Activists: Let's Learn from Bella Abzug

Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug march with the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas, November 1977.
Courtesy of AP Photo/Greg Smith.

I first heard about Bella Abzug in August 2019 at the Rising Voices Fellowship retreat. That weekend, I borrowed a book from the Jewish Women’s Archive about Jewish women activists during the civil rights era, and Abzug’s name was mentioned in it several times. The more I read about her involvement as a civil rights activist in the Jim Crow South, the more I began to admire her.

Over the past few months, I have researched Abzug, and after looking into the incredible achievements of her extensive career, I see that she is the perfect role model for activists just beginning in their work. Her decades-long career as a lawyer, U.S. Representative, and community leader continues to inspire and impress me. A leader in the women's movement, civil rights movement, and international movement for human rights, Abzug covered much in her extraordinary lifetime.

Growing up in a generation that has fully embraced technology and social media has allowed me to connect with global perspectives on current events easily. Along with the privilege of information comes new questions about how to engage in the world of activism, and how to better build on the enduring ideals of generations past. Young adults struggling with their identities as activists can look to Abzug’s distinguished career for guidance. Though my experiences in the twenty-first century may seem vastly different than Abzug’s during the era of second-wave feminism, her unwavering commitment to justice and morality is timeless.

I find that watching and reading the news makes me feel passionate about a number of issues, while feeling wholly unequipped to create positive change in the face of vast social and political problems at the same time. Trying to become a citizen of the world, a thoughtful and informed activist, feels incredibly difficult when I’m constantly surrounded by current events that I struggle to keep up with. It seems impossible to focus my efforts on one movement when a hundred others are desperate for support and attention, and I end up feeling unmoored in a world of rooted, focused people (or people who at least appear to be rooted or focused). When I feel like this, I can look to Bella’s activism early in life in the Bronx for a lesson on prioritization.

Born in 1920, Abzug grew up in a working-class Jewish community, an upbringing that inspired her labor-oriented work with a law firm and career-long commitment to worker’s rights. A student of history and current events, Abzug joined a left-wing Zionist youth group, Hashomer Hatzair, that raised funds for the creation of a Jewish homeland. As part of this organization, Bella was able to practice public speaking, a strength that defined her political persona. After graduating law school, Abzug became a supporter of civil rights and the labor movement, working to support the people within the community that she called home.

Every community has its own unique identity, one that has shaped its members in inexplicable ways. Similarly, every community has its problems, whether they be generational obstacles or short term issues. When we look for opportunities to create change or bring about equality, we can start with the grassroots efforts closest to our homes and hearts. By contributing our unique personal skills to an organization, we can invest deeply in the matter at hand, and stay grounded in the ideals we fight for.

I’ve taken part in gun violence protests and educational efforts since the Parkland shooting, an event that triggered a movement I feel personally connected to. In these movements, I’ve taken on public speaking roles, positions that allowed me to contribute my skills as a writer and speaker to the benefit of the group. To make an impact on the communities that inspired our individuality, I’ve learned from Bella Abzug to look to friends, family, and other like-minded individuals to brainstorm paths to progress.

Intersectionality is a term first coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw that refers to how an individual’s separate racial, social, and economic identities overlap and affect daily life. In my mind, Bella Abzug’s work in the women’s movement exemplifies what it means to make one’s politics intersectional. Learning about her work should also encourage activists today to consider how we can increase diversity in our own political circles.

Helping to organize the National Women’s Political Caucus, Abzug worked to bring together women from all backgrounds, not just those with connections to national politics. To introduce gender equality to the male-dominated world of banking, Abzug worked to help women across the country obtain credit and economic independence with newfound freedom. Through this work, Abzug enabled women to exercise greater financial independence and control over their own lives. Abzug used her influence in the House of Representatives to broaden access for women, gay and lesbian constituents, and the elderly.

We can replicate her efforts on a smaller scale in our daily lives by speaking up on the issues we believe in and trying to stay informed in current events. Abzug was famous for being outspoken on her ideas, regardless of their popularity. By vocalizing our beliefs, we can open channels of discussion with our family members and peers, a crucial step in creating solidarity for any movement.

Everyone’s interaction with activism is different because everyone holds different and intersecting identities; a conversation about the #MeToo movement and harassment that does not center the perspectives women of color, who are disproportionately at risk for sexual assault, would be incomplete. At the end of the day, our political ideals reflect our hopes for an improved society, one that embraces diversity and intersectional activism.

Yet, despite the best intentions of organizers or people involved, movements may face internal and external roadblocks to that intended action. Controversy or unresponsive government leaders can create difficulties, causing setbacks on the journey to achieving a goal.

The Women’s March organization that planned the successful march on Washington in 2017 was mired in controversy recently for alleged antisemitism. In my own life, I’ve seen the work anti-gun violence protests be ignored by state and national congresspeople who dismiss the idea of gun reform. Bella Abzug, despite an otherwise successful career, lost the democratic primary for a Senate seat in 1976 by less than 1%, later losing other bids for Congress and New York City mayor.

However, her work after these defeats should serve as a reminder to all of us that losing an opportunity can give us the chance to take our passions in new directions. Despite the setbacks of these elections, Abzug continued to support grassroots women’s movements and to practice law. She became an important figure at several UN International Conferences. Her pivot serves as an example to others that opportunity can be found in more than one place, and that work toward a goal doesn’t end when an elected official makes a decision or a vote is counted, regardless of the outcome.

During the last speech she ever gave, delivered in 1998 at the 42nd Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Bella Abzug said: “We will be making space in every single institution, national, international, regional and local in which we find that men and women do not share power equally.” Building on this idea, that activists can bridge the gap between privilege and disadvantage, let’s go forth as activists and work to create equality, regardless of any setbacks or losses standing in our way.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Goldstein, Lila. "Activists: Let's Learn from Bella Abzug." 9 March 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/activists-lets-learn-bella-abzug>.

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