Bella Savitsky was born on July 24, 1920, in New York City. Both of her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her mother, Esther, was a homemaker and her father, Emanuel ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market.
When her father died, Abzug, then 13, was disallowed to say the Mourner's Kaddish for her father in synagogue, where that privilege was reserved for sons of the deceased. However, she did so as one of her first feminist actions because her father had no son.
Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City, where she was class president, and went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York, later earning a law degree from Columbia University in 1947. She then went on to do further post-graduate work at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Abzug was admitted to the New York Bar in 1947, and started practicing in New York City at the firm of Pressman, Witt & Cammer, particularly in matters of labor law. She became an attorney in the 1940s, a time when very few women practiced law. During this time, she began wearing wide-brimmed hats to work to ensure that she wasn't mistaken for a secretary. The hats became her trademark.
Early on, she took on civil rights cases in the South. She appealed the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted in 1945 of raping a white woman in Laurel, Mississippi and sentenced to death by an all-white jury who deliberated for only two-and-a-half minutes. Abzug lost the appeal and the man was executed. Abzug was an outspoken advocate of liberal causes, including the failed Equal Rights Amendment, and opponent of the Vietnam War. Years before she was elected to the House of Representatives, she was a co-founder of Women Strike for Peace. Her political stands placed her on the master list of Nixon political opponents.
Abzug was a supporter of the Zionist movement. As a young woman she was a member of the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. In 1975 she led the fight against United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 (revoked in 1991 by resolution 46/86) which "determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination."
She supported various international peace movements, which in Israel was led by Shulamit Aloni and others.
In 1970, she challenged 14-year incumbent Leonard Farbstein in the Democratic primary for a congressional district on Manhattan's West Side. She defeated Farbstein in a considerable upset, and then defeated talk show host Barry Farber in the general election. She was reelected two more times. For her last two terms, she represented part of The Bronx as well.
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.
Abzug's career in Congress ended with an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1976. She was narrowly defeated by a more conservative Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan who went on to be elected and served four terms.
Abzug never held elective office again after leaving the U.S. House, although she remained a high-profile figure and was again a candidate on multiple occasions. She was unsuccessful in a bid to be the Mayor of New York City in 1977, and in attempts to return to the U.S. House from the East Side of Manhattan in 1978 and from Westchester County in 1986. Abzug then founded and ran several women's advocacy organizations, in 1979 Women U.S.A., and continued to lead feminist advocacy events, for example serving as grand marshall of the 1980 August 26 Women's Equality Day New York March. In 1990, she co-founded the Women’s Environment & Development Organization to mobilize women’s participation in international conferences, particularly those run by the United Nations and appeared in the WLIW video A Laugh, A Tear, A Mitzvah, Woody Allen's Manhattan (as herself), a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live, and the documentary New York: A Documentary Film.
After battling breast cancer for a number of years, she developed heart disease and died on March 31, 1998 from complications following open heart surgery. She was 77.
Congresswoman Abzug was married to Martin Abzug, whom she met on a bus in Miami on the way to a concert by Yehudi Menuhin, from 1944 until his death in 1986. The couple had two children, Eve and Liz.
In 2004, her daughter Liz Abzug, an adjunct Urban Studies Professor at Barnard College and a political consultant, founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute (BALI) to mentor and train high school and college women to become effective leaders in civic, political, corporate and community life.
To commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the first National Women’s Conference, a ground-breaking event held in Houston in 1977 and over which Bella Abzug presided, BALI hosted a National Women’s Conference on the weekend of November 10–11, 2007, at Hunter College, NYC. Over 600 people from around the world attended. In addition to celebrating the 1977 Conference, the 2007 agenda was to address significant women’s issues for the 21st century. In 1994 she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and was honored, on March 6, 1997, at the United Nations as a leading female environmentalist. The following year, Ms. Magazine named her a role model.
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 ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way by Suzanne Braun Levine & Mary Thom
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (December 9, 2008)
Amazon: 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 ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way
"A remarkable work of oral history [and] a fond, provocative testament to a remarkable life."*
“A fabulous read about a breed of politician now largely extinct . . . Levine and Thom have crafted a history that brings to life one of the great political personalities of the twentieth century.”
—ALICE ECHOLS, Bookforum
“Incorporates . . . interviews with excerpts from the influential feminist’s unpublished memoirs to create a kind of conversation about the woman, the politician and the times in which she lived.”
—*SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS, Los Angeles Times
“Abzug was certainly a major player in our change in attitudes in the second part of the past century [and] Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom give us a fascinating glimpse into [an] inspirational but undeniably peculiar period that is receding, all too quickly, into the past.”
—CAROLYN SEE, The Washington Post
“[A] fluid, sharply edited book . . . Abzug was a force of nature, and the stories about her are consistently feisty.”—JON DOLAN, Time Out New York
“Explodes with the energy that Bella Abzug possessed.” —DONNA BRAZILE
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