Founding, enduring feminist Bella Abzug is dead at 77 'Battling Bella' served three terms in House

April 01, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Known for a fearsome and feisty style punctuated by a broad-brimmed hat, former New York congresswoman and feminist pioneer Bella Abzug died yesterday of complications after heart surgery. She was 77.

Ms. Abzug, who died at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan after having been hospitalized for three weeks, was often considered the mother of the women's political movement, and she championed liberal causes and civil rights throughout her life.

Making conservatives shudder with her dovish ideals and gravelly, Bronx-laced voice -- a voice that Norman Mailer said "could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck"-- Ms. Abzug fought against the Vietnam War and the draft, and for the Equal Rights Amendment and federally funded child care while in Congress between 1971 and 1977.

"In my heart," she said in a 1995 interview, "I've always believed women will change the nature of power, rather than power will change the nature of women."

Her fellow activists credit the loud, yet good-natured, "Battling Bella" with paving the way for today's feminists with a vision and spirit that was ahead of its time.

"She was a feminist before any of us knew what the word was," said Gloria Steinem, the Ms. magazine founder who first met Ms. Abzug on an anti-war picket line more than 30 years ago.

"She was such a trailblazer," said the Feminist Majority Foundation's Alice Cohan, who worked in Ms. Abzug's congressional office as a teen-ager. "It wasn't that she was the first woman in Congress. It was that she was the first woman to get in Congress and lead the way toward creating a feminist presence."

Famed feminist Betty Friedan said Ms. Abzug "wasn't always sweetness and light, but she was a wonderful, passionate fighter for everything that was just and right."

During the emergence of what was then known as "women's liberation," Ms. Abzug, a labor and civil rights lawyer and peace activist, ran for Congress in 1970 with the slogan: "This woman's place is in the House -- the House of Representatives."

With a knuckle-cracking handshake and the backing of the Democratic Party's reform wing, Ms. Abzug beat a seven-term incumbent in the Democratic primary on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

From her Greenwich Village headquarters -- which doubled as a day care center for the mothers who worked on her campaign -- Ms. Abzug went on to defeat radio talk show host Barry Farber in the general election, becoming the first Jewish woman in Congress.

'Give 'em hella, Bella!'

She quickly made her presence felt. She began her first day in Congress by calling for U.S. troop withdrawal from Indochina and ended it on the Capitol steps, where she took a "peace oath" as onlookers called out, "Give 'em hella, Bella!"

While in Congress, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus, holding planning sessions in her office with Steinem, Friedan and other early feminists.

She introduced the first congressional gay rights bill.

And she became one of the most celebrated members of Congress -- making as many enemies as admirers with her militant, impassioned style.

"There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing," she wrote in her 1972 book, "Bella!" "Whether I'm any of these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am I am a very serious woman."

Ms. Abzug gave up her House seat in 1976 when she ran for the U.S. Senate, losing in the primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She ran for mayor, also unsuccessfully, in 1977 and made two more failed attempts to return to Congress, the last one in 1986, the year her husband, novelist Martin Abzug, died.

Even without an elected position, she found platforms for her self-described "radical" ideas. She was a member of President Jimmy Carter's advisory committee on women -- until Carter fired her for publicly criticizing him. She was among those who successfully pressed 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale to select a woman as his running mate.

In the last decade, Ms. Abzug became an advocate for women's health care. In 1990, she founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization, in which she became an advocate for women of the Third World.

"They knew her as Battling Bella," said Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a friend and admirer. "But I knew her as someone who had a very big heart and a very large agenda."

Ms. Abzug said in interviews that her strong will -- and her passion about women's rights -- had been a part of her ever since she was a child, growing up in the Bronx as Bella Savitsky, the daughter of Russian immigrants who were Orthodox Jews.

"My mother said I was a feminist from the day I was born in 1920, the year women got the vote," Ms. Abzug said in 1994 on receiving a medal from the Veteran Feminists of America.

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