An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Famous Women—Bella Abzug

Aug 26, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1. Flashy, flamboyant, festive and female were all words used to describe Bella Abzug. For those unaware of a certain part of our history, who was this person?

American women had started to enter the political realm as far back as the days of Susan B. Anthony, but the early 1970s clearly represents the decade when they came into their own in that realm.

Bella Abzug represents one of the most important examples of that trend. Although she did not have a long term of service in the United States House of Representatives, her path to political office made her an iconic figure in the growing national women’s movement. Willing to take unpopular stances on the issues of the day because of her convictions, she became a hero to females who felt that American society had underappreciated their talents for too long.

2. Indeed, the words “Battling Bella” were often used to describe her somewhat combative style of politics. How did this come about?

While serving in Congress in 1971, Bella Abzug used the words “Battling Bertha” to describe herself, but she had put her confrontational style of behavior on display long before she won election to the US House of Representatives.

In 1933, her father died, and the synagogue that her family belonged to informed the family that the father would receive a traditional Orthodox funeral. This upset Bella, because at that time it meant that as a female she could not recite a prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish for her father (many Orthodox synagogues have since abandoned that prohibition against women reciting that prayer).

Rather than simply accept the synagogue’s decision, Bella made it a point to visit the synagogue every day for a year and say the Mourner’s Kaddish. For good reason, then, did she and others use the term “Battling Bella” to describe her.

3. I have heard the quote “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives”. Did she really say such a thing? And did she make it to the House?

Initially, Bella Abzug had set her sights on becoming a lawyer. To that end, she attended Columbia Law School after graduating from Hunter College. Receiving her LLB degree in 1944, she passed the New York Bar a year later. At that point, she joined a New York law firm and became a practicing lawyer.

Over the next 25 years, she became increasingly politicized, and in 1970 she decided to run for office. A man named Leonard Farbstein had represented the congressional district that she lived in for 14 years, and Bella Abzug felt that he no longer reflected the values and beliefs of his constituents.

For that reason, she chose to challenge him in the Democratic primary in 1970. Winning that contest, she then bested a New York radio personality named Barry Farber in the fall election. A big reason why she won stemmed from the fact that she had coined a powerful slogan for her campaign. Because many men (and some women) at the time felt that a woman’s place was in the home, she said “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”

Two years later, even though redistricting had put her in a new district, she once again won a seat in the House of Representatives.

Elected to a third term in 1974, she decided in 1976 to seek the Democratic nomination for a seat in the US Senate. Daniel Moynihan defeated her in a close primary election, and thus she found herself out of the political realm when her term in the House of Representatives ended in January of 1977. Undaunted, she then ran for mayor against Ed Koch, but lost that election as well. Two other attempts to win a seat in Congress ended unsuccessfully, and at that point she decided to never run for office again.

4. Apparently, she was involved in a number of causes. Can you tell us about some of them?

After becoming a lawyer, Bella Abzug chose a number of cases based on her political beliefs. For example, in the 1940s she went to Mississippi to appeal the murder conviction of an African-American; she based her appeal on the fact that an all-white jury had taken a grand total of 150 seconds to convict him. When the United States became militarily engaged in Vietnam, she became an early and outspoken critic of the government’s policy.

A champion of the women’s movement, she threw her support behind the Equal Rights Amendment. During her days in Congress, she argued against a United Nations resolution that had condemned Zionism, a principle that she believed in quite strongly. Finally, she became one of the first members of Congress to state her support of the principle of Gay Rights. She would fight for these causes all the rest of her life.

5. What were her later years like? And did she write an autobiography?

After she left Congress, Bella Abzug continued to support the cause of Women’s Rights. First, she helped to establish a national women’s advocacy group, and then in the 1990s she took her efforts onto a global scale when she associated her group with the United Nations. In fact, the last speech that she ever gave was before the United Nations in March of 1998. Before she died, she wrote an autobiography, and co-authored a book on empowering women.

6) What have I neglected to ask about this exceptional woman?

While few Americans at the time could have stated with certainty the positions that Bella Abzug took on the issues of the time, many of them would have instantly recognized he because of her habit of wearing distinctive hats. When people would complement her on her stylish headwear, she would respond by saying “it’s what is under the hat that counts.” This phrase perfectly captures the spirit of a woman who fought to be recognized for her talents and capabilities.

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