Bella Abzug (1920-1998)

A New Yorker all her life, Bella Savitsky was born and educated there. She graduated from Hunter College in 1942 and studied during World War II at Columbia University Law School, graduating the year the war ended. She married Martin Abzug soon after graduation, was admitted to the bar two years later, and successfully practiced law during the fifties and sixties. Specializing in labor and civil rights law, much of her work was pro bono defense of victims of this reactionary era.

She was a founder of Women’s Strike for Peace in 1961 and became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement later in that decade. In 1970, Abzug unseated a congressional incumbent in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election. On her first day in Congress, she defied tradition by rising to offer a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia. She published a book detailing her first days in government, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, in 1972.

The object of a great deal of media attention, both negative and positive, Abzug left her congressional seat after three terms to run for the Senate in 1976. She was defeated, and subsequently also lost elections for mayor and Congress. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to co-chair his National Advisory Committee on Women, but she served only about a year before he asked for her resignation; once again, Abzug’s famously abrasive style was questioned as counterproductive. In 1982, New York Democratic party leaders similarly refused to seat her as a delegate to the national midterm conference in Philadelphia, although a few years later, she was again serving on the Democratic National Committee.

During the 1980s, Abzug practiced law, wrote, taught, and worked as a television commentator. Always recognized as a prime leader in the women’s movement, few national gatherings were held without her fiery speeches, and her famous hat was seen at the head of prochoice marches throughout the eighties. In 1991, Abzug co-chaired the Women’s Environmental & Development Organization and was a featured speaker at the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet. Abzug’s papers are on deposit at the Butler Library of Columbia University.

Reprinted with permission from: Doris Weatherford. American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events, (Prentice Hall, 1994)