Hurricane Bella: A Whirlwind of Intersectional Feminism

Bella Abzug was many things. A Jew. A fair labor advocate. A pacifist. An environmentalist. A defense attorney. A congresswoman. An activist. And above all, an intersectional feminist. The daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, Abzug dedicated her life to social change—dividing her time between the law and activism. She defended individuals targeted as Communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy and also defended Willie McGee, an African-American man sentenced to death for raping a white woman. She was elected to the House of Representatives for New York’s 19th district, and there she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, among other liberal policies.

Her activism included calls for labor justice as well as nuclear disarmament and peace in Vietnam. In 1971, Abzug co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem, which aimed to increase the number of women in government. In her words, “Women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women.” Between her activism and her roles as a lawyer and lawmaker, Abzug not only fought for women like herself, but for women of all different backgrounds. It wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that the concepts of womanism and feminism for women of color became mainstream. Nonetheless, Abzug understood the importance of it, while most of her counterparts in the feminist movement didn’t. Though it was not even a term yet, Bella Abzug’s efforts were, in every sense of the word, intersectional.

The word “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar and civil rights advocate, in 1989. “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices,” Crenshaw wrote. A true intersectional feminist is one who fights for the rights of those who aren’t always included in the narrative. And real intersectionality involves recognizing that identity factors don’t exist in a vacuum. Racism and sexism often go hand in hand, so the battles against them must as well.

Abzug is an exemplar of what it means to be an intersectional feminist. She used her power and privilege to advocate for those she described as “on the outside of power.” Being a Jew herself, she was familiar with identity-based oppression, and because of that she knew she had to use her power to help fight for others. The energy and passion she brought to her work earned her the nickname “Hurricane Bella,” one that stayed with her for the entirety of her life.        

In 2019, Bella Abzug shouldn’t only be the name of an inspiring feminist of the past, but also the embodiment of a legacy we strive to live up to today. With so many groups of people under constant attack, we cannot let the differences in our identities divide us.

As a Jewish feminist, I look up to Bella Abzug not only because of the progress she made for Jewish women, but because of the progress she made for all women. She expanded feminist circles to include women of more backgrounds, but also got involved in movements that didn’t directly affect her. Similarly, I believe that being an intersectional feminist in this day and age means not only expanding discussions about women’s rights to discussing women “on the outside of power,” but also getting involved in movements that affect these women. I am not so directly affected by the issues taken on by movements such as Black Lives Matter or #NoBanNoWall; however, Abzug taught me that because these are issues that affect women, they’re women’s issues. And because they’re women’s issues, they’re my issues.

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

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You and her are queens!

How to cite this page

Axelrod, Emily. "Hurricane Bella: A Whirlwind of Intersectional Feminism." 18 March 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/hurricane-bella-whirlwind-of-intersectional-feminism>.

Bella Abzug speaking with constituents, 1976.

Copyright © Diana Mara Henry/dianamarahenry.com

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