Bella Abzug

Bella Savitzky Abzug (July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998), nicknamed "Battling Bella", was an American lawyer, U.S. Representative, social activist and a leader of the Women's Movement. In 1971, Abzug joined other leading feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan to found the National Women's Political Caucus.[1]

Bella Abzug
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from New York
In office
January 3, 1971  January 3, 1977
Preceded byLeonard Farbstein
Succeeded byTheodore Weiss
Constituency19th district (1971–73)
20th district (1973–77)
Personal details
Bella Savitsky

(1920-07-24)July 24, 1920
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 31, 1998(1998-03-31) (aged 77)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Martin Abzug
EducationCity University of New York, Hunter (BA)
Columbia University (LLB)
Jewish Theological Seminary

In 1970, Abzug's first campaign slogan was, "This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives."[2] She was later appointed to co-chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year created by President Gerald Ford's executive order, presided over the 1977 National Women's Conference, and led President Jimmy Carter's National Advisory Commission for Women.

Early life

Bella Savitzky was born on July 24, 1920 in New York City.[3] Both of her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants.[4] Her mother, Esther (née Tanklefsky), was a homemaker, and her father, Emanuel Savitzky,[3] ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market. Even in her youth, she was competitive and would best others, including boys, in all sorts of competitions.[5][6]

When her father died, Abzug, then 13, was told that her Orthodox synagogue did not permit women to say the (mourners') Kaddish, since that rite was reserved for sons of the deceased. However, because her father had no sons, she went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the prayer, defying the tradition of her congregation's practice of Orthodox Judaism.[7]

Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City, where she was class president,[4] and went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York and simultaneously attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She later earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1944.[3]

Abzug was admitted to the New York Bar in 1945, 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. 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.[8] Abzug was an outspoken advocate of liberal causes, including the Equal Rights Amendment, and opposition to the Vietnam War.[3]

Years before she was elected to the House of Representatives, she was an early participant in[3] Women Strike for Peace.[9] Her political stands placed her on the master list of Nixon political opponents.

Congressional career

Nicknamed "Battling Bella",[10][11] in 1970, she challenged the 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. In 1972, her district was eliminated via redistricting and she chose to run against William Fitts Ryan, who also represented part of the West Side, in the Democratic primary. Ryan, although seriously ill, defeated Abzug. However, Ryan died before the general election and Abzug defeated his widow, Priscilla, in a party convention to choose the new Democratic nominee. In the general election Priscilla Ryan challenged Abzug on the Liberal Party line, but was unsuccessful.[12] In the general election she was reelected easily in 1974. 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.[13] She chaired historic hearings on government secrecy. She was chair of Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights. She was voted by her colleagues the third most influential member of the House as reported in U.S. News & World Report. Often recognized by these vibrant hats, though they were banned from the House, Bella reminded all who admired them: "It's what's under the hat that counts!"[14]

In February 1975, Abzug was part of a bi-partisan delegation sent to Saigon by President Gerald Ford to assess the situation on the ground in South Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Abzug was the only member of the delegation to oppose continued military and humanitarian aid to South Vietnam, yet her views quickly gained support in Congress. Abzug herself was the one who later told South Vietnamese President Thieu directly that the U.S. would not provide "one more dollar" of support. The controversial withdrawal of support contributed to the collapse of South Vietnam.

Abzug was a supporter of Zionism. As a young woman she was a member of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement of Hashomer Hatzair.[15] In 1975 she challenged the 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".[16]

Campaign for U.S. Senate

Abzug's career in Congress ended with an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 1976, which she lost by less than one percent to the more moderate Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had served in both the Nixon and Ford Administrations as White House Urban Affairs Advisor, Counselor to the President, United States Ambassador to India, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Moynihan would go on to serve four terms in that office.[3][17]

President Carter "appointed her chair of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year and, later, co-chair of the National Advisory Commission for Women".[18]

I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella.

Bella Abzug, in her 1971 Congress journal, quoted by Braden in Women Politicians and the Media[10]

Later life and death

Abzug never held elective office again after leaving the House, although she remained a high-profile figure and was again a candidate on multiple occasions. She was unsuccessful in her bid to be Mayor of New York City in 1977,[19] as well as in attempts to return to the US House from the East Side of Manhattan in 1978 against Republican Bill Green,[20] and from Westchester County, New York in 1986.[21]

She authored two successful books, Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington[22] and The Gender Gap,[23] the latter co-authored with friend and colleague, Mim Kelber.

She continually devised innovative strategies to further her vision of equality and power for women in the United States and abroad. Abzug 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 marshal of the Women's Equality Day New York March on August 26, 1980.[24]

In the last decade of her life, in the early 1990s, with Mim Kelber, she co-founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), in their own words "a global women's advocacy organization working towards a just world that promotes and protects human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment".[25] As WEDO president, she became an influential leader at the United Nations and at UN world conferences, working to empower women around the globe. Among its early successes was the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet held in Miami in 1991, where 1,500 women from 83 countries produced the Women's Action Agenda 21. Extending its perspective into the next century, this is a blueprint for incorporating women's concerns into development and environmental decision-making at all levels.[26]

Following through on her belief that women's direct participation is absolutely necessary for social change, Bella developed the Women's Caucus, which used new methods to get women involved in every phase of planning and development for UN conferences.[27] The Women's Caucus analyzed documents, proposed gender-sensitive policies and language, and lobbied to advance the Women's Agenda for the 21st Century at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Bella and WEDO went on to play a leading role at the UN. They worked through the Women's Caucus to highlight issues of greatest concern to women in both ongoing policy-making and at major UN conferences, including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.[26] During UN conferences, governments would make commitments, promising to meet some of the goals furthered by the conference. WEDO developed strategies to monitor governments and make the results public.[28]

During her last years, Bella kept up her busy schedule of travel and work, even though she traveled in a wheelchair. Bella led WEDO until her death, giving her final public speech[29] before the UN in March 1998.

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.[30] Abzug was interred at Old Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens County, New York. She was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls and is the recipient of numerous prestigious national and international awards. A year before her death, Bella received the highest civilian recognition and honor at the U.N., the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award.[31]

She appeared in the WLIW video A Laugh, A Tear, A Mitzvah,[32] as well as in Woody Allen's Manhattan (as herself),[33] a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live,[34] and the documentary New York: A Documentary Film.[35]


In 1944, Bella Savitsky married Martin Abzug, a novelist and stockbroker. They met on a bus in Miami, Florida on the way to a Yehudi Menuhin concert and remained married until his death in 1986.[36] They had two daughters.


In 1979, the Supersisters trading card set was produced and distributed; one of the cards featured Abzug's name and picture.[37]

In 1994 Abzug was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[3]

Abzug was honored on March 6, 1997 at the United Nations as a leading female environmentalist.[3]

In 1998 Ms. Magazine named Abzug a role model.[3]

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 thirtieth anniversary of the first National Women's Conference, a ground-breaking event held in Houston in 1977 and over which Bella Abzug had 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. Besides celebrating the 1977 Conference, the 2007 agenda was to address significant women's issues for the 21st century.[38]

In 2010, BALI hosted their 2nd Annual Bella and Bella Fella Awards Banquet.[39] Notable winners of the awards include Gloria Steinem, Jennifer Raab, and Ken Sunshine.[40]

In 2017, she was named one of Time magazine's 50 Women Who Made American Political History.[41]

In 2018, The Wing named a meeting room at their Washington D.C. location after Bella Abzug, calling it "The Office of Bella Azbug, Battle Leader".[42]

On March 1, 2019, the recently-built Hudson Yards Park was renamed after Abzug as a tribute to women's history month and its location in her former Congressional district.[43]


Abzug was featured in a segment in the 2007 documentary NY77: The Coolest Year In Hell, which explores in-depth what life was like during the year 1977 in Manhattan. An excerpt from a press conference of Bella Abzug is used when discussing the differences in political views between Abzug and fellow mayoral candidate Ed Koch. Geraldo Rivera gave detailed commentary on Bella's personality and political style.[44]

The video "Bella Abzug: In Her Own Words"[45] was produced by Progressive Source Communications[46] for the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute.[47]

Jeff L. Lieberman is directing a documentary film entitled Bella! about Abzug's life and political achievements. The film is anticipated to include interviews with Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Hillary Clinton, Lily Tomlin, Nancy Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Waters, Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Charles Rangel, David Dinkins and Renée Taylor. It is currently scheduled to be released in 2020, coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the U.S. via the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[48]

In the pilot episode of Lou Grant (1977), Joe Rossi gives the name of Bella Abzug when he first meets Lou.

Abzug appeared in Shirley MacLaine's autobiographical book Out on a Limb (1983). In the 1987 ABC Television mini-series "Out on a Limb" based on the book, Abzug was played by Anne Jackson.[49]

A character depicting Abzug appears in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 3, Ep. 5 - It’s Comedy or Cabbage. She and Zsa Zsa Gabor attend a televised party in the after hours in Miami.

Selected bibliography


  • Abzug, Bella (1972). Ziegler, Mel (ed.). Bella!: Ms. Abzug goes to Washington. New York: Saturday Review Press. ISBN 9780841501546.
  • Abzug, Bella; Kelber, Mim (1984). Gender gap: Bella Abzug's guide to political power for American women. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780395354841.
  • Abzug, Bella (1995). Women: looking beyond 2000. New York, New York: United Nations. ISBN 9789211005929.


  • Abzug, Bella; Jain, Devaki (August 1996). Women's leadership and the ethics of development (Gender in Development Monograph Series #4). New York: UNDP United Nations Development Programme. Link.

See also


  1. "Bella Abzug". HISTORY. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  2. "ABZUG, Bella Savitzky". History, Art, & Archives: US House of Representatives. Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House's Office of Art and Archives. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  3. Kathryn Cullen-DuPont (August 1, 2000). Encyclopedia of women's history in America. Infobase Publishing. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-8160-4100-8. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  4. Barbara J. Love (2006). Feminists who changed America, 1963-1975. University of Illinois Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-252-03189-2. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
  5. "Bella Abzug profile". Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  6. Levy, Alan Howard. The Political Life of Bella Abzug, 1920-1976 Political Passions, Women's Rights, and Congressional Battles. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2013.
  7. Jaffe-Gill, Ellen, editor The Jewish Woman's Book of Wisdom, Citadel Press, 1998
    Bella Abzug, No One Could Have Stopped Me, pp. 4, 74
  8. Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom, 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, ... Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007; ISBN 0-374-29952-8, pp. 49–56
  9. Faber, Doris. Bella Abzug. Lothrup, Lee and Shepard, 1976. pp. 61–69. Juvenile book.
  10. Maria Braden (1996). Women Politicians and the Media. University Press of Kentucky. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-8131-0869-8. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  11. Baer, Susan (April 1, 1998). "Founding, enduring feminist Bella Abzug is dead at 77 'Battling Bella' served three terms in House". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved December 6, 2012.
  12. "Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman And a Founding Feminist, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved January 26, 2016.
  13. "Narrative: The Task Force's commitment to ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans has a long history". National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Archived from the original on October 1, 2014. Retrieved August 2, 2016.
  14. Rozensky, Jordyn. "Halloween: JWA Style". Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved September 25, 2014.
  15. Zion, Noam Sachs; Spectre, Barbara (2000). A different light: the Hanukkah book of celebration: a how-to guide to a creative candle lighting ceremony: blessings, songs, stories, readings, games and cartoons to engage adults, teenagers and children on each of the eight nights. New York: Devora Pub. ISBN 9781930143319.
  16. Lewis, Paul. "U.N. Repeals Its '75 Resolution Equating Zionism With Racism". New York Times. New York Times Company. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  18. "Bella Abzug (1920-1998)". Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  19. "ABZUG, Bella Savitzky". History Art & Archives: US House of Representatives. Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House's Office of Art and Archives. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  20. "Green's Victory Is Official, but Mrs. Abzug is Silent". New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 11 February 2019.
  21. "Bella Abzug Biography". BIOGRAPHY. A&E Television Network. Archived from the original on 28 February 2019. Retrieved 12 February 2019.
  22. Bella Abzug (1972). Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. Saturday Review Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-8415-0154-8. Retrieved March 13, 2013.
  23. Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber (1984). The Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women. Houghton Mifflin. p. 79. ISBN 0-395-36181-8. Retrieved March 13, 2013.
  24. "PunʞLawyer". Archived from the original on 2013-06-28. Retrieved 2013-03-13.
  25. Velez, Denise. "They Call me 'Battling Bella'". San Diego Free Press. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  26. "Bella Abzug". Teaching Tolerance. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  27. "They call me 'Battling Bella'". San Diego Free Press. San Diego Free Press. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  28. "Bella Abzug". Teaching Tolerance. 2017-08-07. Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  29. "Bella Abzug at the 42nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women". March 16, 1998. Retrieved August 2, 2016.
  30. Mansnerus, Laura (April 1, 1998). "Bella Abzug, 77, Congresswoman And a Founding Feminist, Is Dead". New York Times.
  31. Archived February 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  32. "A Laugh, A Tear, A Mitzvah | KQED". KQED Public Media. Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  33. Williams, Alex (2014-03-19). "Riding the Wave of 'Girls'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  34. Golembewski, Chris Kaye, Vanessa. "39 Moments, 40 Crazy Seasons". Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  35. New York: A Documentary Film, retrieved 2019-03-01
  36. "Women in Congress 1917-2006" (PDF). GovInfo. US Government Publishing Office. p. 447. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  37. Wulf, Steve (2015-03-23). "Supersisters: Original Roster". Retrieved 2015-06-04.
  38. BALI News and Events Archived 2007-10-21 at the Wayback Machine published online, Fall 2007.
  39. "Feminist Event Calendar - 4/7/2010: Meet Gloria Steinem at the 2nd Annual Bella & Bella Fella Awards in NYC".
  40. Ben Affleck Roasts Ken Sunshine's Bella Fella 2013 Award. 15 April 2013 via YouTube.
  41. Zorthian, Julia (2017-03-08). "International Women's Day: 50 Who Made US Political History". Time. Retrieved 2018-05-24.
  42. "'Hopelessly Manhattan,' possibly illegal, and other reactions to D.C.'s first women-only coworking space". Curbed DC. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  44. Lowry, Brian (August 8, 2007). "RReview: 'NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell'". Variety. Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  45. Video on YouTube
  46. "Progressive Source Communications". Progressive Source Communications.
  47. "Squarespace - Claim This Domain". Abzug Institute. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  48. Bella! on IMDb
  49. Terry, Cliffor (January 16, 1987). "Maclaine Leaves Little On `Limb`". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 25 December 2016.

Further reading

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Leonard Farbstein
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 19th congressional district

Succeeded by
Charles Rangel
Preceded by
William Ryan
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 20th congressional district

Succeeded by
Theodore Weiss
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