Bella Abzug 1920 - 1998

Women's Rights Leader, Civil Rights Activist and Human Rights Pioneer

Bella Abzug was born Bella Savitzky, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, one month after the passage of the nineteenth amendment. This amendment gave women the right to vote in America. This seems to be fate that a woman who becomes a strong activist for woman's equality is born only one month after women started receiving recognition in America. At age 12 Bella became a Zionist, collecting money and giving speeches for Zionist causes at subway stops. She had an amazing outlook on all kinds of people from such a young age and spoke out for what she believed in.

Bella Savitzky Abzug attended public schools, graduated Hunter College in 1942 and attended Columbia University Law School, where she specialized in labor law. During her years at Columbia University Law School, she was the editor of the Columbia Law Review.

In 1945 Bella Savitsky married Martin M. Abzug and received her LL.B. from Columbia. Over the next 23 years Abzug divided her time between practicing civil rights and labor law, and defending individuals accused of subversive activity during the McCarthy era. Bella Savitsky Abzug was a "Founding Mother" for an astounding network of organizations and alliances impacting our entire world. "Bella Abzug was a spitfire" said Ira Forman, executive director of the national Jewish Democratic Council. She was the founder and national legislative representative for the Woman's Strike for Peace in the 1960's and chaired the organization from 1961 to 1970's. Throughout the McCarthy era, Bella Abzug played an active role in politics from the side lines. She heavily campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and organized the Taxpayers Campaign for urban priorities during the New York mayoral election of 1969. In 1970, Bella Abzug decided congress needed a more active representative in congress, so she challenged Democratic incumbent Leonard Farbstein for the house seat in the nineteenth district. Abzug, the first Jewish woman elected to congress, won the house seat in the general election against candidate Barry Farber.

Bella Abzug could not stop there, she continued to find and chair several of the countries liberal political organizations for women. She was the co-founder of WEDO - Women's Environment and Development Organization, supported the equal rights amendment, a woman's credit-right's bill, abortion rights, and child-care legislation. Bella's brash and flamboyant manner earned her the nicknames, "Battling Bella", "Hurricane Bella", and "Mother of Courage". She sat on the Committee on Government Operations and the Committee on Public Works. From Abzug's first day in congress she introduced a resolution calling for the withdrawal of United States troops from Southeast Asia. Throughout her first term, Bella Abzug was extremely active and was not shy "To Beat The Drum Loudly". That was her style. She started taking action on the following issues: she called for an end to the draft, congressional approval of the Equal Rights Amendment, and an investigation into the competence of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The committee was amazed with Abzug's aggressiveness that she chaired the Committee on Government Operations, subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights during the ninety - fourth Congress.

In 1975 Bella Abzug introduced a bill to Add Sexual Orientation to Federal Civil Rights Law. The first federal lesbian and gay civil rights bill was introduced in 1975. She had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended to lesbians and gays. According to Elizabeth Birch Bella Abzug was light years ahead of her time when it came to advocating for lesbian and gay equality, she laid the groundwork for what has become the Employment Non - Discrimination act, a bill to outlaw job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bella Abzug stood for all-American people. She was a brave and dedicated advocate of fairness for lesbian and gay civil rights.

In 1995, already suffering from illness and confined to a wheel chair, Abzug attended a woman's conference in Beijing. Nothing stopped Bella Abzug. She was determined to spend every day of her life fighting for equality for everyone. She has touched so many lives within her own life. People who did not have the privilege of meeting Bella hold her in the same respect as the people who had the opportunity and the privilege of knowing Bella Savitsky Abzug.

At the age of 77 Bella Abzug died on Tuesday, March 31, 1998 after complications following heart surgery in her hometown, New York City. Bella Abzug stood and lived for so much throughout her life. She saw herself not only as a woman, but as an American, a Jew, a wife, and a congresswoman, organizer and activist. Bella Abzug cared for the world as a whole. Abzug's passion, fire, and commitment to women's issues and loyalty will always be remembered. Bella's contributions to America and to women are tremendous. Bella Abzug is one of the most admired woman in American History. She will always be remembered by Americans for her devotion to feminist causes, her raspy voice and her wide brimmed hats and last but not least for her famous saying, "WOMEN HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO SPEAK SOFTLY AND CARRY A LIPSTICK. THOSE DAYS ARE OVER!" .

Bella Abzug remembered as 'tikkun olam incarnate'By Rebecca Segall

Bella Abzug 1920 - 1998The National Women's Hall of Fame

Bella Abzug, lesbian and gay civil rights pioneer dies;Oasis Magazine: News and Events

"Contract with women of the USA"By Bella Abzug; Womansworld, a newsletter for activists, Vol. 1, May issue

Further Resources for Studying Bella Abzug:

Great Women

Return to the New York City Women's Biography Hub
Return to the Course Homepage for HST/WMS 386

Prepared by Vicki Risley, a student in Professor Catherine Lavender's History/Women's Studies 386 (Women in New York City, 1890-1940) course, The Department of History and The Program in Women's Studies, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York.

Send email to Vicki Risley at MSVICKI123@AOL.COM or to Professor Lavender at
Fall Semester 1998. Last modified: 16 December 1998