Ditching the Orthodox tradition
“Larger than life” is what Bella Abzug was all about. The New York-based Democrat congresswoman who gained notoriety in the 1970s with her big hats and bold feminist voice was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920. Daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she lost her father at 13. Ditching Orthodox tradition, she recited prayers for his soul—normally a son’s duty—at their synagogue.
Defending a Black man charged with rape of a white woman
Abzug studied labor law at Columbia University, where she edited the Columbia Law Review. While later working for the Civil Rights Congress, she represented Willie McGee, who was charged with raping a housewife in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1945. With an all-white jury, the facts remained unclear. Luminaries like Josephine Baker and Albert Einstein petitioned for clemency. Abzug handled McGee’s final appeal, which fell short, and the truck driver was executed in 1951. Though the appeal failed, a white woman defending a Black man in the Deep South at that time was remarkable in itself.
Appearing on Nixon’s ‘Enemies List
When Abzug first met Nixon at a White House reception, she slammed his Vietnam policy, saying that his predecessors didn’t do very well and that he is doing worse. Chuck Colson, Nixon’s special counsel, put her on an “enemies list” with nearly 600 names. After Watergate, the Republican president was impeached and resigned in 1974.
Running the First National Women’s Conference, 1977
Abzug was appointed by Jimmy Carter to run the landmark conference in Houston, Texas. Vigorously opposed by Phyllis Schlafly, it attracted more than 20,000 delegates from across America, including Maya Angelou, Billie Jean King, and three First Ladies. Sessions focused on the ERA, domestic violence, and education reform, among other issues.
Banning the law against married women to credit cards in their husband’s name
Abzug discovered she couldn’t obtain an American Express card unless it bore her husband Martin’s name, she immediately took action. In 1974, a new law banned discrimination against women seeking consumer credit or business loans.
Being An Inspiration to Future Generations
Abzug gave her final public speech before the UN in March of 1998, and died soon after, at the age of 77. Her death is still being mourned in this country and around the world. Her inspiring life was portrayed by Margo Martindale in the Hulu/FX miniseries Mrs. America (2020), featuring Cate Blanchett as anti-Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Harvey Fierstein performed a one-person off-Broadway show called Bella Bella in 2019. Bette Midler played Abzug in the 2020 film The Glorias. Jeff L. Lieberman’s documentary Bella!, including interviews with Barbra Streisand and Nancy Pelosi, will premiere in either 2020 or 2021.