Bella Savitsky Abzug (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998) was a well-known 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 émigrés in the United States. Her mother, Esther was a homemaker and her father, Emanuel ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market.
Bella was also a wife and a mother of two girls: Eve Gail and Isobel Jo.
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. Abzug led the fight against the Zionism Is Racism U.N. resolution passed in 1975, which was finally repealed in 1985. She supported the international peace movement represented in Israel by Shulamith Aloni and others.
James P. 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.
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 in 1974, the first federal gay rights bill, the Equality Act of 1974, with fellow Democratic New York City Representative, Ed Koch, a future mayor of New York City. Oddly, she never introduced a single public bill, although she co-sponsored many.
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.
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.
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. After battling breast cancer for a number of years, she developed heart disease and died in 1998 at the age of 77.
In 2004, her daughter, Liz Abzug, an adjunct Urban Studies Professor at Columbia-Barnard and 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.
- Presidential Succession - The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies - Grand Valley State University
- Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman And a Founding Feminist, Is Dead by Laura Mansnerus, New York Times. Published April 1, 1998.
- BALI News and Events published online, Fall 2007.