Brassy and wearing broad-brim-med hats, Bella Abzug erupted onto the national political scene in 1971, violating virtually every rule of congressional decorum in her efforts to gain public attention for the causes she championed.
Abzug, who died Tuesday in a New York hospital at 77, had defeated Rep. Leonard Farbstein, a seven-term Democrat, in the primary on Manhattan's Upper West Side and then-talk show host Barry Farber in the general election to become the first woman elected to Congress on a women's rights/peace platform.
On her first day in Congress on Jan. 21, 1971, abjuring the meekness and deference expected of freshmen legislators, Abzug dismayed her colleagues by introducing a House resolution calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Indochina by July 4, 1971, a gesture whose efficacy was purely symbolic. In further defiance of political norms, when House proceedings ended that day, Abzug stood on the steps of the Capitol while fellow New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm administered a special peace oath to her before an assemblage of roughly 600 members of Women Strike Force for Peace, several congressmen and a Harlem youth group that endorsed her efforts with shouts of "Give 'em hella, Bella."
The first Jewish woman elected to Congress, Abzug had a long history of crusading as a New York civil rights lawyer, peace activist, and Reform Democrat. Abzug's campaign slogan, "This woman's place is in the House," was an augury of her commitment while in Congress to the goals of the second wave of women's liberation. During those six years, she relentlessly sought to insert a standard anti-sex-discrimination clause into every relevant item on the legislative agenda.
Her efforts to advance feminism were democratic in nature rather than being aimed at garnering more privileges for a female elite: "We don't so much want to see a female Einstein become an assistant professor," Abzug said. "We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel."
Defeated in efforts to establish a federal child-care program and to guarantee the right of poor women to Medicaid-funded abortions, Abzug helped secure passage of bills promoting equal employment, education and credit for women, as well as the extension [See Abzug, 5f] of the minimum wage law to include domestic workers.
And she became more adept at manipulating the political process than she had been on her first day, invoking an obscure procedural tactic that forced the Nixon administration to released the highly incriminatory report on Vietnam that come to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Abzug also attacked the bastions of masculine privilege and power and helped to make Congress a far more hospitable environment for women. She publicly scorned the Congressional club, the seniority system, log-rolling and all the hallowed traditions that protected male control of the legislative process. She insisted upon being addressed as "Ms." and coerced congressmen into admitting women to the congressional swimming pool, brushing aside their complaints that now they would have to wear swim suits.
Born in the Bronx in 1920, Bella Savitsky Abzug was the daughter of a butcher who owned the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, where, she was fond of saying, "We plucked one chicken at a time." Abzug credited her grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, with imbuing her with the "strong feeling of justice" that marked her career. At Hunter College, Abzug became president of the student council and an active Zionist. Her studies at Columbia Law School were interrupted by World War II because she promptly dropped out of law school to aid the war effort by working in a shipbuilding factory. In the postwar period, Abzug returned to Columbia to complete her studies, becoming an editor of the Columbia Law Review.
But instead of bartering her academic achievement for social mobility, Abzug specialized in labor law and represented a variety of militant union groups, including the fur workers,
restaurant workers, auto workers, and the first rank-and-file longshoreman strikers, often providing her services gratis or at a reduced fee for civil rights and civil service causes.
To attract attention and to gain professional credibility, Abzug adopted the practice of wearing broad-brimmed hats. She reminisced: "When I was a young lawyer, I would go to people's offices and they would always say: 'Sit here. We'll wait for the lawyer.' Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously."
But she did not always take herself seriously, exhibiting a sense of humor that distinguished her from any more grim and earnest feminists of the day. In fact, Abzug agreed to play a caricature of herself as an abrasive feminist politician in Woody Allen's 1979 film "Manhattan," a cameo in which art perfectly imitated life.
Like the most radical feminists who had been Garrisonian abolitionists during the first wave of women's rights in the 19th century, Abzug believed that all efforts to reform America were mutually compatible and intimately connected.
A founder of Women Strike for Peace, she rallied reform Democrats to deny Lyndon Johnson a second presidential term 1968. She was determined to open the political process to women, joining with Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to establish the National Women's Political Caucus, a broad-based, multiethnic group encompassing only only committed feminists, but also labor union women and those in religious groups and other traditional women's organizations.
The group's composition reflected Abzug's insistence at the founding meeting that the new organization was not intended "to replace the male middle-class elite that runs this country with a female middle-class elite."
Under Abzug's leadership, the caucus maintained a policy of supporting women's issues and feminist candidates of both genders without regard to party lines in addition to combating poverty, sexism, racism.
Abzug was a pioneer of female assertiveness. Long before it became fashionable to take seminars that encouraged women to express anger, ambition and will, Abzug developed a confrontational political style that included the kind of colorful language considered appropriate only to men.
She later described her stint in Congress in pugilistic terms that would befit Norman Mailer: "I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure."
Abzug often noted that her conservative critics would have selected other epithets to describe her had she been a man: "courageous" instead of "abrasive," "forceful" instead of "strident."
But her unwillingness to compromise her principles or to adopt more feminine tactics of flattery and persuasion served to remind women that they could succeed politically by using the same political weapons as men.
"She wasn't always sweetness and light, but she was a wonderful, passionate fighter for everything that was just and right," feminist leader Friedan said. "She didn't have a role model, but she's a glorious role model for women coming up."
Despite her boisterous political tactics, Abzug had a romantic and domestic self that eluded media attention.
Her husband, Martin, a stockbroker and author of two novels, was the butt of endless jokes for being henpecked and overwhelmed by his garrulous wife, but their union was a long and loving one and served to provide Bella with crucial emotional support for her activities in the public sphere. They wed in 1944 and had two daughters, Isobel and Eve Gail. He died in 1986.
Like most contemporary career women, Bella struggled integrate the demands of work and family life: "You try to adjust the family situation to the realities of your life," the congresswoman told a reporter for New Woman in June 1971. "You don't put one ahead of the other. There is a balance and you strive to keep that balance. The family grows with it. And the kids also know that the mother is a woman, wife and lawyer. A total person. It makes them better people."
Although she failed in repeated later attempts to regain elected office, Abzug maintained her peculiar brand of feminism, trying to function as an insider within the Democratic Party and the Carter White House as co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women at the same time that she remained a grass-roots activist committed to peace, feminism and social justice.
She devoted much of her later life to feminist environmental work but continued to crusade for women's rights and reproductive freedom. Although former President George Bush denounced Abzug as "one who has always represented the extremes of the women's movement," he failed to recognize that she represented an historic phase of feminism that was far more inclusive and democratic, embracing male support, repudiating class privilege and working through coalition politics to advance feminism as part of a far more pervasive program of social reform.
Her intransigence caused the tabloids to label her "Battlin' Bella" and "Mother Courage," but she never wavered in her commitment to her political ideals. When asked whether she might do anything differently, Abzug uttered the words that well might serve as her epitaph: "No, I'd do the same - only better."
Leslie Fishbein is an associate professor of American Studies at Rutgers/The State University of New Jersey
Pub Date: 4/05/98