Bella Abzug, New Yorker, feminist, anti-war activist, politician and lawyer, died Tuesday at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. She was 77.
She died of complications following heart surgery, said Harold Holzer, who was her spokesman when she served in the House of Representatives. She had been hospitalized for weeks, and was in poor health for several years, he said.
Abzug represented the West Side of Manhattan for three congressional terms, from January 1971 to January 1977. She brought with her a belligerent, exuberant politics that made her a national character. Often called just Bella, she was recognizable everywhere by her big hats and a voice that Norman Mailer said “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”
She opposed the Vietnam War, championed what at the time was called women’s liberation and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Long after it ceased to be fashionable, she called her politics radical. During her last campaign, for Congress in 1986, she said, “I am not a centrist.”
Bella Abzug was known as a founding feminist, and an enduring one. In the movement’s giddy, sloganeering early days, Abzug was, like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, an icon, the hat bobbing before the cameras at marches and rallies.
After leaving the House, she lobbied and organized for women’s rights for two more decades. She founded an international women’s group that worked on environmental issues. And she was a leader of a conference of nongovernmental organizations that paralleled the United Nations’ fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
Bella Savitzky Abzug was born on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx, the second daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father, Emanuel Savitzky, whom Abzug later described as “this humanist butcher,” ran (and named) the Live and Let Live Meat Market in Manhattan.
She said she knew from the age of 11 that she wanted to be a lawyer, and not long afterward gave her first public speech, in a subway station, while collecting for a Zionist youth organization. She went from Hunter College, where she was student body president, to Columbia University Law School, where she was an editor of The Law Review, to a practice representing union workers.
Abzug traced the wearing of her trademark wide-brimmed hats to those days. She once recalled: “When I was a young lawyer, I would go to people’s offices and they would always say, ‘Sit here. We’ll wait for the lawyer.’ Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously.
“After a while, I started liking them. When I got to Congress, they made a big thing of it. So I was watching. Did they want me to wear it or not? They didn’t want me to wear it, so I did.’
All the while, she was a leftist and an agitator. Years later, in a moment of exasperation with her congressional aides, she wrote: “I just don’t understand young people today, quite frankly. Our struggle was political, ideological and economic, and we felt we couldn’t make something of ourselves unless we bettered society. We saw the two together.”
In the 1950s, Abzug’s law practice turned to other cases identified with the left. One client was Willie McGee, a black Mississippian convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. Abzug, who was pregnant at the time, argued the case in Mississippi while white supremacist groups threatened her. Though the Supreme Court intervened twice, McGee was executed.
She also represented people accused of communist activities by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s congressional committee and its counterpart in the New York state Legislature.
In the 1960s, Abzug became an anti-war activist. A founder of Women Strike for Peace, she became its chief lobbyist, protesting nuclear testing and, later, the Vietnam War. She organized insurgent Democrats into other groups, too, becoming a leader of the movement against President Lyndon B. Johnson and a prominent figure in the 1968 presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
During those years, Abzug started navigating New York City politics. She and her husband, Martin, whom she had married in 1944, moved from Mount Vernon, the Westchester suburb where they had raised their two daughters, to a town house in Greenwich Village.
In 1970, Abzug ran for Congress. She became national news, an incomparable flash of local color in a national political year. She won, and also won in 1972 and 1974.
In 1976, she gave up her House seat to run for the Senate. She lost in the primary, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by a margin of only 1 percent.
Two more campaigns quickly followed. (In a 1978 interview, she said: “I’m a politician. I run for office. That’s my profession.”) She lost to Edward Koch in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary in 1977. In 1978, running for the House again, she lost, again by just 1 percent, to a relatively unknown Republican, William S. Green.
She was appointed co-chair of President Jimmy Carter’s National Advisory Committee on Women, and then, after arguing with him over economic policy, was sacked. The majority of committee members resigned in protest.
Her next and last campaign was in 1986, this time for Joseph DioGuardi’s House seat in Westchester County. She won the primary in a burst of the old, ebullient campaign style, but she lost in November to DioGuardi, a Republican.
It was during that campaign that Martin Abzug died. Her friends say she never recovered; nine years later, she would say, in an interview, “I haven’t been entirely the same since.”
There was one more bid for office - for her old House seat on the Upper West Side , at that - when she announced her candidacy to replace Rep. Ted Weiss on his death just before the 1992 election. But she was quickly eliminated from the field at the party convention.
Over the next decade Abzug suffered health problems, including breast cancer, but continued to practice law and work for women’s groups. She wrote a book, “Gender Gap,” with her old friend Mim Kelber. She started a lobbying group called Women U.S.A. and founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, a nonprofit group that works with international agencies.
In addition to her daughters, Eve and Liz, both of New York City, Abzug is survived by her sister, Helene Alexander of Great Neck, N.Y.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BELLA’S WORDS “This woman’s place is in the House - the House of Representatives.” “We don’t so much want to see a female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.” “The establishment is made up of little men, very frightened.” “Some of the men scowled at me, but no one stopped me.”