Bella Abzug, who died on March 31, 1998 at age 77, was a lifelong activist for human rights, women’s rights and the environment. An original thinker and pioneer throughout her life, Bella was often ahead of her time. She sometimes lost, but, undaunted, she continued to fight.
Bella was at the forefront of a series of political and social movements, first in the U.S. later in the international sphere. A list of issues and causes in which Bella was involved reads like a history of social activism in the second half of the 20th century: anti-McCarthyism, civil rights, the movement against nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam, the fight for women’s rights, and the global struggle to protect the environment.
Bella combined broad vision with an understanding of the practical realities which must be faced in order to gain that vision. A constant undercurrent was Bella’s feminism. Her belief was that in order for the world’s problems to be solved, women must be empowered socially and economically. For that to happen, women must become as politically active as men. Toward the end of her life she said, “You can’t continue to have a world without equal participation of men and women. That’s my central thesis.” She added, “It’s not that I think women are superior to men, it’s just that we’ve had so little opportunity to be corrupted by power. And I jokingly add that we want that opportunity. But seriously, I believe that women can change the nature of power.”
In 1920, the same year that women in the United States won the right to vote, Bella was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She rebelled against social rules from the beginning, especially those that excluded her because she was a girl. When she was 13 her father died; Bella insisted upon saying the kaddish prayer for him in the synagogue every day for a year. This prayer for the dead is traditionally forbidden for women, among Orthodox Jews.
President of her high school class and of the student government at Hunter College, Bella chose to become a lawyer, daring for a woman in those days. She attended Columbia University Law School, where she earned a scholarship.
As a lawyer specializing in labor law and civil rights, Bella worked on social issues throughout her years of law practice. Her most controversial case was that of Willie McGee, a Mississippi black man charged with raping a white woman. In fact, the woman and McGee had had a long relationship, but because of the racist and separatist policies of the South in the 1950s, McGee was charged with rape. Because of her position as McGee’s defender, Bella was denied a hotel room in Mississippi. Pregnant, she spent the nights sleeping on a bus station bench. The case was lost, and even though Bella and others continued appeals for McGee, he was eventually executed.
In 1961 Bella co-founded Women Strike for Peace. The group lobbied for a ban on nuclear testing, influencing President Kennedy to sign a limited test ban treaty.
At age 50, Bella decided to run for political office, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1970. She gained attention with her slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” Despite huge demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, the fighting was at its height. Bella’s first resolution after taking her new office was to call for immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops.
Bella brought to the political scene the qualities of courage, honesty, outspokenness and broad vision that are often missing in today’s politicians. One of only nine women in the 435-member House, Bella fought for the right to wear her wide-brimmed hats in the House. On a more serious note, she championed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; wrote the first law banning discrimination against women seeking credit; and introduced legislation calling for comprehensive child care, Social Security for homemakers, and abortion rights. Bella also focused on veterans issues, lesbian and gay rights and aid to cities.
Bella also coauthored and got passed the Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Privacy Act, and looked into illegal and hidden activities of the CIA, FBI and IRS. During the Watergate uproar, Bella was the first member of Congress to call for impeachment of President Nixon.
Bella constantly fought for greater participation of women in politics. As the cofounder and first cochair of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she called for equal numbers of women and men in elective and appointive offices. A member of the Democratic National Committee, Bella also led the successful fight for equal representation of women at Democratic Party conventions.
According to a Gallup Poll, Bella was said to be one of the 20 most influential women in the world. People urged her to run for the Senate, which she did in 1976. Unfortunately, she lost the Senate race; this was the end of Bella’s career as an elected official.
However, Bella remained as politically active as ever. In this second phase of her career as an activist, she became concerned with global women’s issues and the environment. In 1985 she organized a panel for the U.N. Women’s Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The panel, entitled “What If Women Ruled the World?” was attended by thousands of women. The outcome was that Bella, along with Mim Kelber and other women activists, founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in 1990.
Bella used her extensive experience in labor law and in government to help further women’s interests internationally through WEDO. Among its early successes was the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, held in Miami in 1991, where 1,500 women from 83 countries produced the Women’s Action Agenda 21. Extending its perspective into the next century, this is a blueprint for incorporating women’s concerns into development and environmental decision-making at all levels.
Following through on her belief that women’s direct participation was absolutely necessary for social change, Bella developed the Women’s Caucus which used new methods to get women involved in every phase of planning and development for U.N. conferences. The Women’s Caucus analyzed documents, proposed gender-sensitive policies and language and lobbied to advance the Women’s Agenda for the 21st Century at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Bella and WEDO went on to play a leading role at the U.N. They worked through the Women’s Caucus to highlight issues of greatest concern to women in both ongoing policy-making and at major U.N. conferences, including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The Women’s Caucus has become an institution at the U.N., modeling new ways to proceed and empowering others.
During U.N. conferences, governments would make commitments, promising to meet some of the goals furthered by the conference. But, how would people know whether these goals were actually met? WEDO developed strategies to monitor governments and make the results public. For example, at six months and at one year after the Beijing Women’s Conference, Bella presented reports informing governments of their progress in meeting goals.
Bella also believed the environment to be a key issue, saying “We believe that the continuance of the earth and the maintenance of its health is fundamental to life itself.” WEDO became engaged in health issues, cosponsoring a groundbreaking hearing in 1993 on the links between breast cancer and environmental pollution. Attracting international attention, the hearing gave rise to an ongoing WEDO campaign, “Women, Health and the Environment: Action for Cancer Prevention,” which cosponsored the First World Conference on Breast Cancer in Ontario, Canada in 1997.
During her last years, Bella kept up her busy schedule of travel and work, even though she traveled in a wheelchair. Activist to the end, Bella gave her last speech at the U.N. only a day before entering the hospital for a heart operation. She died a month later.
During the year before her death, when asked about women’s roles in the future Bella said, “Women will run the 21st century. The new millennium has to have significant change. We can’t continue the errors of the past, which have been created largely by one part of the population. This is going to be the women’s century, and young people are going to be its leaders.” Bella leaves a powerful legacy for the future in the many activists she trained and organizations she founded.