Bella Abzug | The Nation


Bella Abzug

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Vehemently opposed to the war in Vietnam, she was the first member of Congress to call for Nixon's impeachment--and she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She initiated the Congressional caucus on women's issues and helped organize the Women's Political Caucus; she was the chief strategist for the Democratic Women's Committee, which achieved equal representation for all elective and appointive posts, including presidential conventions. She introduced pioneering bills on childcare, family planning and abortion rights. In 1975 she introduced a bill in support of gay and lesbian rights.

About the Author

Patricia Bosworth
Patricia Bosworth, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, is completing a biography of the actress/activist Jane Fonda.

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Hayward, Wisc.

"She was absolutely indefatigable," said her former assistant Esther Newberg. "Yes, she was difficult to work with and yes she yelled and got angry a lot but it was because she cared so deeply about what she wanted to accomplish."

She would always credit her parents--Jewish immigrants from Russia--for encouraging her to be a forceful, dynamic, opinionated person. She was born Bella Savitzky on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx; her mother thought she could be President. Her father, Emanuel (whom Bella described as "this humanist butcher"), ran the Live and Let Live meat market on Ninth Avenue, in Hell's Kitchen. By the time she was 8, Bella excelled in her ability to read Hebrew--she was one of the best students in the Torah school she attended. She was also a graceful swimmer ("like a dolphin" someone said), a card player and a talented musician--she sang and played violin. At 11 she joined a left-wing labor Zionist group at her school and got caught up in politics raising money and making speeches for a Jewish homeland, arguing about the importance of peace and justice.

When she was 13 her father died, and that's when she made a crucial choice. Forbidden by religious tradition from saying Kaddish for her father in synagogue, Bella did it anyway. For an entire year, every morning before she went to school she'd march into synagogue and daven. People were shocked, but they didn't stop her. She did what she believed she had to do for her father, who'd never had a son. "I made that choice," she said, and it was a lesson she never forgot. Always be true to your heart. People may not like it, but no one will stop you. It became her philosophy.

She always remained impatient with the demands of conforming to a restricting feminine ideal. She refused to mask her strengths with wiles, abhorring the double standard applied to powerful, larger-than-life women, who were invariably penalized for being ambitious or outspoken whereas powerful, larger-than-life men were invariably admired and praised. So Bella was often disruptive when she was expected to be deferential. As when she barked "Fuck you!" to Carl Albert and Hale Boggs after they voted no to her resolution to end the Vietnam War. As when she was invited to the White House and in the receiving line informed President Nixon that her constituents wanted him to stop bombing.

As the chair of the subcommittee on government information and individual rights, Bella co-wrote three crucial pieces of legislation: the Freedom of Information Act, the government "Sunshine law" (which required government bodies to meet publicly) and the Right to Privacy Act. She was "one of the most exciting, enlightened legislators that ever served in the Congress," said Manhattan Representative Charles Rangel. By 1977 the Gallup Poll had named Bella one of the twenty most influential women in the world.

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