Bella Savitzky Abzug was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920 to Esther Tanklefsky and Emanuel Savitzky, immigrants from Russia, just one month before women in the United States were given the right to vote. She became a passionate crusader for women’s rights, world peace, environmental integrity, and social justice. Her idealism and activism grew out of her childhood experiences and her Jewish upbringing.
As a young child, Bella was a tomboy, fierce competitor, and a natural leader. She played marbles, checkers, traded baseball cards, climbed trees, and was a streetwise New Yorker. Her maternal grandfather routinely took her to synagogue at an early age, and she became an outstanding student in the Talmud Torah school and delighted the congregants with her beautiful voice. She joined a left-wing labor Zionist group, Hashomer Hatzir (the young guard), her first activist group. Young Bella gave impassioned speeches at subway stops, and was a very effective fundraiser for the proposed Jewish homeland. Bella became inseparable from her socialist Zionist friends, who kept her out all night going to theater, concerts or meetings at the young age of 11.
Both of Bella’s parents supported her activism and rebellion. Her mother, Esther, appreciated her talents and encouraged every interest; she remarked that “Battling Bella was born bellowing!” Her father adored and encouraged his two daughters and also was a social activist; his butcher shop bore his personal mark of protest during and after World War I, named “The Live and Let Live Meat Market.” Needless to say, with a name like that, her father did not do very well in business! His real love was music. Every Shabbat, the entire family, including grandparents, gathered to sing and play instruments, led by Bella’s father. Bella became an accomplished violinist and singer. A spirited tomboy with music in her heart and politics in her soul, Bella was energetic, talented, and studious, and a very popular child in her community.
As a thirteen year old, Bella emerged as an outspoken teenager, willing to break the rules. Her father died, and Bella was prohibited from saying kaddish for him in the synagogue. But Bella went anyway, davening at her synagogue every morning before school for a year. The congregants gave her disapproving glances, but no one ever stopped her. “Be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart,” Bella later advised others: “people may not like it, but no one will every stop you.” Bella speculated that her first feminist sparks were ignited while sitting behind the mechitzan at the orthodox synagogue.
In high school and at Hunter College, Bella continued to be an outstanding student, student leader, and political activist, an ardent champion of civil rights and civil liberties. With her brilliant college record and leadership awards, Bella applied to Harvard Law School, but was turned down, because they would not accept women students until 1952. In those days, there was no women’s movement, so Bella turned to her mother for advice. “Why do you want to go to Harvard anyway?” she asked. “It’s far away and you can’t afford the carfare.” Bella won a scholarship to Columbia, only five cents by subway from her home, where she became editor of the Columbia Law Review and acquired an enthusiasm for playing poker.
In law school, Bella met and married Martin Abzug, a stockbroker and novelist, son of a wealthy manufacturer. Like her parents, Martin encouraged Bella in all her interests and ambitions, even typing her briefs for her in law school, and remained her steadfast supporter. “I think he even voted for me,” quipped Bella. They have two daughters, a social worker and an attorney and political consultant.
For the next 23 years, Bella practiced labor and civil rights law, and was one of the few attorneys defending individuals accused of subversive “Communist” activity during the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. She found that she was overlooked when she entered an office to represent union locals, so she decided to wear large hats, which became her trademark. In 1950, she gained notoriety for her courage in defending Willie McGee, a black Mississippi man falsely accused of raping a white woman with whom had had a long-term consensual relationship. On one of her trips to Mississippi, no hotel in town would give her a room; she had to spend the night in a locked women’s bathroom stall in the Jackson Mississippi bus station to avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Despite her best efforts, McGee was executed in 1951.
In 1962, Bella and her friends from Hunter College founded Women Strike for Peace, an organization that lobbied for a nuclear test ban treaty and protested the war in Viet Nam. During the Johnson administration, Bella helped write the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Bella maintained that her passion for social activism came from her Jewish background. “Judaism,” Bella asserted, “has had a very profound effect on me. Jews believe that you can’t have justice for yourself unless other people have justice as well. That has motivated much of what I have done.”
By 1970, Bella Azbug had become a leading reform Democrat and was elected to Congress representing the Greenwich Village area of New York City. She was one of twelve women in the House of Representatives and the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress. Bella immediately captured the nation’s attention with her brash and flamboyant manner and her famous large hats. Re-elected for three terms, she coauthored an amazing number of important bills, including the Freedom of Information Act, which exposed many secret government activities to public scrutiny for the first time. She organized the National Women’s Political Caucus, wrote the first law banning financial discrimination against women, introduced pioneering bills on comprehensive child care, Social Security for homemakers, family planning, and abortion rights. In 1975, Bella was the first to introduce an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to include gay and lesbian rights. She also was the first member of Congress to call for Nixon’s impeachment. Bella served from 1971 to 1977 and was acknowledged by U.S. News & World Report as the “third most influential” House member, and by a 1977 Gallup poll as one of the twenty most influential women of the world.
Bella Azbug’s political career ended with her defeat in a race for Senator in 1976. She became a leader in the international women’s movement, working to empower women in developing countries, and became involved in the UN Decade for Women conferences. She also led the fight against the 1975 UN resolution that “Zionism Is Racism,” which finally was repealed in 1985. With her friends, she created WEDO, the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, an international advocacy network that seeks to increase the power of women worldwide in policymaking institutions, such as the United Nations, to achieve worldwide economic and social justice, and a more peaceful and healthy planet.
Although ill from breast cancer and heart disease, Bella was an inspiration to women leaders from all over the world at the UN conference on women in Beijing in 1995. Before she died, in 1998, Bella predicted that in the twenty-first century “women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.”
At her funeral, Geraldine Ferraro said: “She didn’t knock politely
on the door. She didn’t even push it open or batter it down. She took
off the hinges forever.” “Our society is more just and compassionate,”
said President Bill Clinton, “because Bella Azbug lived and worked among
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