Obituary: Bella Abzug

Rupert Cornwell
Friday 03 April 1998 23:02

NEW YORK politicians, like their city, have a way of attracting attention. Few, though, ever garnered as much as the flamboyant Bella Abzug, radical liberal, civil rights campaigner, feminist and the first Jewish woman ever to sit in the House of Representatives.

She was born Bella Savitsky into the Bronx of 1920, the daughter of a Russian immigrant, Emmanuel Savitsky, who owned the Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. She showed her zest for politics from an early age, as a Zionist activist and president of her college student council.

By 1947 she was a lawyer specialising in labour law and civil rights, often working pro bono. One such case earned world-wide attention - that of Willie McGee, a young Mississippi black sentenced to death for raping a white woman. Abzug fought in vain for two years to save him from the electric chair; he was executed in 1951.

She defended victims of Joseph McCarthy's anti- Communist witch-hunts, and helped draft legislation for the 1954 Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the Vietnam war widened, she had become a peace activist, describing compulsory military service as "slavery." She led the "Dump Johnson" movement within the Democratic Party, and supported the quixotic 1968 presidential bid of Eugene McCarthy. By then it was inevitable she would run for Congress in her own right.

Her successful 1970 campaign for the 19th district, covering lower Manhattan and much of the wealthy Upper West Side, entered New York's political folklore. No one made copy like Bella Abzug. The city's tabloids dubbed her "Battling Bella" and "Hurricane Bella". Her voice was a weapon on its own, a rasping Bronx accent that could take the scale off a kettle. From beneath her habitual broad-brimmed flower-patterned hat, she could spew profanities like a Gatling gun. "This Woman Belongs in the House" was her slogan. But the pyrotechnics were only a warm-up for when she got there.

On her first day on Capitol Hill, 21 January 1971, she introduced a motion calling for the withdrawal of all US troops from Vietnam by the following Independence Day. She emerged that evening to a rousing reception from a Harlem youth group on the Capitol steps: "Give 'em hella, Bella." She would do precisely that for the next six years, promoting measures on gay rights and discrimination against women, and cunningly using a procedural tactic to force the Nixon administration to hand over the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Though her legislative career ended in 1977, with a losing Senate race against Daniel Patrick Moynihan, her activism did not falter.

Almost until the very end of her life, she fought for women's causes, founding the International Women's Environment and Development Association and getting herself sacked from President Carter's Advisory Committee on Women, for insubordination. Wild horses would not have kept her from the UN World Conference on Women in Peking three years ago, although by then she was confined to a wheelchair.

That provoked her last exchange with presidential (or rather ex-presidential) authority. George Bush happened to be in town at the same time, addressing food production executives, and professed himself "kinda sorry for the Chinese having Bella Abzug running around". The lady herself shot back in magnificent vein: "He was talking to a fertiliser group? That's appropriate."

She revelled in her role. "I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, Mother Courage, a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy," she wrote in her 1972 autobiography Bella! "They say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing." Then came the crucial and often overlooked rider, "But whatever I am, I'm a very serious woman."

And she was. She was an early exponent of women's rights whose alleged excesses, far from being counterproductive, as her foes would claim, notably advanced that cause. Expanding childcare centres is a burning current issue on both sides of the Atlantic; Bella Abzug was demanding federally financed, 24-hour centres back in 1971. Behind that strident facade, she was a woman ahead of her time.

Bella Savitsky, politician and feminist: born New York 24 July 1920; member of the US House of Representatives 1970-76; married 1945 Martin Abzug (died 1986; two daughters); died New York 31 March 1998.

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