Bella Savitsky was born in 1920 in the Bronx, New York. She was the daughter of two Russian Jewish immigrants. Bella developed a reputation for being loud and strong-willed at an early age. She attended Hunter College, where she was elected student body president. Her grades were so outstanding that she received a scholarship to Columbia Law School in 1942. Bella served as the editor of the Columbia Law Review and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1947.
While studying at Columbia, Bella met writer Martin Abzug. Martin and Bella wrote each other frequent letters while he served in World War II. When he returned home, he promised that if she agreed to marry him, he would never ask her to stop working. In 1944, they married.
Bella and Martin moved to the suburbs of New York and had two daughters. At the same time, Bella started a career in law. She worked for a law firm that represented labor unions. She knew that labor leaders would likely overlook a young female lawyer. To stand out, she wore large, attention-grabbing hats. The strategy worked so well that she made hats a permanent part of her wardrobe.
By the 1950s, Bella opened her own law firm that focused on civil rights cases. Bella defended citizens accused of communist activity by the government. She also represented victims of racial discrimination.
In 1961, Bella helped form the group Women Strike for Peace (WSP). WSP protested the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War. Bella saw politics as a critical part of making change. She served as WSP’s national legislative chairwoman. She met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified at the national Democratic Platform Committee hearings on behalf of WSP. She also campaigned for antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic presidential primary.
While Bella’s visibility on the national stage grew, she and Martin made a personal choice. Feeling unfulfilled in the suburbs, they sold their house to Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz and moved back to New York City.
In 1970, Bella successfully ran for the House of Representatives. She was the first member of Congress to successfully run on a platform that included supporting the women’s liberation movement. On her first day in office, throngs of women greeted her with signs that read, “Give ‘em hell, Bella!”
There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I am any of these things, or all of them, you can decide. . . . But whatever I am . . . I am a very serious woman.
Bella was a formidable member of Congress. Her years of experience as a civil rights lawyer and antiwar activist made her an effective legislator. She knew how to bring people together, transform ideas into policy, and find opportunities for change. She sought roles that fit her and her constituents’ interests. She served as the chair of the Subcommittee on Government Information and Individual Rights and co-authored legislation that protected citizens’ privacy. She led an investigation of the FBI’s controversial domestic intelligence activities. Bella was also the first member of Congress to advocate for equal rights for LGBTQ citizens.
Bella’s outspoken personality and commitment to feminism and inclusion earned her many enemies. Conservative politicians often refused to support any piece of legislation that Bella supported. If she liked it, they hated it.
In the summer of 1971, Betty Friedan asked Bella to help her form a politically focused organization for women. Bella hosted the first planning meeting in her office. Attendees included Gloria Steinem, Patsy Mink, and Shirley Chisholm. The National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) was born. The NWPC recruited 300 members from both political parties. The goal was to improve women’s involvement in politics, regardless of political beliefs.
By many standards, the NWPC was a success. During the 1972 national presidential conventions, the number of Republican female delegates doubled and the number of Democratic female delegates tripled. That same year, a record number of women ran for Congress.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford created the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year (IWY). Congress allocated $5 million to support the work of the IWY Commission. The IWY Commission was in charge of organizing 50 state-level conferences culminating in the National Women’s Conference of 1977. The participants in the national conference would create and approve a plan for policies regarding women. Bella eagerly accepted an invitation to represent the House of Representatives on the IWY Commission.
In 1976, Bella gave up her House seat to run for the Senate. She lost in the primary by less than 1%. Shortly after her loss, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as the chair of the IWY Commission.
Bella put all of her energy into planning the National Women’s Conference. She was a firm believer in collaboration and inclusion. Women from all walks of life needed to attend. Otherwise, conference attendees could not create a successful policy plan.
The 1977 conference began with an Olympic Games-style torch relay that started in Seneca Falls and ended at the conference center in Houston. Bella, Betty Friedan, and Billie Jean King were among the leaders who walked the final mile with the torch runners.
In the days to that followed, delegates representing all 50 states debated a range of issues. Approximately 80% of the delegates were politically liberal. While they were not always in agreement, they generally supported feminism and reached consensus on many issues. By the end of the conference, a draft policy plan was ready. It advocated for access to safe and legal abortions, inclusion of LGBTQ women in the women’s movement, and ratification of the Equal Right Amendment (ERA).
In early 1978, Bella and the IWY Commission proudly presented President Carter with the plan created at the conference. President Carter promised to take the platform seriously and appointed Bella co-chair of the National Advisory Committee for Women to continue the work. Unfortunately, neither he nor Bella anticipated the amount of support the conservative counter-rally gained. In the months that followed, President Carter found it difficult to fulfill his promise. Conservative interest groups were so invigorated that even the ERA’s passage stalled in the states. Facing more pressure to stop the liberal feminist agenda, the President fired Bella. Most of the committee resigned in protest.
Bella ran for Congress in 1978, 1986, and 1992, but failed to win. In 1986, her husband Martin died. Bella expressed her heartbreak in an article titled, “Martin, What do I Do Now?”
Bella continued to work as a lawyer and to speak about causes close to her heart. From 1993 to 1995, she was the chair of New York City’s commission on the Status of Women. She died in 1998, still fighting for peace, justice, and women’s rights.
abortion: A procedure to end a pregnancy.
bar: A collection of professional lawyers certified to practice in a given region.
caucus: A subgroup of a larger membership body that meets around a common theme.
communism: A political system in which all goods and items of value are collectively owned and distributed to citizens equally.
constituents: The citizens an elected official represents.
conventions: A large meeting involving members of a group. In American politics, the Republican and Democratic parties hold a convention every four years to select their presidential candidate.
Democratic Platform Committee: The group of people who create the platform – or political plan – for the policies the Democratic party will pursue in a given term.
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA): A proposed amendment to the United States Constitution stating that rights may not be denied on the basis of a person’s sex.
formidable: Powerful and intimidating.
International Women’s Year: The United Nations named 1975 as International Women’s Year. In response, nations around the world developed plans to honor and recognize women.
Malcolm X: An outspoken African American civil and human rights activist who was assassinated in 1965.
National Political Women’s Caucus: A political organization formed in 1971 to encourage and support more women in politics.
Seneca Falls: A town in New York that hosted the first women’s rights convention in the United States in 1848.
How did Bella’s personality shape her life and career?
Bella was 50 years old when she ran for Congress. How did the first 50 years of her life prepare her for a political career?
Why do you think Bella was so effective during her three terms in Congress?
What made Bella an effective leader in the women’s movement?
Pair Bella’s life story with that of Phyllis Schlafly. Each woman’s career culminated in leading a major political event in Houston in 1977. Invite students to look at the story of the ERA and the National Women’s Conference from two perspectives.
Invite students to think like a curator and create a mini exhibition about Bella Abzug using the images connected to this life story. What do students learn about Bella from the her hat and pin? What do students learn about Bella from the two photographs? How can these resources be put together to tell a story about her life?
Learn more about Bella’s involvement in the Vietnam War by reading a different version of her life story in the New-York Historical Society curriculum guide, The Vietnam War, 1945–1975.
Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Patsy Mink were founders of the National Political Women’s Caucus. Review their respective resources in WAMS and encourage students to think about what each woman brought to this organization and their motivations for participating.
Center a lesson on the photograph of Bella, Billie Jean King, and Betty Friedan participating in the torch relay at the National Women’s Conference. Read the life story for each woman and closely study the image. How does each woman represent different aspects of the movement? What did each bring to the conference? What other perspectives would students want to include in this study?
Focus a lesson on the photograph of Shirley Chisholm speaking to the women’s caucus at the Democratic National Convention in 1972. The image includes Bella, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan. Review their respective resources in WAMS and consider what each woman might have been thinking about in that moment.
Compare Bella’s life story to two other Congresswomen featured in this unit: Helen Gahagan Douglas and Patsy Mink. How did each women build a career in a male-dominated House?
AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; POWER AND POLITICS; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE