A snapshot of Bella Savitsky Abzug

“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. 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.” – Bella Savitsky Abzug

Bella Savitsky Abzug
Bella Savitsky Abzug

Bella Abzug’s mother would remark that her daughter was born a feminist. While said in jest, the comment had much truth to it, though it was in many ways an understatement. Bella seemed to want to fight for everyone’s rights. “You have to fight for what you want,” she would say. And fight, she did. She was brash, outspoken, courageous, a woman who “could boil the fat off a taxi driver’s neck.” She was also wise and intelligent. Known to wear colorful hats, when people commented on the style, Bella reminded them, “It’s what’s under the hat that counts!”

Born in 1920, the year in which women got the right to vote in the U.S., Bella began leading protests and rallies while in her teen years. However, her career officially started as an attorney in NYC in the late 1940s. In this role, she specialized in cases of labor and tenants’ rights, along with civil rights and liberties. She took on cases others didn’t want to or were scared to take, including defending a black man in the South accused of raping a white woman. That case saw her experience her first death threat.

During the McCarthy era, Bella was one of the few attorneys who represented individuals facing the House Un-American Activities Committee. Today, that committee’s actions are largely viewed as government overreach, trampling on civil liberties in the name of national security. Back then, it took much courage for Bella to take part in people’s defense.

In a natural evolution to her career, she chose to run for public office. Her campaign slogan when running for a seat in the House of Representatives was, “[t]his woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.” After she was elected to office in 1970, she became one of the first members of Congress to support gay rights, introducing the first federal gay rights bill, the Equality Act of 1974. This was just one area in which she advocated for change, with most of her initiatives focused on equal rights or peace.

A famous economist wrote about Bella, “In a perfect and just Republic, Bella would have been President.” After many years of fighting for important causes, she passed away in 1998 at the age of 77.

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Story updated on April 4, 2024.