Bella Abzug

The Jewish congresswoman was a champion of women's rights, human rights, equality, peace, and social justice.


Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA). For more information on Bella Abzug, go to JWA’s Women of Valor online exhibit.

“Sometimes I’m asked when I became a feminist, and I usually answer, ‘The day I was born.’ If I was born a rebel, I attribute it to my family heritage.” –Bella 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. “We were a religious family. My grandfather went to the synagogue twice a day, and whenever I wasn’t in school, he took me along. I learned to recite the solemn Hebrew prayers like such a wizard that he always made it a point to show me off to his friends…. It was during these visits to the synagogue that I think I had my first thoughts as a feminist rebel. I didn’t like the fact that women were consigned to the back grows of the balcony.”

congressman bella abzugWhen her father died Bella was only 12. Although the custom of saying Kaddish is traditionally reserved for sons, she stood by herself in synagogue each day for a year to say the mourning prayer. “In retrospect, I describe that as one of the early blows for the liberation of Jewish women. But in fact, no one could have stopped me from performing the duty traditionally reserved for a son, from honoring the man who had taught me to love peace, who had educated me in Jewish values. So it was lucky that no one ever tried (“Bella on Bella,” Moment, vol. 1.7, 1976).”

Five Cents on the Subway

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

“In 1942 only 3 percent of the nation’s lawyers were women. I was outraged (I’ve always had a decent sense of outrage), so I turned to my mother. In those days there was no women’s movement, so you turned to your mother for help. ‘Why do you want to go to Harvard, anyway?’ she asked. ‘It’s far away and you can’t afford the carfare. Go to Columbia University. They’ll probably give you a scholarship, and it’s only five cents to get there on the subway (Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1984).’ “

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