Co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bella Abzug was a leading figure in the women’s movement.
Growing up in 1920s New York City, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Abzug was heavily influenced toward feminism by her experiences in the Orthodox church.
At the age of 13, Abzug was subjected to gender discrimination after her father’s passing. According to the traditions of their congregation, only the sons of the deceased are allowed to say the mourner’s prayer. Since Abzug had no brothers, she rebelled in objection, visiting the synagogue daily for an entire year to recite the prayer.
Throughout her studies, Abzug proved to be an ambitious young leader serving as class president both in preparatory school and at Hunter College.
In 1945, she was admitted to the New York Bar Association at a time when it was uncommon for women to practice law. Her expertise was in labor rights, tenants’ rights, and civil liberties cases, including controversial cases in the South and advocating for Black clients.
She went on to work with organizations like the ACLU and the Civil Rights Congress and participated in events like the Women’s Strike for Peace. Her outspoken nature and stance against the Vietnam War and military draft earned her a spot on Nixon’s master list of political opponents.
Abzug began her political career in 1970. She beat a 14-year congressional incumbent to represent Manhattan’s West Side in the Democratic primary and went on to earn the majority vote in the general election against a widely recognized talk show host.
During her time in Congress, Abzug helped blaze the trail for gay rights, introducing the Equality Act of 1974, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
In the 1990s Abzug went on to co-found the Women’s Environment and Development Organization that focused on promoting and protecting human rights, gender equality, and environmental integrity. The organization convened 1,500 women from 83 countries to create the Women’s Action Agenda 21, which outlined their priorities around social justice causes.
She also started the Women’s Caucus at the United Nations that ensured women’s issues representation. Abzug was deeply involved in activism up until her final years, even leading the organization she helped co-found in her final days.
The year before her passing, Abzug was honored with the Blue Beret Peacekeepers Award, the highest civilian recognition and honor at the United Nations.