This Day in Jewish History

1998: A Former U.S. Congresswoman and Pioneering Feminist Dies

Bella Abzug was such a lightning rod for her progressive views that Ralph Nader once estimated her sponsorship of a bill could actually cost it 20-30 votes.

Wikimedia Commons

On March 31, 1998, Bella Abzug a three-term former U.S. congresswoman and pioneering feminist, died, at the age of 77. Abzug, who on her first day in the House, in 1971, introduced a resolution calling for an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam (it was unsuccessful), became nationally recognized overnight for the wide-brimmed hats she always wore, as well as for a rapier-sharp wit.

Bella Abzug was born on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx, New York. Both of her parents, Emanuel and Esther Savitzky, were Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire, and they raised her and her sister in a religiously traditional, but liberal, music-filled home. Emanuel owned a Manhattan butcher’s he called the Live and Let Live Meat Market.

Bella was active in the radical-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair from age 11, and had her first experience of public speaking raising money for the group in the New York subway. When she was 13, her father died, and although her synagogue told her she was not permitted to say Kaddish for him, she showed up every morning for 11 months and did just that, with no one daring to stop her.

Abzug attended Walton High School, in the Bronx, and Hunter College; in both schools she was student body president. She also studied at the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary while in college. Later, at Columbia Law School, from which she graduated in 1947, she was an editor of the law review.

She met Martin Abzug on a bus in Miami during a visit to relatives there – both were on their way to a violin recital by Yehudi Menuhin. They were married in 1944, and were together until the death of Martin, a stockbroker and novelist, in 1986. They had two daughters.

During a law career of nearly 25 years (it was in this period that she began wearing hats so that people wouldn’t assume she was a secretary), Bella Abzug represented labor unions, individuals called to testify before congressional committees investigating suspected communists in the 1950s, and clients in civil rights cases. The latter included Willie McGee, a black man sentenced to death in Mississippi in 1945 after being convicted of raping a white woman. Abzug appealed his case up to the Supreme Court, but McGee was electrocuted in 1951.

Abzug’s first run for Congress was in 1970, when she unseated the 14-year incumbent in New York’s 19th district. Two years later, after redistricting, she ran in the 20th district and won, holding that seat for two terms, before running, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate (then an all-male institution) in 1976.

Abzug was a highly visible and professional politician, although something of a lightning rod for her outspoken feminism, anti-war sentiments and concern for human rights issues. Although one electoral opponent tried to paint her as weak in her support for Israel, she considered herself a Zionist and a supporter of Israel’s peace movement. Political activist Ralph Nader estimated in 1972 that Abzug’s sponsorship of a bill could actually cost it 20-30 votes. And writer and gadfly Norman Mailer once said that Abzug possessed a voice that ‘’could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.’’

Abzug herself commented about her own style, in a 1972 journal entry, that “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

In the decades after leaving Congress, Abzug made several attempts to reenter electoral politics, including a 1977 run for mayor, in which she was defeated by Ed Koch. Although several races were very close, she was never elected again. Instead, she had a new career as lobbyist and activist for women’s and environmental causes internationally. Most prominently, she co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an NGO that helped define an agenda for, and do lobbying at, successive United Nations women’s conferences.

Abzug suffered from cancer and then heart disease in her final years, Abzug kept up her activism to the end, speaking from a wheelchair at the UN a few weeks before her death. She died following heart surgery in New York, on this day in 1998.

You can follow This Day in Jewish History on Twitter: @davidbeegreen