1986. Abzug remained active in politics even after ceasing to be a candidate.
Abzug served the state of New York
in the United States House of Representatives, representing her district in Manhattan
, from 1971 to 1977. For part of her term, she also 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.
James M. Cannon has written that Abzug and several other Democratic members of congress were behind a plot to block Nixon’s nomination of Gerald Ford as Vice President, in the hopes that if Nixon were taken down by the Watergate scandal, the succession of the Presidency would fall to Democratic Speaker of the House Carl Albert.
She was also known in the Congress for being extremely outspoken. This became a problem during her legislative career - a report by Ralph Nader in 1972 estimated that her sponsorship of any bill would cost it 20 to 30 votes.
In 1990, she co-founded the Women’s Environment & Development Organization
to mobilize women’s participation in international conferences, particularly those run by the United Nations
. She was well-known for her habit of wearing noticeable hats
. Abzug, who was Jewish
, appeared in the WLIW
video A Laugh, A Tear, A Mitzvah
. She also appeared as herself in many film and television productions, most notably in Woody Allen's Manhattan
, a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live
, and the documentary New York: A Documentary Film
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.
Bella first met her future husband, Martin Abzug, on a bus in Miami, on the way to a concert by Yehudi Menuhin
. She married Martin in 1944. The couple had two children: Eve and Liz.
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 30-year 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
, NYC. Over 600 people from around the world attended. In addition to celebrating the 1977 Conference, the 2007 agenda was to address significant women’s issues for the 21st century.
- Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington, Bella S. Abzug (edited by Mel Ziegler), Saturday Review Press, 1972 (ISBN 0841501548)
- Gender gap : Bella Abzug’s guide to political power for American women, Bella S. Abzug and Mim Kelber, Houghton Mifflin, 1984 (ISBN 0395361818)
- 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 0374299528)