Bella Abzug: This woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.
100 years ago today, Bella Abzug was born in New York City. A lawyer nicknamed ‘Battling Bella,’ she was a social activist for peace, a U.S. congresswoman, and a fierce fighter for women’s rights—chairing several White House commissions, and founding organizations that worked around the world.
In 1970, Abzug’s first campaign slogan was, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” She was later appointed to co-chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year created by President Gerald Ford’s executive order, presided over the 1977 National Women’s Conference, and led President Jimmy Carter’s National Advisory Commission for Women.
Bella Savitzky was born on July 24, 1920, in New York City. Both of her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother, Esther (née Tanklefsky), was a homemaker, and her father, Emanuel Savitzky, ran the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue. Even in her youth, she was competitive and would beat others, including boys, in all sorts of competitions. She ran the cash register at her father’s deli as a young girl.
When her father died, Abzug, then 13, was told that her Orthodox synagogue did not permit women to say the (mourners’) Kaddish, since that rite was reserved for sons of the deceased. However, because her father had no sons, she went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the prayer, defying the tradition of her congregation’s practice of Orthodox Judaism.
Abzug graduated from Walton High School in New York City, where she was class president, and went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York and simultaneously attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She later earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1944.
Nicknamed “Battling Bella”, in 1970, she challenged the 14-year incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, in the Democratic primary for a congressional district on Manhattan’s West Side. She defeated Farbstein in a considerable upset and then defeated talk show host Barry Farber in the general election. In 1972, her district was eliminated via redistricting and she chose to run against William Fitts Ryan, who also represented part of the West Side, in the Democratic primary. Ryan, although seriously ill, defeated Abzug. However, Ryan died before the general election and Abzug defeated his widow, Priscilla, in a party convention to choose the new Democratic nominee. In the general election Priscilla Ryan challenged Abzug on the Liberal Party line, but was unsuccessful. In the general election she was reelected easily in 1974. For her last two terms, she represented part of The Bronx as well. In 1976, she left her seat in the House in favor of an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Always wearing her characteristic hats, she was the author of two successful books, including, Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington. Bella Abzug died at age 77 after complications from heart surgery.