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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 774

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This is the grave of Bella Abzug.

Born in 1920 in New York, Bella Savitzky grew up in a Russian Jewish immigrant family. Her father ran a deli and she worked in it from the time she was a small child. She was always a rebel. Her father died when she was 13. She was not allowed to say the Kaddish because she was a girl. But she had no brothers. So she went in and did anyway for the next year. A very competitive and political individual, Abzug became her high school president in The Bronx. She went to Hunter College, part of CUNY, where she majored in political science while also taking classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A strong leftist, she was part of the American Student Union, a communist group that fought militarism. She was there right as the socialists and communists split just before World War II started in Europe and I am not sure which side of that divide she was on.

After graduation, Abzug got a law degree from Columbia in 1944 and passed the bar in 1945. She also married Martin Abzug in 1944 and they remained married until his death in 1986. She became a labor lawyer at a New York firm, one of the women working in the legal world at this time. Still a strong leftist, she took on a lot of civil rights cases, as well as using her skills in the struggle for class equality. One of her early prominent cases was taking on the case of Willie McGee, who was set for execution in Mississippi after an all-white jury found him guilty of raping a white woman after a deliberation that lasted less than three minutes. Abzug was not the only lawyer on the case but she led his appeal in both Mississippi and in front of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, he was executed in 1951 for a crime he probably did not commit. Abzug went on to be active in Women Strike for Peace, the international left organization of women attempting to fight nuclear proliferation. This one of the key organizations in thawing the Cold War repression of social protest, one that is quite underrated in our public memory of the era.

By 1970, Abzug was a well-known leftist lawyer and political agitator. So she decided to run for Congress. In an election reminiscent of the recent primaries of out of touch old members of Congress by leftists in New York City, she took out a 14-year incumbent named Leonard Farbstein to represent the Upper West Side of Manhattan and then won the general over the right-wing talk show host Barry Farber. She initially lost her primary for reelection in 1972, but then the guy who beat her dropped dead and she was named to replace him on the ballot. With redistricting, she began representing some of The Bronx as well and served a total of three terms in Congress. While there, she continued to be a groundbreaking fighter for equality. She introduced the first bill in American history to protect gay rights, the Equality Act of 1974, along with her fellow Congressman Ed Koch. As chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights, she led pioneering hearings into government secrecy right as Watergate was happening. This was no backbenchers. Her colleagues ranked her as the third most influential member of their body in an anonymous ballot for a magazine.

As a Jewish woman, Abzug also saw Zionism as part of a civil rights movement, saying “Zionism is a liberation movement.” Alas, that is not and will never be true for the Palestinians violently ejected from their land to create a white settler state. Even Abzug had her blind spots, even if one can understand where she was coming from.

In 1976, Abzug decided to try for the Senate. This is a devastating election. The other person contesting the Democratic nomination: the odious Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Unfortunately. she lost that by less than one percent and Moynihan and his white family pathology of racism went onto the Senate. She would have been so, so, so much better, especially as a fighter against the rising conservatism of the Reagan years.

After she left Washington, Abzug remained a political gadfly. She continued to run for office, but now without success, including a 1977 run for mayor. when she lost to Ed Koch. Jimmy Carter then named her the head of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, which had been created by Gerald Ford in 1975. Under her guidance, the commission held the National Women’s Conference in 1977. This legendary event was a government-sponsored engagement in feminism. It was hugely important both for the debates within it and for the backlash. On the latter, it was the outrage among conservatives that the government would spend money on such an event that gave greater power to right-wing anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly. Like a lot of the best ideas of the Carter years, it ran headlong into the buzzsaw of white backlash and the rise of conservatism. It’s easy to pay attention to that. But let’s not forget the very important conversations taking place on the floor of the event: the Equal Rights Amendment, lesbianism and its place within feminism, nuclear disarmament, women in politics and working for the government, disabled women, abortion, the nuclear family, child care, domestic violence, education, and many other critical issues. Abzug deserves tons of credit for making all this happen. But after this, the commission transitioned into the President’s Advisory Commission for Women. And Carter lost all interest, refusing to even meet with the commission he had created himself. When the committee came out with a statement criticizing Carter’s increasingly right-leaning economic plans as anti-women, Abzug was fired, alienating feminists before his reelection campaign. Typical Carter, alienating his potential allies while doing nothing to appeal to those opposed to him.

After this, Abzug became a sort of senior feminist. She did some work for the United Nations, developing a Women’s Caucus. She wrote two books, one about her time in Washington and another, coauthored with Kim Melber, called The Gender Gap. She continued to travel and work as her health declined. She dealt with breast cancer and then her heart began to give out. She was in a wheelchair in her later years and died in 1998 after open heart surgery. She was 77 years old.

Bella Abzug is buried in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other women involved in the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Addie Wyatt is in Chicago and Katharine Hepburn is in Hartford. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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