“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella,” Abzug wrote in a journal of her first year in Congress in 1971. “But whatever I am … I am a very serious woman.” —excerpt from Women Politicians and the Media by Maria Braden
By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
I grew up in a world where women were breaking down the doors into politics.
A world where women like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan were elected to Congress. Growing up as a New Yorker, one of the fiercest role models of them all was Bella Abzug. She was a feminist, a staunch anti-racist and as a result of the cold-war, she became a leading voice in what would become a mass movement. In 1961 she co-founded Women Strike for Peace “after over 50,000 women across the country marched for peace and against above-ground testing of nuclear weapons.”
Blanche Weisen Cook’s profile of Abzug in the Jewish Women’s Archive describes her move into electoral politics:
A leading reform Democrat, a successful attorney, a popular grass-roots activist, Abzug was urged to run for Congress, which she agreed to do at the age of fifty in 1970. Stunning and galvanizing, with her hats and her homilies, she became a household symbol for dramatic change. Representing Greenwich Village, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, the West Side, and Chelsea, she was the first woman elected to Congress on a women’s rights/peace platform. New York agreed, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”
She was also the first Jewish woman elected to the house. She would go on to make a lasting mark in Congress and in the hearts and minds of her admirers, many of them young women who would follow her example.
The following video clip gives you a chance to hear Bella, “In Her Own Words.”
Born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, Bella (Savitzky) Abzug predated women’s right to vote by one month…In synagogue with her maternal grandfather, Wolf Taklefsky, who was her babysitter and first mentor, Bella used her beautiful voice and keen memory to delight the elders with the brilliance of her prayers, and with her ability to read Hebrew and daven [pray]. Although routinely dispatched to the women’s place behind the mehizah [curtain separating women from men in a place of prayer], by the time she was eight she was an outstanding student in the Talmud Torah school she attended, and a community star.
Her Hebrew school teacher, Levi Soshuk, recruited her to a left-wing labor Zionist group, Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir [the young guard]. By the time she was eleven, Abzug and her gang of socialist Zionists planned to go to Israel together as a kevuzah [group]. In the meantime, they were inseparable and traveled throughout New York City, hiked in the countryside, danced and sang all night, and went to free concerts, museums, the theater, picnics and meetings. Above all, they raised money for a Jewish homeland—with Abzug in the lead. At subway stops, she gave impassioned speeches, and people tended to give generously to the earnest, well-spoken girl. From her first gang, Abzug learned about the power of alliances, unity, and alternative movements.
Hitler came to power the year her father, Emanuel, died, and Abzug emerged as an outspoken thirteen-year-old willing to break the rules. Although prohibited by tradition from saying kaddish for her father in synagogue, Abzug did so anyway. Every morning before school for a year, she attended synagogue and davened. The congregants looked askance and never did approve, but nobody ever stopped her. She simply did what she needed to do for her father, who had no son—and thus learned a lesson for life. Be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart, she advised others: “People may not like it, but no one will stop you.”
That part of her story amazed me. As a kid who spent her early years in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where my grandfather was the Shabbos goy on the block, I got sent to Hebrew school for a while, and can’t imagine the bravery it took for Abzug to defy tradition and do what she felt she must for her father.
A brilliant student, a devoted and outspoken daughter, Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City and went on to Hunter College, and from there to Columbia Law School on a scholarship. At Columbia she was one of the editors of theColumbia Law Review. She married Martin Abzug in 1944, and he supported her activism throughout their marriage.
“Martin Abzug encouraged all of his wife’s interests and ambitions—including those that were demonstrably dangerous during the McCarthyite years of the Cold War. He admired her integrity, vision, and combative style, and until his death remained her steadfast supporter. For forty-two years, their marriage, based on love, respect, and a generosity of spirit unrivaled in political circles, enabled Abzug’s activities. His death in 1986 affected her deeply and she published a moving article about him, entitled “Martin, What Should I Do Now?”
If you’d like to hear more from Abzug in her own words, I suggest you pick up a copy of :
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, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way, compiled by editors Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom.
“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of those things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am–and this ought to made very clear–I am a very serious woman.”
For more than fifty years, Bella Abzug championed the powerless and disenfranchised, as an activist, congresswoman, and leader in every major social initiative of her time—from Zionism and labor in the 40s to the ban-the-bomb efforts in the 50s, to civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 60s, to the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s, to environmental awareness and economic equality in the 90s. Her political idealism never waning, Abzug gave her final public speech before the U.N. in March 1998, just a few weeks before her death. Presented in the voices of both friends and foes, of those who knew, fought with, revered, and struggled alongside her, this oral biography will be the first comprehensive account of a woman who was one of our most influential leaders.
In the cause of civil rights, Abzug faced a baptism by fire representing Willie McGee, who was arrested for an alleged rape of a white woman, which is detailed in The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South, by Alex Heard. The case became a a cause célèbre on the left, and the defense lost. McGee was executed on May 8, 1951 in the electric chair. That trial, and the injustice that took place would forge Abzug’s commitment to racial justice.
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.
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. Often recognized by these vibrant hats, Bella reminded all who admired them: “It’s what’s under the hat that counts!”
Her congressional biography gives more details:
After taking the official oath of office for the 92nd Congress (1971–1973) on January 3, 1971, Abzug took a “people’s oath” on the House steps administered by her New York colleague Shirley Chisholm. Onlookers cheered, “Give ’em hella, Bella!” By seeking a seat on the coveted Armed Services Committee, Abzug also flaunted House decorum, which expected freshman to accept lower–level committee assignments. The request was denied (she eventually accepted positions on the Government Operations and Public Works committees). Undeterred, she worked on devising methods to dismantle the entrenched House seniority system that prevented most newly elected Representatives from receiving influential assignments. Despite her freshman status, Abzug made waves in Congress by supporting a variety of controversial causes. On the first day of the session, she introduced legislation demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. She authored a bill to end the draft, an institution she likened to “slavery” motivated by “insane priorities,” and she asked for an investigation into the competence of widely feared Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover. “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure,” Abzug wrote in her journal, published in 1972. “Battling Bella,” an epithet she earned because of her tenacity and confrontational demeanor, also had the distinction of being one of the first politicians to publicly call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, even before the 1973 congressional outcry about his Vietnam policy in early 1972.
Reading Maria Braden’s Women Politicians and the Media drove home some very ugly truths about how the misogynistic media deals with women running for—and achieving—political office:
Braden traces a persistent double standard in media coverage of women’s political campaigns through the past eighty years. Journalists dwell on the candidates’ novelty in public office and describe them in ways that stereotype and trivialize them. Especially demeaning are comments on women’s appearance, personality, and family connections— comments of a sort that would rarely be made about men candidates. Are they too pretty or too plain? What do their clothes say about them? Are they “feminine” enough or “too masculine”? Are they still just ordinary housewives or are they neglecting their families by heading for Washington or the state house?
Abzug provoked extreme reactions, apparent in this National Review article: “Say it softly under your breath, abzug,abzug. Bella wallows out of the sound, her mammoth, sluggish hips ridiculing a body’s natural ball and socket litheness. Abzug, abzug: the strange, hooded, leering, Mongoloid eyes. Abzug: the too many teeth, which are certainly all there, yet seem gapped, now above, now below. Abzug: the demagogue’s rhetoric, husked out in a voice which cannot be categorized by sex, gross and shameless as the thing itself. This grossness is a tool, used as Belle Barth used grossness. To shock. After all, what you can’t cosmetize must be made a virtue.” The author, D. Keith Mayo, also refers to Abzug’s “always male hats, with the testosterone sucked out of them. The butch haircut. She wears a necklace underneath her drab, brown dress; you can see one or two pearls at Bella’s thick nape. Introduced as ‘wife and mother,’ Bella Abzug looks like Jacob Javits in drag.”
Abzug was a liberal Democrat, on the other end of the political spectrum from National Review, but that doesn’t excuse such savage writing. Abzug took a battering because she had so clearly stepped over the line defining appropriate female behavior and keeping women from speaking out. She was a wife and mother who didn’t act like Donna Reed. She was a legislator who pushed hard for her bills. She used profane language that was considered unladylike, the same language many male legislators routinely used. She didn’t make an effort to charm her male colleagues; she had her own forceful and direct style.
Abzug clearly made some men uncomfortable in the 1970 s. But former president George Bush’s comment about her in 1995 indicates the persistence of old fears about women who step out of traditional roles. During a visit to China that coincided with the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Bush said he pitied the Chinese for “having Bella Abzug running around China.” In a speech, Bush said Abzug had “always represented the extremes of the women’s movement.” Abzug said it was a cheap shot. “Bella-bashing may be good old boy sport, but in this case he’s denigrating the work of 35,000 women and 180 governments dedicated to making the lives of half the world’s population better… . George Bush stands forever in what used to be. The very thought of this conference succeeding, which it is, must be terrifying to him.”
The media slime thrown at Abzug didn’t stop me from being bowled over by her brashness. She became a role model for many young women, along with another hat-wearing, bold, outspoken, feminist woman: Flo Kennedy, who I wrote about here last year. Here’s a short clip of Flo, from the documentary Year of the Woman by Sandra Hochman, at the Democratic convention in Miami Beach in 1972.
Leading feminists of the time were intensely involved in the battle for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Abzug co-sponsored ERA legislation and got Congress to designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day “to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.”
Abzug was able to represent the voices of women from many walks of life. Here she is speaking to the National Congress of Neighborhood Women.
Working Class Women Changing Their World is a film from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women’s first conference in Washington, DC., directed by Christine Noschese and produced by Jan Peterson and Christine Noschese, 1977.
The Washington DC conference in 1975 was organized by Jan Peterson, Nancy Seifer and Barbara Mikulski to bring the concerns and perspectives of women to discussions regarding urban policy and civil rights.
After a failed Senate run in 1976, and an unsuccessful bid for mayor of New York City in 1977, Abzug would continue, until the end of her life, to be a voice for women.
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), 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, she 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, held in Miami in 1991, where 1,500 women from 83 countries produced the Women’s Action Agenda 21. 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.
Abzug battled breast cancer and won, but died on March 31, 1998 following open heart surgery.
She lives on in all of us who continue her fight for gender, civil, human, and environmental rights.
Kudos to that wonderful, uppity, outspoken woman.