ABZUG, Bella Savitzky

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
ABZUG, Bella Savitzky
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
1920–1998

Biography

Bella Abzug, feminist and civil rights advocate, embodied many Americans’ discontent with the political establishment in the tumultuous Vietnam War era. She gained notoriety as one of the most colorful and controversial House Members during the 1970s. Once quoted as saying “women have been trained to talk softly and carry a lipstick,” the feisty New York Congresswoman spent much of her life refuting the notion that women should remain on the political sidelines.1 Despite only serving in Congress for three terms, Abzug’s political flair and unwavering determination helped inspire an entire generation of women and created a new model for future Congresswomen. “She was such a trailblazer,” a former aide noted after Abzug’s death in 1998, “It wasn’t that she was the first woman in Congress. It was that she was the first woman to get in Congress and lead the way toward creating a feminist presence.”2

The daughter of Russian–Jewish immigrants Emmanuel and Esther Tanklefsky Savitsky, she was born Bella Savitsky in the Bronx, New York, on July 24, 1920. She received an A.B. from Hunter College in Manhattan in 1942 and immediately entered Columbia University Law School. In 1944, Bella Savitsky married Martin Abzug. As a stockbroker and novelist, her husband had little inclination toward politics. Nevertheless, Bella Abzug counted him as her closest confidant and supporter: “one of the few un–neurotic people left in society.”3 The Abzugs raised two children: Eve and Liz. After interrupting her studies to work in a shipyard during World War II, Bella Abzug served as editor of the Columbia Law Review, and graduated with an LL.B. in 1947. For the next two decades Abzug practiced law on behalf of people whom the existing legal and social structures bypassed, citizens she once described as being “on the outside of power.”4 She defended Willie McGee, an African–American man convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for raping a white woman. She also represented individuals whom Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigatory committee tarred as communist agents. In 1961 Abzug cofounded Women Strike for Peace, a group which protested the nuclear arms race and, later, the American military commitment in Vietnam. She served as a leader in the “Dump Johnson” movement to remove embattled President Lyndon B. Johnson from the 1968 Democratic ticket. Reflecting on this long record, Abzug later conceded that she was at heart an activist rather than a politician.5

In 1970, at the age of 50, Abzug made her first attempt at elected office, when she decided to enter the race for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in Manhattan’s wealthy, liberal Upper West Side. Employing the campaign slogan “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!” Abzug ran on an antiwar and pro–feminist platform. Her insistence that she would have a stronger voice and more active presence on Capitol Hill than her opponent helped Abzug earn 55 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and unseat the seven–term incumbent, Leonard Farbstein.6 In the general election, Abzug defeated Republican–Liberal Barry Farber, a radio talk show host, in a three–way election, with 52 percent to Farber’s 43 percent.7 Throughout the campaign, Abzug benefited from the support of celebrity entertainers and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. The national media focused on her effort, foreshadowing the publicity she would attract as a sitting Representative.8

After taking the official oath of office for the 92nd Congress (1971–1973) on January 3, 1971, Abzug took a “people’s oath” on the House steps administered by her New York colleague Shirley Chisholm. Onlookers cheered, “Give ’em hella, Bella!” By seeking a seat on the coveted Armed Services Committee, Abzug also flaunted House decorum, which expected freshman to accept lower–level committee assignments. The request was denied (she eventually accepted positions on the Government Operations and Public Works committees). Undeterred, she worked on devising methods to dismantle the entrenched House seniority system that prevented most newly elected Representatives from receiving influential assignments. Despite her freshman status, Abzug made waves in Congress by supporting a variety of controversial causes. On the first day of the session, she introduced legislation demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. She authored a bill to end the draft, an institution she likened to “slavery” motivated by “insane priorities,” and she asked for an investigation into the competence of widely feared Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover.9 “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure,” Abzug wrote in her journal, published in 1972.10 “Battling Bella,” an epithet she earned because of her tenacity and confrontational demeanor, also had the distinction of being one of the first politicians to publicly call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, even before the 1973 congressional outcry about his Vietnam policy in early 1972.11

Writer Norman Mailer once described Abzug’s voice as an instrument that “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”12 Cognizant that her personality often prompted discussion and, at times, dismay from onlookers, Abzug retorted, “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made clear from the outset—I am a very serious woman.”13 Easy to spot in her trademark wide–brimmed hat (which she began wearing as a young female professional because she believed it was the only way men “would take you seriously”), Abzug waged a highly publicized battle to protect her right to wear it on the House Floor. Her colorful style attracted as many dedicated opponents as it did admirers and allies. A 1972 report by Ralph Nader estimated that Abzug’s sponsorship of a bill often cost it as many as 30 votes.14 Nevertheless, she inspired young women, many of whom became prominent politicians. “Let’s be honest about it: She did not knock politely on the door,” New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro said. “She took the hinges off of it.” The 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate conceded, “If there never had been a Bella Abzug, there never would have been a Gerry Ferraro.”15

In 1972, when Abzug’s district was merged with a neighboring one, she decided to run against popular reform Democrat William Fitts Ryan in a newly created district which extended her former west Manhattan district’s boundaries farther south and east. The primary was a bitter contest, even by New York City’s standards. Ryan defeated Abzug but died two months before the general election. The Democratic committee appointed Abzug as its replacement candidate. She defeated Ryan’s widow, Priscilla, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket in another divisive campaign. Abzug took 56 percent of the vote to Ryan’s 28 percent in a five–way race. In 1974, Abzug easily defeated her GOP opponent, Stephen Posner, with 79 percent of the vote.16

Abzug’s sustained clash with the conventions of Congress and her party’s political machine mitigated her ability to fulfill her ambitious political agenda, but she did achieve some solid results. Her most noteworthy contributions, particularly the “sunshine” laws under the Freedom of Information Act, came as a member of the Government Operations Committee. She worked to make government, particularly national security policies, more transparent. The “sunshine law,” which required government hearings to be held in public, came out of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, which she chaired.17 During her first term, she coauthored the Child Development Act with Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. When promoting the legislation on the floor of the House, she emphasized that the bill concerned women as much as children, commenting, “Without adequate, low–cost day care facilities, women are doomed to occupy low–paying, low–prestige jobs; without day care, women must remain economic serfs.”18 Abzug also introduced groundbreaking legislation aimed at increasing the rights of lesbians and gays. The bill called for amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual or affectional preference.”19

In 1976, Abzug chose not to run for a fourth House term, instead waging a close but unsuccessful campaign against Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Democratic primary for an open Senate seat. In 1977, she also failed in her bid for the New York City Democratic mayoral nomination. When the winner of the mayor’s race, Ed Koch, resigned from Congress, Abzug tried but failed to win his vacant seat on New York’s Upper East Side. President Jimmy Carter named her the co–chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women in 1978, though Abzug later was replaced when she criticized the administration’s economic policies. In 1986, Abzug made another bid for the House of Representatives, this time in Westchester County, New York. After winning the Democratic primary, however, she lost in the general election to the Republican incumbent, Joseph DioGuardi.20 Her last attempt to regain a place in Congress came six years later when Abzug announced her intention to run for the open seat in her old district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, following the death of Congressman Ted Weiss. Abzug’s desire to return to politics was cut short when party leaders failed to back her candidacy.21

In her two–decade, postpolitical career, Abzug remained a respected and visible figure in the feminist movement. She addressed international women’s conferences in Beijing, Nairobi, and Copenhagen. She also established the Women USA Fund and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, both nonprofit advocacy groups that worked to give women’s issues more prominence on the United Nations’ agenda. New York Mayor David Dinkins appointed her to chair his Commission on the Status of Women from 1993 to 1995. Her health declined as she battled breast cancer and heart disease. Abzug died in New York City on March 31, 1998.

Footnotes

1Michele Ladsberg, “Bella Abzug Was ‘Alive to Her Fingertips,’” 12 April 1998, Toronto Star: A2.

2Susan Baer, “Founding, Enduring Feminist Bella Abzug is dead at 77,” 1 April 1998, Baltimore Sun: 1A.

3Laura Mansnerus, “Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman and a Founding Feminist, Is Dead,” 1 April 1998, New York Times: A1.

4Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 334.

5Edward L. Lach, Jr., “Abzug, Bella,” http://www.anb.org/articles/07/07–00714.html, American National Biography (ANB) (accessed 19 June 2002).

6Lach, “Abzug, Bella,” ANB online.

7“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

8Almanac of American Politics, 1972 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 1972): 546.

9Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 19.

10Bella Abzug, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972).

11Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women: 19; Spencer Rich and Richard L. Lyons, “President Rebuffed by Democrats,” 10 May 1972, Washington Post: A1.

12Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 334.

13Abzug, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington.

14Mansnerus, “Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman and a Founding Feminist, Is Dead.”

15Adam Nagourney, “Recalling Bella Abzug’s Politics and Passion,” New York Times, 3 April 1998: D17.

16Almanac of American Politics, 1974 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 1974): 696–697; see also, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

17Mansnerus, “Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman and a Founding Feminist, Is Dead.”

18Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st sess. (7 December 1971): 45091–45092.

19Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 1st sess. (25 March 1975): 8581.

20“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

21Mansnerus, “Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman and a Founding Feminist, Is Dead.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Columbia University
Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Butler Library

New York, NY
Papers: 1970-1976, ca. 554,100 items Congressional papers consisting of correspondence, memoranda, speeches, reports, photographs, and printed materials relating to her terms in Congress. The collection contains general correspondence and administrative files, as well as extensive subject files on a wide variety of topics with which Bella Abzug was involved while in Congress. Also included are legislative files, being the chronological files of background material for legislation considered on the House floor, and printed versions of legislation by Bella Abzug and others. The casework files document Bella Abzug's advocacy on behalf of constituents involved in civil rights, housing, military, employment and related cases, are closed. Among the major correspondents are Carl Albert, Abraham D. Beame, Hugh L. Carey, Gerald R. Ford, Edward I. Koch, John V. Lindsay, Nelson A. Rockefeller, and Gloria Steinem. Materials added in 1981 include draft transcripts of an oral history, appointment books, speeches and subject files (particularly on privacy and freedom of information). These materials are interfiled in the collection with campaign materials, press releases, and newspaper clippings. Casework files, selected correspondence, and administrative files are closed until January 1, 2005. Selected correspondence and administrative files are also closed. Campaign materials, press releases, and newspaper clippings from the 1981 addition require the donor's permission. A register to the papers is available.

Georgia Department of Archives and History
Georgia Coordinating Committee on the Observance of International Women's Year records.

Atlanta, GA
Papers: 1975-1978, 3 cubic feet. Includes a transcript of a speech and photographs.

New York University
The Tamiment Institute Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

New York, NY
Papers: 1946-1985, 3 linear feet. Includes political literature and photographs from the campaigns of Bella Abzug.
Papers: In the papers of the National Organization for Women (NOW), New York Chapter, 1966-1973, 3.5 linear feet. Correspondents include Bella Abzug. The permission of NOW is required to use the collection. An unpublished guide to the papers is available.
Oral Histories: Interviews by film makers, 1976-1981, 259 interviews. Subjects covered in the interviews include Bella Abzug. The use of some of the material requires the permission of the film maker.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: Candidates for public office campaign materials, 1966-1976 (inclusive), 0.5 linear foot. Subjects covered in the materials include Bella Abzug. An unpublished finding aid is available in the library.
Photographs: In the photographs of Diana Mara Henry, 1969-1976 (inclusive), 49 folders and 1 oversize folder. Subjects of the photographs include Bella Abzug. Copy prints and permission to publish or exhibit must be obtained from Diana Henry, who retains all rights. An unpublished finding aid is available in the library.
Videotapes: Woman alive! Producted by KERA-TV Dallas/Fort Worth and WNET/13 New York, ca. 1974-1977, 1.5 linear feet. Consists of videotapes and program books. Subjects include Bella Abzug. An appointment is required for viewing. An unpublished finding aid is available in the library.

Rutgers University
Rutgers University Libraries

New Brunswick, NJ
Papers: In the papers of the New Democratic Coalition of New York, 1960-1978, 49 cubic feet. Persons represented include Bella Abzug. A finding aid is available in the repository.

University of Virginia
Special Collections Department, Alderman Library

Charlottesville, VA
Papers: In the papers of Woodford McClellan, 1969-1978, 1.8 feet (ca. 1600 items). Correspondents include Bella Abzug. The papers are closed to researchers. A finding aid to the papers is available.

Wisconsin Historical Society
Archives Division

Madison, WI
Papers: In the records of the GI Civil Defense Committee, 1968-1971, 1.2 cubic feet (3 archival boxes). Includes two letters from Bella Abzug. A register of the records is available.
Papers: In the records of the National Peace Action Coalition, 1970-1973, 10 reels of microfilm, 6 tape recordings, and 0.1 cubic foot of unprocessed additions. Correspondents include Bella Abzug. The records are only available on microfilm. A register to the records is available.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Abzug, Bella. Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. Edited by Mel Ziegler. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.

___. et al. Women: Looking Beyond 2000. New York: United Nations, 1995.

___.with Mim Kelber. Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

___. Women's Foreign Policy Council Directory: A Guide to Women's Foreign Policy Specialists and Listings of Women and Organizations Working in International Affairs. New York: The Council, 1987.

"Bella Savitzky Abzug" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Faber, Doris. Bella Abzug. New York: Lothrop, 1976.

Levine, Suzanne Marin and Mary Thom, eds. 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 Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, And Shook Up Politics Along the Way. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007.

Ralph Nader Congress Project. Citizens Look at Congress: Bella S. Abzug, Democratic Representative from New York. Washington, D. C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Government Operations
    • Government Information and Individual Rights - Chair
  • House Committee - Public Works
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
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