Growing up with family stories of pogroms and witnessing racist injustice firsthand as a law student engaged in civil rights work inspired Elizabeth Holtzman to seek social change through the political system. In a dramatic political upset in 1972, she defeated a 50-year incumbent to win a congressional seat representing Brooklyn’s working-class Sixteenth Congressional District; at age 31, she was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. As a congresswoman, then Brooklyn district attorney, comptroller of New York City, and political commentator, she was an effective and activist public servant, a forceful campaigner, and a champion of liberal and feminist causes. Her career illustrates the recent empowerment of ambitious, highly motivated, professional young women and the increasing role of Jewish figures in electoral politics.
A member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, Elizabeth Holtzman pursued a public career epitomizing some of the most important trends in postwar American and Jewish life. In her successive roles as congresswoman, Brooklyn district attorney, comptroller of New York City, and political commentator, she emerged as an effective and activist public servant, a forceful campaigner, and a champion of liberal and feminist causes. Her career illustrates the empowerment of ambitious, highly motivated, professional young women and the increasing role of Jewish figures in electoral politics.
Early Life and Career
Elizabeth Holtzman was born in Brooklyn on August 11, 1941, along with her twin brother Robert, to Sidney Holtzman, a criminal lawyer, and Filia (Ravitz) Holtzman, a professor and former chair of the Russian department at Hunter College. Her family was politically engaged and supportive of her professional ambitions, despite the prevailing gender norms. The child of Russian immigrants, Holtzman attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and then earned her BA at Radcliffe College. She entered Harvard University Law School as one of few women in her class, receiving her degree in 1965. As a law student, she engaged in civil rights work in Albany, Georgia, and was an organizing member of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, a national group. Growing up with family stories of antisemitic pogroms and witnessing racist injustice first-hand inspired her to seek social change through the political system.
Following a stint at the private New York law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, Katz, and Kern, Holtzman served in Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration as liaison to the New York Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs from 1968 to 1970. She then joined the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison, and became active in local Democratic party affairs.
The 1970s: Congresswoman
In a dramatic political upset in 1972, Holtzman won the Democratic nomination as candidate representing Brooklyn’s working-class Sixteenth Congressional District, beating the fifty-year incumbent, Emanuel Celler. Taking on the Brooklyn political machine with a good-government, grassroots campaign, Holtzman went on to win in November, becoming at age thirty-one the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (a distinction she held until Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 election). Time magazine gave her the nickname “Liz the Lion Killer.” For Brooklynites and New Yorkers, her victory signaled a changing of the guard, while at the same time symbolizing the ties that bound her to her heavily liberal, Jewish, and Democratic constituency.
Holtzman entered Congress as an antiwar reformer who represented the “new politics” rather than the old party machines, and she gained a reputation for hard work. With the ACLU’s backing, she sued the U.S. secretary of defense over the secret bombing of Cambodia. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Holtzman gained national notoriety during the televised Watergate hearings that investigated the Nixon administration’s illegal activities; as part of the Committee’s Watergate proceedings, she authored an article of impeachment focusing on the administration’s bombing of Cambodia as a violation of the Congress’s war powers, but it was not one of the three articles adopted by the committee. In an act of verve, she was the only member of the committee to question Gerald Ford about his pardon of Nixon. Holtzman capitalized on her reputation for honesty in the context of Watergate- and Vietnam-inspired cynicism. Through the hearings, Holtzman and her colleague Barbara Jordan, also elected in 1972, elevated the public visibility of women as important political actors.
In 1977, Holtzman and Rep. Margaret M. Heckler, a Republican representing Massachusetts, organized and co-chaired the Congresswomen’s Caucus in order to provide a forum for congresswomen across party lines to advocate for feminist legislation. Holtzman worked through the caucus (later renamed the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues) to advance issues such as expanding pension benefits for widows and otherwise “displaced homemakers,” barring sex discrimination in federally funded employment programs, and extending the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment. She authored a rape privacy act and participated in a humanitarian mission, which convinced the Cambodian government to allow international food aid to help war refugees.
As chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Holtzman challenged the dismal record of the Immigration Service and the Justice Department in relation to former Nazi war criminals admitted to the United States after the war. She wrote and pushed through Congress the Holtzman Amendment, which authorized the deportation of such war criminals. Her vocal intervention led to the establishment of a special investigation unit at the Justice Department, which brought proceedings against more than one hundred Nazi war criminals. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, she also coauthored with Ted Kennedy what became the country’s first refugee law.
1980s–1990s: District Attorney and Comptroller
In 1980, Holtzman ran for the United States Senate in a bid to unseat another veteran liberal Jewish politician: New York Republican senator Jacob Javits. She won the Democratic nomination, but when Javits mounted a third-party campaign as a Liberal, they both lost to Alphonse D’Amato, the Republican candidate.
Out of political office, she continued to work on feminist issues. Holtzman worked in Israel to help frame what became the Israel Women’s Network, a major nonpartisan organization that has transformed women’s status since the mid-1980s.
In 1981, Holtzman won election as the district attorney for Kings County (Brooklyn), becoming the first woman D.A. in New York City. As D.A. she led a political and legal battle against the common practice of using race to decide “preemptory challenges,” in which lawyers can remove potential jurors from a pool. Her efforts ultimately culminated in helping convince the Supreme Court that such racial discrimination was unconstitutional. She also used the D.A.’s office to challenge New York’s law allowing rape in marriage. The appeals court adopted the argument laid out in her amicus brief and struck down the law.
Holtzman left the D.A.’s office in 1990 to become comptroller of New York City, one of the three most important municipal offices (the other two being the mayor and the presidency of the city council). Her record in public administration included substantial savings and increases in the city’s pension funds, which were used to build low-cost housing and to expand employment opportunities. In addition, she improved women’s access to breast cancer screening and children’s immunization programs, reformed procedures for survivors of domestic violence and rape, and took pro-choice positions in the fierce political controversies that raged over abortion.
In 1992, known widely as a political “year of the woman,” she made another unsuccessful bid for the Senate in a rancorous campaign that pitted her against Geraldine Ferraro (the former 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate). Given the rarity at the time of women running against women as candidates, much of the media narrative framed the contest as a “catfight,” with women’s groups split between the two prominent New York feminists and proclamations that both Ferraro and Holtzman’s political careers were doomed. The following year, Holtzman failed to gain reelection to the comptroller’s office. She returned to private practice, joining the real estate firm of Herrick, Feinstein. She remained a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee and of the advisory board of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Investigating Nazi War Crimes and the Holocaust
As an eminent public figure, with both investigatory credentials and a proven commitment to Jewish affairs, Holtzman was named in 1981 to the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. Privately funded and chaired by former Supreme Court justice Arthur J. Goldberg, this group of dignitaries was convened under the initiative of Seymour Finger, a retired Foreign Service official. The commission’s task was to review a set of specially commissioned reports by historians and to evaluate American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. The group’s controversial 1984 final report, American Jewry During the Holocaust, was sharply critical of the American Jewish leaders of that period. But Holtzman, in a thoughtful and perceptive dissenting statement, disputed the notion that the commission had succeeded in reaching a definitive evaluation of the American Jewish political response to the Holocaust. She preferred to draw an activist’s conclusion, calling for Jewish unity and “outspoken activism” in the face of threats to Jewish survival.
In 1999 President Clinton appointed Holtzman as one of three non-governmental members of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, an entity created under the Nazi War Criminal Disclosure Act, to declassify the U.S. government’s secret files. The group issued its final report in 2007, and as a result of its work, more than 8.5 million pages of previously classified material have been made available.
Although Holtzman considered running for office, such as attorney general of New York in 2010, she has not mounted another campaign. However, she remains active in politics, including working in governmental affairs in her law practice.
Holtzman’s two co-written books, The Impeachment of George W. Bush (2006) and Cheating Justice (2012), advocated legal action and political reform in response to the Bush administration’s misleading justifications for the Iraq War, warrantless wiretapping, and use of torture as an interrogation technique. A frequent contributor to television, print, and radio news commentary, Holtzman publicly opposed Donald Trump’s policies during his presidency. In 2014 she was appointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council but resigned in 2018, along with three others, over Trump administration immigration and refugee policies, including family separation at the southern border. She publicly compared the Mueller investigation to Watergate and encouraged congressional action in The Case for Impeaching Trump (2019).
For her work as a public servant and as an attorney, Holtzman has been honored by the National Council of Jewish Women; the Civil Liberties Unions of New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles; the Young Women’s Christian Association; the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization; the Brooklyn Coalition for Soviet Jewry; Radcliffe College; and many other organizations.
Selected Works by Elizabeth Holtzman
The Case for Impeaching Trump. New York: Skyhorse, 2019.
“Watergate and Abu Ghraib.” In In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond, edited by Jeremy Brecher, Jill Carter, and Brendan Smith. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005.
With Cynthia L. Cooper. Cheating Justice: How Bush and Cheney Attacked the Rule of Law, Plotted to Avoid Prosecution—And What We Can Do About It. Boston: Beacon, 2012.
With Cynthia L. Cooper. The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Handbook for Concerned Citizens. New York: Nation Books, 2006.
With Cynthia L. Cooper. Who Said It Would Be Easy? One Woman’s Life in the Political Arena. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.
American Jewish Committee Archives. Audio selections from 1973 oral history interviews with Elizabeth Holtzman. http://www.ajcarchives.org/main.php?GroupingId=4410
Finger, Seymour Maxwell, ed. American Jewry During the Holocaust. New York: American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, 1984.
Foerstel, Karen and Herbert N. Foerstel, ed. Climbing the Hill: Gender Conflict in Congress. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
Gertzog, Irwin N. Women and Power on Capitol Hill: Reconstructing the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.
Love, Barbara J., ed. Feminists Who Changed America, 1963–1975. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Nakamura, David. “‘Morally Repugnant’: Homeland Security Advisory Council Members Resign over Immigration Policies.” Washington Post. July 17, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2018/07/17/morally-repugnant-homeland-security-advisory-council-members-resign-over-immigration-policies/
Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group. Final Report to the United States Congress. 2007. https://www.archives.gov/iwg/reports/final-report-2007.html
Polner, Murray, ed. American Jewish Biographies. New York: Facts on File, 1982.
Taranto, Stacie and Leandra Zarnow, eds. Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics since 1920. Philadelphia: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
“The Honorable Elizabeth Holtzman Oral History Interview.” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives. March 10, 2016. https://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Holtzman/
“The Reminiscences of Elizabeth Holtzman.” The Rule of Law Oral History Project, Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University, 2011. https://www.ccohr.incite.columbia.edu/elizabeth-holtzman
Who’s Who in American Politics, 1979–1980. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1979.
Women in Congress, 1917–1920. Washington, D.C.: United States Congress Office of the Historian, 2020. https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/GPO-CDOC-116hdoc152/summary