Bella Savitzky, or “Battling Bella”, was born in 1920 in New-York city from Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Already at an early age, she was fearless, bold and outspoken, and would not let anyone (boys included) beat her in any competition. When a father died, Abzug was aged 13 and she was told that she could not say the mourners´ Kaddish at the synagogue because, as a rite reserved for sons, it was forbidden for women to say it. Her father had no sons and Bella, determined to mourn her father in the way she wanted, went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the prayer. In doing so, she courageously defied the tradition of her Jewish community.
She decided quite early in her life that she wanted to become a lawyer and got her law degree from Columbia University in 1947. She had originally applied at the Harvard Law School, where she had been rejected because of her gender. Again, this did not stop her in her career. She first worked as a lawyer for a few years (starting in labour law and then with civil rights). In 1961, she helped organise the Women Strike for Peace group protesting the nuclear arms race and later the American military involvement in Vietnam. Ten years later, in 1971, she joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan to establish the National Women´s Political Caucus in order to secure more elected positions for women in politics and to lobby for reform.
In those same years, and wanting to have more impact on the political processes, Abzug ran for Congress. Her first campaign slogan was “This woman´s place is in the House – the House of Representatives”. She became the first woman in Congress and led the way for other women to do so. She was always seeking to advance and fight for the causes she believed in, for women´s and civil rights, no matter how much backlash she could receive. In 1975, she introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress and co-authored the Child Development Act, which would also improve the lives of women. “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.”
Running for the US Senate in 1976, she sadly lost to her opponent by only 1%. She was later appointed to co-chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women´s Year, she presided over the National Women´s Conference and let the National Advisory Commission for Women under Jimmy Carter´s presidency.
Not every one of her attempts worked out, but she never stopped the effort on many causes in the eighties and nineties. She spent her career defending the citizens she described as “on the outside of power”, people who were not protected by the existing legal and social structures. She was also among the founders of the Women´s Environmental Development Organisation (WEDO), advocacy group to give women´s issues more prominence on the United Nation´s agenda and achieve full economic rights and equal representation for women.
Mid-1990s, she began having health problems, battling breast cancer, while continuing to work. She even attended the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1994 in Beijing. She passed away four years later.
She will be remembered as that bold, tenacious and tireless fighter, always wearing big and colourful hats, which she started wearing as a young female professional because she said it was the only way to be taken seriously. Once her political opponent, Ed Koch, said of her “The women of the world, not just the country, owe her a great debt. She stood up for them as nobody else. She was their champion.” Although a great homage, it can be said without doubt, that not only women, but everyone else´s life in the United States was improved because of her.
By Teresa Iglesias-Lopez, WAVE Intern
“About Bella Abzug.” Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, www.abzuginstitute.org/about-bella-abzug/.
“Abzug, Bella Savitzky.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/People/Detail/8276.
“Bella Abzug Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 1 Mar. 2017, www.biography.com/people/bella-abzug-9174815.
Berman, Eliza. “Meet Women’s Equality Day Founder Bella Abzug.” Time, 26 Aug. 2016, time.com/4459168/womens-equality-day-bella-abzug/.