Bella Abzug elected to Congress
November 3, 1970
On November 3, 1970, Bella Abzug was elected to the United States House of Representatives on a proudly feminist, anti-war, environmentalist platform, becoming the second Jewish woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Abzug went on to represent her Manhattan district for three terms in the House, quickly becoming a nationally known legislator with a reputation for fighting for social and economic justice. Famous for big hats, hard work, and strong positions, Abzug didn’t mind being called “impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing,” as long as people understood that “whatever I am...I am a very serious woman.”
Her congressional tenure was as productive as it was controversial. She was the chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, where she co-authored the Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Privacy Act. She was a vigilant sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment and continually struggled to pass legislation on issues like childcare and abortion. Abzug was also a committed environmentalist and co-authored the Water Pollution Act of 1972. In 1974, she introduced the first Federal bill to support gay and lesbian civil rights; she was also one of the first members of Congress to call for the impeachment of President Nixon. Abzug claimed that she spent her days "figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure."
Before being elected to Congress, Abzug spent 25 years as a lawyer, specializing in labor and tenants’ rights, and in civil rights and liberties cases. During the McCarthy era she was one of the few attorneys willing to fight against the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the 1960s, Abzug helped start the nationwide Women Strike for Peace in response to U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing, and she soon became an important voice against the Vietnam war. After her terms in the House, President Carter appointed her co-chair of the National Advisory Commission for Women. In her later years, Abzug became an important leader in the international women’s rights movement, and was vocal in her support of Israel. Abzug was co-creator and president of WEDO, the Women’s Environmental and Development Organization.
To learn more about Bella Abzug, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and Women of Valor exhibit.
See also: This Week in History for November 18, 1977 and September 12, 1995; Bella Abzug poster; The Lessons of Women's Equality Day, What Would Bella Do?, A victory in the fight to make hate crimes history!, Jewesses with Attitude; Bella Abzug in "Cool Jewish Women," mybatmitzvahstory.org.
For educators: Go & Learn Primary Documents and Lesson Plans: Queen Esther and Bella Abzug: Costumes, leadership, and identity; Teach: Primary Sources and Lesson Plans: Women Protesting Nuclear Weapons Testing: Bella Abzug with Women Strike for Peace, 1961.
Sources: http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/abzug/; Ellen Goodman, “They Don’t Make Them Like Bella Anymore,” Boston Globe, April 2, 1998.