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.”
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. “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).’ “
Abzug then worked as a lawyer for the next twenty five years, specializing in labor and tenants’ 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’s, 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’s peace work, “flowed naturally into the campaign to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam,” and Abzug was active both nationally–lobbying and leading WSP delegations to Washington–and locally. In Manhattan, she organized peace action committees and built coalitions among “the peace movement, liberal Democrats and Republicans, women’s groups, poor people, blacks and other minorities, and young people” 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’s 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’s attention. But with that fame often came a furious backlash, and many in the press claimed she was too “irritating” and “brash,” too unwomanly to be effective.
Abzug’s reputation inside Congress was an entirely different story. “Without a doubt, the hardest working Member,” she was always prepared on the issues. She built strong coalitions and developed “brilliant, effective–and winning” 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–behind only Speaker Carl Albert and Majority Whip Tip O’Neill.
Congress’s Hardest Working Member
A leader of the women’s 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’s Political Caucus.
When she was not fighting for an end to the Vietnam War or for women’s 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’s 1975 resolution equating “Zionism with Racism.” 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’ 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’s 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 “Spirit of Houston” event mandated “special emphasis on the representation of low-income women, members of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and women of all ages,” 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’s 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, “remain open from this day forth. Bella’s legacy shall endure (WEDO News and Views, June 1998).”
At Abzug’s funeral, Geraldine Ferraro phrased it another way: “She didn’t knock politely on the door. She didn’t even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever.”
Remembrances from both friends and enemies filled the press. Hillary Clinton told of women around the world introducing themselves as, “the Bella Abzug of Russia, or… the Bella Abzug of Uganda,” while her husband commented that, “Our society is more just and compassionate,” because Abzug, “lived and worked among us.”
In Kenya, Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, memorialized Bella as “a pioneer” who, “dared to walk into the unknown…” In the U.S., Gloria Steinem remembered her as not just, “the woman who fought the revolution. She was the woman we want to be after the revolution.” And many recalled one often repeated quote: “In a perfectly just republic,” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in 1984, “Bella Abzug would be president (Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1984).”