“Larger than life” sums up Bella Abzug, the New York-based Democratic congresswoman who gained notoriety in the 1970s with her big hats and bold feminist voice. Abzug, who died in 1998 at age 77, was recently portrayed by Margo Martindale in the Hulu/FX miniseries Mrs. America (2020), featuring Cate Blanchett as anti-Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Here are some facts about “Battling Bella.”
1. In her youth, Bella Abzug defied the expectations of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
Abzug was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants lost her father when she was 13. Flouting Orthodox tradition, she recited prayers for his soul—normally a son’s duty—at their synagogue.
2. Bella Abzug defended a Black man accused of raping a white woman.
Abzug studied labor law at Columbia University, where she edited the Columbia Law Review. While later working for the Civil Rights Congress, she represented Willie McGee, who was charged with raping a housewife in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1945. During three trials with all-white juries, the facts remained unclear. Luminaries like Josephine Baker and Albert Einstein petitioned for clemency. Abzug handled McGee’s final appeal, which fell short, and the truck driver was executed in 1951. Though the appeal failed, a white woman defending a Black man in the Deep South at that time was remarkable in itself.
3. At age 50, Bella Abzug mounted her successful first run for Congress.
“This woman’s place is in the House ... the House of Representatives.” That slogan propelled Abzug to victory in a Manhattan congressional district in 1970. She served three terms and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm. Abzug also fought for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which remains unratified today.
4. Bella Abzug lobbied to get the U.S. out of the Vietnam War.
On her first day in Congress in 1971, Abzug proposed a resolution to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. Later that year, the longtime peace activist pressured Richard Nixon’s administration to release the entire classified Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War. Before the war ended in 1975, she visited the region with colleagues and argued against continued U.S. military aid.
5. Bella Abzug appeared on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.”
When Abzug first met Nixon at a White House reception, she slammed his Vietnam policy, saying, “Your predecessors didn’t do very well, but you’re doing worse.” Chuck Colson, Nixon’s special counsel, put her on an “enemies list” with nearly 600 names. After Watergate, the Republican president was impeached and resigned in 1974.
6. Bella Abzug had a fierce rivalry with fellow Democrat Ed Koch.
Abzug and Ed Koch co-sponsored the first federal gay rights bill in 1974, but Koch admitted: “Bella and I just disliked one another intensely.” They clashed about Koch’s endorsement of Bess Myerson over Abzug in a 1976 Senate race. In 1977, Koch beat out Abzug to become New York’s mayor.
7. Bella Abzug spearheaded a law enabling married women to get credit cards in their own names.
After Abzug discovered she couldn’t obtain an American Express card unless it bore her husband Martin’s name, she took action. In 1974, a new law banned discrimination against women seeking consumer credit or business loans.
8. In 1977, Bella Abzug chaired the first National Women’s Conference.
Jimmy Carter appointed Abzug to run the landmark conference in Houston, Texas. Vigorously opposed by Phyllis Schlafly, it attracted more than 20,000 delegates from across America, including Maya Angelou, Billie Jean King, and three First Ladies. Sessions focused on the ERA, domestic violence, and education reform, among other issues.
9. After leaving office, Bella Abzug advocated for women’s rights worldwide.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Abzug agitated for reproductive rights and environmental conservation at United Nations conferences from Nairobi to Rio. The co-founder of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) spoke at the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, where Hillary Clinton stated, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
10. From the stage to the screen, Bella Abzug’s legacy is celebrated today.
Beyond Mrs. America, options abound. Harvey Fierstein performed a one-person off-Broadway show called Bella Bella in 2019. Bette Midler played Abzug in the 2020 film The Glorias. Jeff L. Lieberman’s documentary Bella!, including interviews with Barbra Streisand and Nancy Pelosi, will premiere in either 2020 or 2021.