A self-proclaimed political outsider, Elizabeth Holtzman defeated a 50-year House veteran and powerful chairman to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her four terms in the House, Holtzman earned national prominence as an active member of the Judiciary Committee during the President Richard M. Nixon impeachment inquiry and as a cofounder of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues.
Elizabeth Holtzman and her twin brother, Robert, were born on August 11, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian immigrants Sidney Holtzman, a lawyer, and Filia Holtzman, a faculty member in the Hunter College Russian Department. Elizabeth Holtzman graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1962 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and received her JD from Harvard Law School in 1965, one of 15 women in her class of more than 500. After graduation, she returned to New York to practice law and became active in state Democratic politics. From 1967 to 1970, Holtzman managed parks and recreation as an assistant to New York City Mayor John Vliet Lindsay. From 1970 to 1972, she served as a New York state Democratic committee member and as a district leader from Flatbush. She also cofounded the Brooklyn Women’s Political Caucus.
In 1972 Holtzman mounted a long-shot campaign to unseat incumbent Congressman Emanuel Celler, who had represented central Brooklyn for half a century and was chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.1 Though she lacked the funding that Celler mustered for the Democratic primary, Holtzman mounted an energetic grassroots campaign by canvassing the urban district. “If I had known how little money we could raise, I would never have gotten into it,” Holtzman recalled.2 “But in those days, I substituted shoe leather for dollars. We had no TV commercials, we had no radio commercials, we had no polling. No one took us seriously, but we still won.”3 She often introduced herself to patrons in lines outside movie theaters, emphasizing her commitment to constituent needs. “There was no hostility to the fact that I was a woman. I remember truck drivers leaning out of their trucks and saying, ‘I think it’s great … it’s fantastic that a woman is running,’” she recalled. “I found mothers taking their daughters up to me. They wanted their daughters to have a different conception of the possibilities for them.”4
Holtzman noted that the 84-year-old Celler had become increasingly distant from local affairs. She recalled that “nobody talked about him, and he was never there. He didn’t have an office in the district; you had to go to his law office in Manhattan. He never was present in any community meetings.”5 She further played on her substantive policy disagreements with the incumbent, who had for years bottled up the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the Judiciary Committee and had been an unwavering supporter of the war in Vietnam, an unpopular stance in the Democratic district. Holtzman won the nomination by a narrow margin of 635 votes, whereupon Time magazine dubbed her “Liz the Lion Killer.”6 In the general election, Holtzman was the sound winner, with 66 percent to Republican Nicholas R. Macchio Jr.’s 23 percent. Running as a Liberal Party candidate, Celler left the race in September, endorsing Holtzman; however, he still received 7 percent of the vote.7 “My victory says that no political figure, no matter how powerful, can forget about the people he was elected to serve,” Holtzman declared.8 In her subsequent three re-election bids, Holtzman never was seriously challenged, winning with margins of 70 percent or more.9
When Elizabeth Holtzman took her seat in the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), at the age of 31, she became the youngest woman to serve in the House at the time. Immediately after her election, Representative Holtzman obtained a seat on the powerful Judiciary Committee. In the 94th Congress (1975–1977), she was assigned to the Budget Committee, and she remained on these two panels for the rest of her career on Capitol Hill. Holtzman also served on the Select Committee on Aging in the 96th Congress (1979–1981).
From her seat on the Judiciary Committee, Holtzman gained notoriety through her participation in the Nixon impeachment hearings as a freshman Representative. Of her role in reaching a verdict, Holtzman said, “It’s the most serious decision I’ll ever have to make.”10 She later aggressively questioned President Gerald R. Ford about his pardon of Nixon and defended the government’s claim over the Nixon tapes and papers.11 In 1973 Holtzman filed suit to halt American military action in Cambodia on the grounds that it had never been approved by Congress. A district court ruled the Cambodian invasion unconstitutional, but the court of appeals reversed the decision.12
Like many of her Democratic colleagues, Holtzman challenged military spending levels and weapons programs in the post-Vietnam era. Holtzman praised the Jimmy Carter administration’s decision not to pursue a neutron bomb. “I think the people of the world have a right not to see life jeopardized by nuclear holocaust, and that means not only Russian life and American life but all life on this earth,” she said in a floor speech. “The development of the neutron bomb and the deployment of countless unnecessary nuclear weapons will simply take us further down the road to such a holocaust.”13
In 1977 Congresswomen Holtzman and Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts cofounded the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. As co-chairs, they persuaded all but a handful of the House women to join, and the group held its first meeting on April 19, 1977. Though the women Members had met informally since the early 1970s to discuss women’s issues, Holtzman had to allay the fears of many colleagues who were reluctant to join a formal caucus because they “felt their constituents wouldn’t understand working on women’s issues. Some were very worried that they would be embarrassed politically.”14 The organizers agreed that the caucus would be used as a forum to create momentum for legislation on which Members could find consensus rather than as a disciplined unit that spoke with one voice on all issues.15
One of the group’s first battles was for passage of the ERA. In 1978 Holtzman led the fight to secure a seven-year extension of the March 1979 ratification deadline, a move that many Members considered to be on shaky constitutional grounds when it was introduced in committee.16 Congress eventually added three-and-a-half years to the deadline. Holtzman also helped secure a prohibition on sex discrimination in federal programs during her time in the House. Holtzman recognized the significant role of women lawmakers. “The vast majority of the legislation that’s been introduced affecting the status of women was introduced by women.”17 The Women’s Caucus was a way to more effectively pursue this legislative agenda, she said. “It’s a way of organizing women to work on these issues. Educating them about the issues—and men who associate themselves with these causes—and figuring out ways of resolving them.”18
In 1980, rather than seek re-election for a fifth term in the House, Representative Holtzman entered the Democratic primary for nomination to the Senate. She won the heated contest for the nomination against Bess Myerson, a former Miss America-turned-consumer advocate, and Holtzman’s former boss, John Lindsay. The Congresswoman portrayed herself as a candidate who was not beholden to special interests and who stood up to the political machine: “I have never been handpicked by the bosses. I have never been handpicked by anyone.” It also marked the first time that a major party had nominated a woman to run for the Senate in New York. Holtzman ran on her record in the House, including the ERA extension and her service on the Judiciary Committee. “While others kept silent, I asked Gerald Ford the hard questions about whether the Nixon pardon was a deal.”19 In the general election, she ran in a three-way race that included the incumbent Republican Jacob Koppel Javits, who had lost the GOP primary but ran on the Liberal ticket, and the man who beat Javits, a little-known Long Island politician named Alfonse Marcello D’Amato. Despite her distinguished record in Congress, Holtzman narrowly lost to Republican candidate D’Amato, 44.8 percent to 43.5 percent, with Javits drawing off about 11 percent of the vote.20
A year after the loss of the Senate seat, Holtzman was elected district attorney of Brooklyn and served in that office until she was elected comptroller of New York City in 1989.21 In 1992, she entered the Democratic Senate primary against former House colleague Geraldine Anne Ferraro and state attorney general Robert Abrams for the nomination to challenge Senator D’Amato in the general election. In an internecine primary squabble, Holtzman accused Ferraro of ethics violations during her House career and of ties to the mafia.22 Abrams eventually won the Democratic nomination. Many observers believed that Holtzman’s campaign tactics had effectively ended her political career. In 1993 she failed in her bid for the Democratic nomination for city comptroller. Holtzman entered private law practice in New York City and published her memoirs in 1996.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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