An Inspiration to Us All
July 24, 1995 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
Mr. Speaker, on August 26, 1920, 75 years ago, American women finally won their century-long struggle for their constitutional right to vote. That new birth of freedom empowered women to bring into Congress and into public discourse their legislative and political demands to end pervasive discrimination against women and girls, a struggle marked by notable victories and continuing challenges.
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we also celebrate today, July 24, the 75th birthday of one of our Nation’s most outstanding woman leaders, Bella S. Abzug. In her all-too-brief 6 years in Congress (1971-1977) as a Democratic Representative from a Manhattan district in New York City, she emerged as a dynamic leader, creative legislator, and a pioneer in broadening legal, economic, social, and political rights for women.
When Bella first ran for office in 1970, there were only nine women among the 435 members of the House of Representatives, including Martha Griffiths, Edith Green, Patsy Mink, and Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress. There was only one woman Senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Bella was the first woman to run and be elected on a women’s rights and peace platform.
Today, some 20 years later, the numbers have increased significantly — 47 women in the House, eight in the Senate — but as Bella would be the first to remind us, American women, who are more than 51 percent of the population, deserve more than an average of 10.3 percent representation in our Congress.
Bella was elected to the House while United States military intervention in Vietnam, now admitted by Robert McNamara to have been a rightful and costly mistake, was at its height and was drawing mass protests around our country and in Washington. After being officially sworn in as a Member on the House floor on January 21, 1971, Bella took another oath on the Capitol steps, administered by Congresswoman Chisholm before a thousand supporters, in which she pledged “to work for new priorities to heal the domestic wounds of war and to use our country’s wealth for life, not death.” Then as her first official act in Congress she dropped a resolution into the hopper calling on President Nixon to withdraw all American Armed Forces from Indochina by July 1, 1971.
Bella’s concern for the human victims of war made her an adored champion of returning Vietnam veterans, who camped out in her office during the protests they held in the Capital. Her staff included a full time aide who dealt exclusively with veterans health and readjustment problems and she played a leading role in strengthening education benefits for veterans in VA legislation.
Bella also impressed her colleagues as a thoughtful and creative legislator with a firm knowledge of parliamentary rules and precedents, negotiating skills and an awesome capacity for dawn-to-midnight hard work. In her last term in Congress, she served as a member of the whip system operated by House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, a friend and admirer, and was chosen by her congressional peers in a U.S. News and World Report survey as the “third, most influential” Member of the House. She was described in a 1977 Gallup Poll as 1 of the 20 most influential women in the world.
One of the earliest votes Bella cast was to approve the Equal Rights Amendment. She also introduced a resolution proclaiming August 26 Women’s Equality Day, in honor of the suffrage victory. The resolution was approved and signed into law by President Nixon. Nationally and internationally, Bella became known as a champion of women’s rights and reproductive freedom and initiated what later became the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues. She wrote the first law banning discrimination against women in obtaining credit, loans, and mortgages, and introduced precedent-setting bills on comprehensive child care, Social Security for homemakers, abortion rights, and gay rights.
Chairing the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation, she authored legislation bringing more than $6 billion to New York State in public works, economic development, sewage treatment, mass transit — including sidewalk ramps for the disabled and buses for the elderly — and antirecision assistance. She created the Interstate Transfer Law, which allowed New York City to trade-in highway funds for mass transit improvements.
Bella’s remarkable accomplishments as a legislator came as no surprise to those who knew her personal history. Born on July 24, 1920, to Esther and Emanuel Savitsky, Russian Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, Bella has put her prodigious energy, brains, organizing skills, and idealism to work for a better world, especially for women and victims of racism, prejudice, greeds and militarism.
Along the way, she has never accepted the tired view of “that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it has to be.” As a child growing up in the Bronx, she started breaking rules — playing “immies” in the street with the boys — and usually winning — collecting pennies and making speeches in the subways for the Jewish homeland, which later became established as the State of Israel. She attended both public and Hebrew religious schools.
Early on, Bella was recognized as a natural leader: she was elected class president at Walton High School and president of Hunter College’s Student Council. One of her fondest memories is of speaking at an assembly addressed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — they both wore hats.
At Hunter, her last year at law school, she married Martin Abzug, a businessman, World War II veteran and budding novelist who proved his love by typing her schoolwork. Their mutual admiration marriage ended with his death in 1986. They had two daughters, Eve and Liz. Eve is an artist, has worked in city government and holds a master’s degree in social work. Liz, active in the women’s movement, is an attorney specializing in economic development and women’s concerns. In the early years of her career, Bella worked as a lawyer, specializing in civil liberties and labor law. She has been a lifelong advocate of civil rights and a “nut” about the first amendment. In the early 1950’s, she defended several Hollywood actors caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt, and also took on the controversial case of Willie McGee, a black Mississippian sentenced to death on a framed-up charge of raping a white woman, with whom he had a long relationship. Although she could not save him from execution, Bella’s courage in going to the South to defend him despite threats to her safety was a harbinger of courage displayed by thousands of civil rights activists in the Sixties. During the McGee trial, Bella wasn’t even able to get a hotel room and had to sleep in the local bus station, and she was pregnant.
In 1961, Bella helped organize Women Strike for Peace to campaign for a nuclear test ban, going on to lead thousands of women in lobbying expeditions to Congress and the White House. During the Sixties, she came into her own as a rousing public speaker, anti-Vietnam war leader and political strategist, working in the reform Democratic and peace movements and election campaigns.
At age 50, she decided it was time to run for office herself, and run she did, in 1970, with her slogan: “This woman’s place is in the House —the House of Representatives.” She conducted an unorthodox, attention-getting congressional campaign, mostly in the streets of Greenwich Village, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and Chelsea, backed up by hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers. She scored an upset primary victory over a longtime Democratic incumbent and went on to win the general election.
While in Congress, throughout the Seventies, Bella was also organizing women. The first planning sessions for the National Women’s Political Caucus were held in her office and in 1971 she became its first co-chair. She was chief political strategist for Democratic women in a successful campaign for equal representation — equal division — for women in all elective and appointive posts, including representation at Presidential nominating conventions. She now serves as a New York State representative on the Democratic Party National Committee.
She was an active policy adviser and organizer of women voters in the Democratic Party’s 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 Presidential campaigns.
After trying for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and losing a four-way primary race by less than 1 percent, Bella was named by President Carter to head the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, presiding in November 1977 over the landmark federally-funded National Women’s Conference in Houston.
While still in the House during the Ford administration, Bella and other Congresswomen succeeded in getting a $5 million appropriation for the conference, which included several thousand women delegates elected at public meetings in every State of the Union as well as First Ladies, past and present. The delegates adopted a 25-plank National Plan of Action, making specific recommendations on a broad range of issues affecting the status of women. Bella played a major role in the U.N. Decade of Women international conference in Mexico City and as an NGO observer and speaker at the 1980 Copenhagen and 1985 Nairobi U.N. women’s conferences. At the parallel NGO Forum in Nairobi, she organized a panel, titled “What If Women Ruled the World?”, attended by more than a thousand women, including conference delegates and parliamentarians.
In 1978, President Carter appointed Bella co-chair of his National Advisory Committee for Women, on which she served for 2 years. After the advisory committee publicly protested funding cuts in women’s programs, Bella was dismissed by President Carter as co-chair and a majority of the committee members resigned in protest. Nevertheless, Bella supported Jimmy Carter in his unsuccessful 1980 Presidential reelection bid.
In the 1980’s Bella Abzug worked on women voters education programs and also served as a strategist for the growing pro-choice reproductive rights women’s movement. She also became involved in efforts to organize women to help save the planet from worsening environmental threats, pollution and poverty, resulting from unregulated technologies, the social irresponsibility of multinationals, governments, international financial institutions, war machines and other factors. From this concern, shared by women worldwide, came the formation of the Women’s Environment & Development Organization [WEDO], co-founded with Mim Kelber, a longtime associate, and women U.N. activists. As co-chair of WEDO, Bella presided over the World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, held in Miami, FL Nov. 8-12, 1991. The widely acclaimed Congress, which drew 1,500 women participants from 83 countries, produced and approved the Women’s Action Agenda 21 — a blueprint for incorporating women’s perspectives, demands and equal participation into local, national and international environment and development decision-making.
The women’s agenda became the focus of activities organized by Bella and WEDO leaders from every region of the world in connection with preparations for the U.N. Conference on Environment & Development and at the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. She also served as senior adviser to UNCED Secretary-General Maurice Strong and was the women’s sector representative on the non-governmental organizations (NGO) facilitating committee for the Rio summit.Based on the model she developed for the Earth Summit, Bella and the WEDO network have continued to work at the UN, organizing women’s caucus meetings at subsequent major international conferences of particular concern to women. The work of the caucuses has been recognized as crucial to including women’s perspectives, demands and participation in policymaking in U.N. platforms for action and programs.
Bella also served as a private sector representative on the U.S. delegation to the International Conference on Population & Development [ICPD] in Cairo, Egypt last September and played a key role in winning recognition of the centrality of women’s concerns and roles in population and development policies. She will also be an active participant in the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women and its parallel NGO forum which will meet in China this September. She will co-chair a WEDO-initiated Women’s Linkage Caucus at the official conference and will also preside over the Second World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet at the NGO Forum.
Bella believes that the United States should act speedily to ratify the U.N. Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] before the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage — The United States is the only major power that has not ratified CEDAW.
Bella’s work at the United Nations has led her to other areas of participation, including serving as a moderator at the conference on financing of the United Nations held by the Society for International Development. She also serves as part of the U.N. Development Program’s Eminent Advisory Panel for the 1995 Human Development Report.
While volunteering most of her time to the U.N., Bella Abzug continues to devote her energies to a wide range of women’s issues.
Breast cancer became a focus of her attention in March 1993, when WEDO, together with the New York City Commission on the Status of Women, which she chaired on breast cancer and the environment. Testimony was presented by physicians, scientists, women’s health specialists, activists and women with breast cancer on the links between the breast cancer epidemic and environmental pollutants. Three months later, Bella discovered that she too had breast cancer.
This only strengthened her commitment to focus more research and government and public resources on cancer prevention, emphasizing the identification and prevention of environmental causes of the disease.
Under Bella’s leadership, WEDO has launched a campaign in partnership with Greenpeace USA and grassroots women’s cancer groups, entitled “Women, Health and the Environment: Action for Prevention.” The campaign is sponsoring public hearings and action conferences in cities throughout the United States.
In whatever spare time she has, Bella supports her pro bono activities by working as a lawyer. She also lectures at colleges, women’s meetings, legal and other professional groups, synagogues and churches. She was a news commentator on Cable News Network for 3 years, has appeared on hundreds of TV and radio programs, is the author of several books and writes a column for Earth Times, a newspaper that covers the United Nations.
Over the years, Bella Abzug has received numerous honorary degrees, awards and other honors. On August 6 in Chicago, she will receive from the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession its highest honor, the Special Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.
In September 1994, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. There in Seneca Falls, NY, where the first women’s rights meeting was held in 1848, she joined other influential women and leaders of the women’s rights movement as one of the most admired women in American history.
On behalf of women Members of Congress, I salute the 75th birthday of this remarkable woman, my close friend whose dedication and courage helped pave the way for our presence here.
Source: Congressional Record, 104th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. 141, No. 120.