Once upon a time in the 1970s, Americans looking for an example of a tough-as-nails woman who stood up on behalf of her community had Bella Abzug.
The three-term U.S. Congresswoman from New York never hesitated to fight for the causes that mattered to her. People around her who stood in awe of her bold spirit frequently called her names like “Battling Bella,” “Mother Courage,” or “Hurricane Bella,” depending on how they felt about what she was trying to accomplish. She wore those nicknames – both as compliments and as insults – with grace, accepting that a fighter was simply who she was.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we remember these five things about Bella Abzug that endure in her legacy as an outspoken political crusader.
1. She was born almost exactly one month before women gained the right to vote. Abzug was born July 24, 1920. That same year, on Aug. 26, the 19th Amendment became law, granting women the right to vote. Perhaps it was that one month of gross inequality that gave Abzug the fiery fighting spirit she grew up with. As an adult, she would go on to create Women’s Equality Day, an annual commemoration of the 19th Amendment falling on Aug. 26 each year. She introduced the idea as a resolution to Congress in 1971, and when it passed, Aug. 26, 1972 became the first Women’s Equality Day. Abzug was celebrated for this achievement at New York’s Women’s Equality Day March in 1980, where she served as Grand Marshal.
2. She began standing up for equality when she was just a teenager. Abzug was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, and she was brought up strictly observing her orthodox Jewish faith. But when her father died when she was 13, she was troubled by an injustice. Tradition held that the son(s) of the deceased would recite the Kaddish, a mourner’s prayer that is an important part of the funeral ritual. But Abzug had no brothers, leaving no one to say Kaddish for her father. The young teen did it herself, defying the tradition that said no woman could say Kaddish. Her faith was important enough to her that she insisted the ritual be carried out, and she was bold enough to insist that the rules be broken so she could do it. Abzug would go on to become the first Jewish woman in the U.S. Congress.
3. She coined the phrase, “This woman’s place is in the house – the House of Representatives.” In fact, Abzug ran for office on that campaign slogan in 1970, seeking election to the House of Representatives from her hometown of New York City. Abzug won, and when redistricting eliminated her district before the 1972 election, she ran in a new district and won there, too. During her first term in Congress, she cofounded the National Women’s Political Caucus, designed to recruit, train, and support women to run for political office – from all sides of the political spectrum. Though she was a Democrat who loved to describe herself as “radical” even after that term went out of fashion, Abzug was all about advancing women in politics, even the ones who didn’t agree with her. The Caucus saw success almost immediately, increasing the number of women delegates to the Democratic National Convention to an unprecedented 35 percent of delegates.
4. She was known for her hats, but they were more than a fashion statement. Abzug was rarely seen without a hat, even long after such an accessory was expected for a woman out in public. And Abzug was never one to worry too hard about following the rules of decorum anyway. So why did she wear hats? It started when she was a young lawyer, her profession before her entry into politics. Women lawyers were far less common in the 1940s than they are today, and Abzug found that people kept mistaking her for a secretary as she tried to do her work. So she donned hats, symbolic of her status as a powerful woman in a man’s profession, and sending a message to anyone who wondered. She kept wearing them when she entered Congress, commenting later to Global Education Motivators, “When I ran for Congress and got to Washington, they made such a fuss about the hat instead of what was under it that I didn’t know whether they wanted me to take it off or keep it on. I decided that they wanted me to take it off, which made me determined to keep it on.”
5. She never gave up, even when the odds were stacked against her. Abzug sponsored several pieces of far-seeing legislation in the 1970s that Congress refused to pass: the Equal Rights Amendment that would have guaranteed American women complete equality under the Constitution; the first gay-rights-inclusive bill that would have prohibited discrimination based on sex, marital status, or sexual orientation; and a bill that sought to end the Vietnam War as early as 1971, to name a few. Even though those bills didn’t become law, Abzug always continued fighting to accomplish what she thought was right for her constituents. That was as true in the mid-‘70s, when she was the first in Congress to call for President Nixon’s impeachment as the Watergate scandal unfolded, as it was in the ‘90s, when she cofounded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) to pursue women’s issues in conjunction with environmental sustainability.
“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it,” Abzug wrote in her autobiography. “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of those things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am – and this ought to be made very clear – I am a very serious woman.”
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