Bella Abzug

The Jewish congresswoman was a champion of women's rights, human rights, equality, peace, and social justice.

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When she was not fighting for an end to the Vietnam War or for women's rights, Abzug was making other important contributions. A committed environmentalist, she co-authored the Water Pollution Act of 1972, and was a staunch supporter of affordable public transportation. She called for freedom for Soviet Jewry, supported aid to Israel, and led the fight to condemn the UN General Assembly's 1975 resolution equating "Zionism with Racism." In 1974, Abzug introduced the first Federal bill to support gay and lesbian civil rights. She co-authored the groundbreaking Freedom of Information Act as well as other landmark legislation to guard against Federal agencies' abuse of power. She was also the first to call for the impeachment of President Nixon. And in her six years as Congresswoman, she brought a total of almost 6 billion dollars in funding to New York State.

On November 18, 1977, 20,000 women, men, and children gathered in Houston to witness an unprecedented event: the first federally-funded National Women's Conference.

Over the course of three days, a diverse group of 2,000 delegates ratified a National Plan of Action dealing with everything from the Equal Rights Amendment to Civil Rights to disarmament. This set of recommendations was then presented to the White House and to Congress.

Because the bill which created the "Spirit of Houston" event mandated "special emphasis on the representation of low-income women, members of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups, and women of all ages," a large portion of funding was spent on grants enabling women to attend. The result was one of the few truly representative national gatherings in U.S. history.

In 1990, Bella moved on to co-found the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an international activist and advocacy network. As WEDO president, Abzug became an influential leader at the United Nations and at UN world conferences, working to empower women around the globe.

Passing the Torch

Bella Abzug died in 1998, at the age of 77. Tributes to Abzug included an unprecedented memorial meeting in the UN General Assembly chamber. There Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, pledged to ensure that the doors Bella had opened would, "remain open from this day forth. Bella's legacy shall endure (WEDO News and Views, June 1998)."

At Abzug's funeral, Geraldine Ferraro phrased it another way: "She didn't knock politely on the door. She didn't even push it open or batter it down. She took it off the hinges forever."

Remembrances from both friends and enemies filled the press. Hillary Clinton told of women around the world introducing themselves as, "the Bella Abzug of Russia, or... the Bella Abzug of Uganda," while her husband commented that, "Our society is more just and compassionate," because Abzug, "lived and worked among us."

In Kenya, Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, memorialized Bella as "a pioneer" who, "dared to walk into the unknown..." In the U.S., Gloria Steinem remembered her as not just, "the woman who fought the revolution. She was the woman we want to be after the revolution." And many recalled one often repeated quote: "In a perfectly just republic," wrote John Kenneth Galbraith in 1984, "Bella Abzug would be president (Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women, Houghton Mifflin, 1984)."

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