Bella Savitsky was born in 1920 in the Bronx, New York, USA, to Esther Tanklefsky and Emanuel Savitzky who emigrated from Russia. Her father was a Butcher who ran a shop called the Live & Let Live Meat Market, which was not very successful, but was named in honour of her parents’ social activism. The family were musical, and Ms Abzug was considered an excellent violinist and was renowned for her singing voice.
Ms Abzug attended synagogue with her family and credits this with forming a nascent feminism in her, objecting to the relegation of women to the rear of the synagogue. Her father died when she was 13, and she was prohibited from giving the kaddish because of her gender. From that age she would give speeches in the synagogue against such discrimination, and joined Hashomer Hatzir, a left-wing Zionist group for whom she would raise funds and give speeches.
Ms Abzug attended Hunter College in Manhattan where she served as Student President. In 1942 Ms Abzug enrolled on a scholarship at Columbia Law School but dropped out to work in a shipbuilding factory to support the war effort. She had applied to study at Harvard but was rejected on the basis of her gender. Ms Abzug married Martin Abzug towards the end of the war and when peace was declared returned to studying, graduating from Columbia in 1947 with a law degree. The couple went on to have two daughters and Martin Abzug was a tireless and supportive partner in all her endeavours.
During the 1950s she became an active public Defender in Civil Rights cases, for which she would receive veiled threats and commentaries in local newspapers which would refer to the ‘white lady lawyer’. One of her most celebrated defences, that of Willie McGee, accused of the rape of a white woman in Mississippi, was unsuccessful and he received the death penalty in 1951. This simply served to strengthen her commitment to civil rights. Ms Abzug was active in defending those accused of un-American activities by Senator McCarthy, and helped to draft legislation that was later incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1954.
In the 1960s Ms Abzug became known as a peace advocate, especially when the US and Russia resumed testing nuclear weapons and the cold war began. However, this did not always extend to personal behaviour; when insulted by a political opponent as a “radical knee-jerk pacifist” Ms Abzug reputedly hit him on the jaw. During the 1960s Ms Abzug co-founded Women Strike for Peace, a feminist anti-nuclear campaigning group, and together with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus which fought for women’s issues and reform.
Ms Abzug was elected to congress on behalf of the 19th Precinct of New York in 1971, and was the first Jewish Woman to take a seat in Congress. She was not impressed with Congress, believing it to be a bastion of privilege with only 12 women and 12 black people representing the millions throughout the country. In the same year, she succeeded in having 26th August of each year designated Women's Equality Day. The date commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment for Woman Suffrage in 1920 giving women full voting rights.
Ms Abzug fought for change from within, consistently supporting policies of peace and equality. She was a champion of welfare reform and ecological policy-making, advocating for public transport investment ahead of private transport interests. In 1975 she introduced the first gay rights bill to Congress.
Ms Abzug resigned her seat in 1976 in order to run for the Senate but lost the nomination race by 1% of the vote. She found out that year that the CIA had a file on her going back 20 years; this so outraged her she demanded a public apology from the head of the CIA, William Colby. The following year she lost the election to the position of Mayor of New York to Ed Koch and also failed to regain a seat in Congress.
MS Abzug carried on, presiding over the first Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas in 1977. In 1978 President Carter appointed her co-Chair of the advisory committee on women’s rights but her confrontational hard-line stance on inequality and criticisms of the economic policy of the administration found disfavour and she was forced to resignation in 1979. As a result, she founded Women USA, a political activism organisation.
Ms Abzug headed campaigns for women’s health care and breast cancer research, the latter with which she had been diagnosed in the 1990s. She worked head of the Women’s Environment & Development Organisation which she founded in 1990, and in 1995 travelled to China to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Abrasive and confrontational, Ms Abzug found herself criticised not only by political opponents to her policies, but also because she did not conform to the accepted behaviour of a women in society. Such criticism just gave her more impetus to fight.
Ms Abzug died on 2nd April 1998, aged 77, following complications from heart surgery and is survived by her daughters, her husband having passed in 1986. Her memory lives on through the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute which helps support and train young women to become the leaders of tomorrow.
Chin Up, Girls! A Book of Women’s Obituaries from the Daily Telegraph (Powell & Ramsay, 2005)
FOTW No. 98 posted by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group:
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson