One of my earliest political heroes was the Congressperson from New York, Bella Abzug (1920-1998). She was one of the first members of Congress to support Gay Rights, introducing the very first Federal Gay Rights bill. She was a lawyer, feminist, Style Icon, and peace activist who embodied many smart Americans’ discontent with the political establishment during the tumultuous Vietnam War era.
She gained notoriety as one of the most colorful and controversial House Members during the 1970s. Abzug:
“Women have been trained to talk softly and carry a lipstick.“
A feisty member of Congress, Abzug spent much of her life dismissing the idea that women should remain on the sidelines when it comes to politics. She served in Congress for three terms, and Abzug’s political flair and unwavering determination helped inspire an entire generation of women and created a new model for future female politicians. She was a trailblazer; she wasn’t the first woman in Congress, but she was first to get in Congress and lead the way to creating a true feminist presence in a legislative body created by and run by men.
New York City politicians, like their city, have a way of attracting attention. In our own era, the city has given us mayors and presidential candidates Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, and Ed Koch, gay city council members Christine Quinn and Corey Johnson, the always fun Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, Rudolph William Louis Giuliani and his orange-skinned gangster pal from Queens, plus Representatives Ritchie Torres and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, few ever garnered attention as much as the flamboyant, radical Abzug, unbelievably, the first Jewish woman ever to sit in the House of Representatives.
By 1947, she was a lawyer specializing in labor law and civil rights, often working pro bono. One of her cases earned worldwide attention: Willie McGee, a young Mississippi black man sentenced to death for raping a white woman. Abzug fought in vain for two years to save him from the electric chair; he was executed in 1951.
She defended victims of that nasty Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s anti-Communist witch-hunts, and she helped draft legislation for the 1954 Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the Vietnam war escalated, Abzug became a peace activist, describing compulsory military service as a kind of “slavery”. In 1968, she led the “Dump LBJ” movement within the Democratic Party and supported the presidential bid of Eugene McCarthy. By then, it was inevitable that she would run for Congress.
Her successful 1970 campaign to represent the 19th district, covering lower Manhattan and much of the wealthy Upper West Side, has become part of NYC’s folklore. No one made copy like Bella Abzug. Newspapers dubbed her “Battling Bella” and “Hurricane Bella”. Her voice was her weapon, a rasping Bronx accent that refused to be ignored. Wearing one of her signature broad-brimmed hats, she could rattle off profanities like fire crackers. “A Woman Belongs In The House, The House Of Representatives!” was her slogan. Yet, all those things were only a warm-up for when she got to Washington DC. Of those vibrant hats, she reminded all who admired them:
“It’s what’s under the hat that counts!“
On her first day, January 21, 1971, she introduced a motion calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam by Independence Day. She emerged that evening to a rousing reception from a Harlem youth group on the Capitol steps: “Give ’em hella, Bella!”, and that is what she did for the next six years, promoting legislation for LGBTQ rights with the Equality Act of 1974; and Women’s Rights with the Equal Rights Amendment; she cunningly used a procedural tactic to force the Nixon administration to hand over the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
As a resident of Greenwich Village, the LGBTQ vote had helped propel Abzug to Congress. Indeed, she went so far as to campaign at the fabled Continental Baths to secure the votes of gay male constituents. Gay New Yorkers in Abzug’s district voted for her as a bloc, and she was not insensitive to their concerns at a time in American history when, despite the emerging “Gay Liberation Movement”, queer citizens were seen as personae non gratae or mentally ill.
Barbra Streisand, who had an apartment on Central Park West, supported Abzug and memorably campaigned for her successful bid for Congress in 1970. She held a fundraiser for Abzug in her apartment, and also joined the candidate as she rode around in a flatbed truck, campaigning. Streisand headlined a star-studded Broadway For Bella concert at Madison Square Garden on November 1, 1970.
In Congress, Abzug chaired historic hearings on government secrecy, as chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights. She was voted by her colleagues the third most influential member of the House.
Abzug was defeated in a four-way primary race for the Senate in 1976 by less than one percent. However, she was not mentioned in the news and the coverage was only about the male candidates. Though her legislative career ended in 1977, losing the Senate race against Daniel Patrick Moynihan, her activism didn’t end until she did.
President Jimmy 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.
Until the very end of her life, she fought for women’s causes, founding the International Women’s Environment and Development Association, 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”.
She got fired from Carter’s Advisory Committee on Women for insubordination. She managed to be at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, although by then she was confined to a wheelchair. Her attendance provoked her last exchange with presidential authority. George H.W. Bush happened to be in Beijing at the same time, addressing food production executives, and professed:
“I am kinda sorry for the Chinese having Bella Abzug running around.“
Abzug shot back:
George Bush was talking to a fertilizer group? That’s appropriate.
From 1944 until his death in 1986, Abzug was married to Martin Abzug, whom she met on a bus in Miami on the way to a concert.
After battling breast cancer, she developed heart disease and died in 1998 from complications following open heart surgery. She was 77 years old. Abzug is buried with a hat at Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens. Today, she celebrates her 103rd birthday; hopefully with some carrot cake in the company of Ruth Bader Ginsberg at the Hadassah thrift shop in the next world.