Hats Off to Congresswoman Abzug
Like Congresswoman Bella Abzug, “I’ve always had a decent sense of outrage.” I can’t say that I was the first to call for Richard Nixon’s impeachment, or that I was the student body president of Hunter College who later received her law degree from Columbia University, but Abzug’s infinite passion for social and economic justice inspires me to attempt to follow in her footsteps.
Congresswoman Abzug, born in 1920 as Bella Savitsky, served for three terms as one of twelve women in the United States House of Representatives. During her time in the House, she became a leading voice against the Vietnam War, sponsored the first protectionist policies for gay and lesbian Americans, and fought back against the House Un-American Activities Committee (famous for its “witch hunt” against alleged communists, spurred by Senator Joseph McCarthy).
Periods of pseudo-fascism in the United States are incredibly interesting to me, and I have spent years researching the causes and effects of forced, romanticized nationalism. But as interesting as my essays may be, it’s all still words on a page. Abzug, however, pushed against institutions like HUAC that were fueled by fear and scapegoating, all within the same system that allowed their inception in the first place: the United States government.
Abzug was known by her peers as “without a doubt, the hardest working Member [of Congress]” and was voted the third most influential person in Congress in 1976, behind Speaker Carl Albert and Majority Whip Tip O'Neill. Abzug grew up observing a system that continuously attempted to shut her out — so she became the system. She earned her law degree from Columbia University (Harvard rejected her solely because of her sex), and became a Congresswoman who ran on a platform of feminism and peace, despite the rise of an increasingly conservative climate in the United States.
Although Abzug became a part of the federal government, she never allowed the position to force her into conformity, to force her to become another cog in an oppressive wheel. Instead, she spent her time “figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.” This is the stuff of my dreams, and hopefully, the actions of my future.
According to my friend’s grandmother, a former coworker of Abzug’s, “she was certainly Jewish in her feelings about her identification… She believed that her Jewish background provided the impetus for her struggle for justice.” This identity eventually inspired Abzug to speak out against worldwide anti-Semitism as she advocated for the freedom of Soviet Jews. In the midst of a divisive political left wing I often also find myself a part of, Abzug supported aid to the young country of Israel and led the condemnation of the United Nations 1975 General Assembly resolution that equated “Zionism to racism.” Abzug bravely broke conventional boundaries in the name of her culture, time and time again.
The congresswoman’s contribution to the rights of queer Americans also strikes a chord with me. As a bisexual woman who publicly came out after the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case, it has become increasingly difficult to watch the Trump Administration revoke the rights of a large number of members of my community. Abzug continues to inspire me to channel my anger and feelings of helplessness towards the institutions that create them: I must become the system to beat the system.
Bella Abzug is the political powerhouse I envision beside me when I throw Wonder Woman poses in front of the mirror. I could never thank her enough for shaping my beliefs and for strengthening my pride as a progressive Jewish woman pursuing a career in government. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I hope my hat collection will one day be as fabulous as her’s, too.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.