‘Battling Bella’: The Bronx Woman Who Fought For All


Bella Abzug (née Savitsky) was born on July 24, 1920, in The Bronx to Russian Jewish immigrants who went on to become the first Jewish woman elected to Congress as well as the first woman elected to the House of Representatives on a platform of gender equality and women’s rights.

Even at an early age, she was already going against the grain of society and proving the importance of gender equity in all aspects of society.

When Abzug was 13, her father passed away but as a female, she was forbidden to say Kaddish (Jewish prayer of mourning) which was only for the sons to perform as per tradition.

But that didn’t stop her. She was already an outspoken teen, according to a post in the Daily Kos:

“Hitler came to power the year her father, Emanuel, died, and Abzug emerged as an outspoken thirteen-year-old willing to break the rules. Although prohibited by tradition from saying kaddish for her father in synagogue, Abzug did so anyway. Every morning before school for a year, she attended synagogue and davened. The congregants looked askance and never did approve, but nobody ever stopped her. She simply did what she needed to do for her father, who had no son—and thus learned a lesson for life. Be bold, be brazen, be true to your heart, she advised others: “People may not like it, but no one will stop you.”

She attended Walton High School which back in those days was an all girls school and eventually went on to Hunter College and then on to Columbia Law School.

Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York, July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998/Library of Congress
Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York, July 24, 1920 – March 31, 1998/Library of Congress

At the age of 50 she became the country’s first Jewish woman to hold office in congress. She was also the first member of congress to introduce legislation supporting gay rights back in 1974.

Abzug was someone who also fought for civil rights and peace. In the oral history written on her, ‘Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed Off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet, and Shook Up Politics Along the Way‘ it says:

“I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prize fighter, a man-hater, you name it. They call me Battling Bella, Mother Courage, and a Jewish mother with more complaints than Portnoy. There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of those things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am–and this ought to made very clear–I am a very serious woman.”

For more than fifty years, Bella Abzug championed the powerless and disenfranchised, as an activist, congresswoman, and leader in every major social initiative of her time—from Zionism and labor in the 40s to the ban-the-bomb efforts in the 50s, to civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 60s, to the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s, to environmental awareness and economic equality in the 90s. Her political idealism never waning, Abzug gave her final public speech before the U.N. in March 1998, just a few weeks before her death. Presented in the voices of both friends and foes, of those who knew, fought with, revered, and struggled alongside her, this oral biography will be the first comprehensive account of a woman who was one of our most influential leaders.”

The Bronx has always and continues to produce amazing women leaders. Here’s to Bella and being a trailblazer.

To learn more about Bella, you can purchase her oral history on amazon here and you can also read the article over at Daily Kos, ‘They Call Me Bella’.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.