As the War on Women rages all around us, with attacks lobbed at everything from our reputations to our reproductive systems, I often find myself wishing Bella Abzug were here to rally women to the barricades with her big, bold voice.
I especially wish Bella were here to galvanize younger women. The young feminist activist Shelby Knox says her generation was taught that gender equality was a fait accompli; as a result, when they run into gender barriers, they think it’s their own fault. Bella would have had none of that.
Bella Savitsky Abzug (1920 – 1998) was an attorney, three-term Congressional Representative for New York City, social justice activist and outspoken leader of the women’s movement.
As The New York Times noted in her obituary, “She brought with her a belligerent, exuberant politics that made her a national character. Often called just Bella, she was recognizable everywhere by her big hats and a voice that Norman Mailer said ‘could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck’.”
Or as she put it: “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over.”
Bella was fearless, and her fearlessness was contagious. When she spoke from the podium or walked boldly at the front of a march, women felt unstoppable.
"The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes."
– Bella Abzug
Those were the days when men in power told feminist women we should be patient and ladylike. We were supposed to wait while they decided what we were entitled to and when they would give it to us. Bella quickly and loudly set them straight. She knew she was making some enemies along the way, but as the Times wrote, she “saw that as a consequence of a refusal to compromise, as well as a matter of sport.”
Along with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisolm and other feminist leaders, Bella was a founder the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was the first Jewish woman to be elected to Congress and stayed for three terms. Her winning 1970 campaign slogan: “The woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.”
"Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel."
– Bella Abzug
Bella also served as chairwoman of President Carter’s National Women’s Advisory Council and presided over the first National Conference on Women in 1977. The Celebrate Women’s History Month website has an extraordinary photo of Bella with a dazzling array of powerful women at that conference — Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Linda Johnson Robb, Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King.
Feminism was not Bella’s only cause. She fought for union rights; she was a founder of Women Strike for Peace in the Vietnam era; and she supported legislation for gay rights. As Wikipedia notes: “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.” (At left, Ed Koch and Bella with President Carter.)
"I prefer the word 'homemaker' because 'housewife' always implies that there may be a wife someplace else."
– Bella Abzug
In her private life, Bella was happily married to Martin Abzug for 42 years until his death in 1986. They had two daughters, Eve and Liz. Liz Abzug went on to found the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, which is dedicated to mentoring and training high school and college age women to become “effective, dynamic and visionary leaders as well as active and creative participants in civic, political, corporate and community life."
Learn more about Bella Abzug: