Bella Abzug

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The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.

Bella Savitsky Abzug (July 24, 1920March 31, 1998) was an American political figure, a leader of the women's movement, and a member of the United States House of Representatives.


  • When I was a young lawyer, working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously.
    • Entry in American National Biography
  • When I went to represent my law firm anywhere—I was a young kid just out of college—I said, “How do you do? I'm Bella Abzug from the law firm of such and such,” and people would say, “Yes, fine, fine, sit down.” So I'd wait and nothing much would happen, so finally I'd clear my throat and say, “I'm Bella Abzug from the law firm of such and such,” and they'd say, “Yes, we know, but we're waiting.” I'd say, “What are we waiting for?” And they'd say, “We're waiting for the lawyer.” They thought I was the secretary. So I had this identity crisis. I went home and discussed it with my husband, Martin. In those days professional women wore hats—and gloves, so I put on gloves and a hat. And every time I went anywhere for business, with the hat and gloves, they knew I was there for business. And I jokingly often say, as you can see, I've taken off the gloves. But I like wearing hats and I continue to wear it. When I ran for Congress and got to Washington, they made such a fuss about the hat instead of what was under it that I didn't know whether they wanted me to take it off or keep it on. I decided that they wanted me to take it off, which made me determined to keep it on.
    • Interview with Global Education Motivators, April 24, 1997

Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972)

  • Just imagine for a moment what life in this country might have been if women had been properly represented in Congress. Would a Congress where women in all their diversity were represented tolerate the countless laws now on the books that discriminate against women in all phases of their lives? Would a Congress with adequate representation of women have allowed this country to reach the 1970s without a national health care system? Would it have permitted this country to rank fourteenth in infant mortality among the developed nations of the world? Would it have allowed the situation we now have in which thousands of kids grow up without decent care because their working mothers have no place to leave them? Would such a Congress condone the continued butchering of young girls and mothers in amateur abortion mills? Would it allow fraudulent packaging and cheating of consumers in supermarkets, department stores and other retail outlets? Would it consent to the perverted sense of priorities that has dominated our government for decades, where billions have been appropriated for war while our human needs as a people have been neglected?
    • “February 7” section (p 30)
  • When it comes to child care, the United States is at a primitive stage compared to countries like Israel, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. (p 39)
  • All I say is that anybody who thinks he can take me lightly because I'm fresh and colorful had better watch out. (p 49)
  • Ever since my youth I've been a Zionist, and I worked hard for the cause of a Jewish homeland too. I've visited Israel and I raised my kids with a very strong background in Jewish culture. Besides that, I spent a couple of years of my life as a Hebrew teacher! To try to make me out as anti-Israel was nothing but rotten and vicious. (p 70)
  • The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be in the arrangement of your chromosomes. (p. 80)
  • Then up gets Carl Albert to tell us he supports Bolling's resolution because he wants to see us work together with the Republicans to end the war. I was appalled! Here was the Speaker of the House-a man in that kind of position-giving us more old-fashioned, desperate, moldy garbage from the past. Since World War II the Democrats and the Republicans have been "joining hands" to fight international communism, and where has it gotten us? We've created a nuclear monster and a vast, uncontrollable military machine. We've inspired guys like Joe McCarthy and Spiro Agnew to level all the opposition. The military and the industrialists and the munitions-makers have moved in to take over our power structure, influencing it, manipulating it and dominating it. All for the sake of good old bipartisanism; all for the sake of good old anticommunism. (p 93)
  • Without getting scientific or psychological or historical about it, it's long been my judgment that women have been at the forefront of social change. When we first got the vote, we used it to clean up the sweat shops, to clean up the horrors of child labor, and so on. Then we got sidetracked. Instead of carrying forth Carrie Chapman Catt's notion that women should organize as a political movement, the movement became nonpartisan and followed the League of Women Voters route. So between their nonpositions and Madison Avenue's assigned stereotype of women as flowers in the home who can be sold all kinds of products to beautify themselves, and Hollywood with its awful stereotypes, women were sunk. Up until now, we've been laboring under the concept of women as appendages to men and children and subjected to constant brainwashing by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, TV-and the descendants of John Adams who know when they have a good thing going. We now see the concept changing because the women's movement, which renewed itself several years ago as an intellectual revolt of the bored middle class housewife, has grown into a broad movement seeking complete economic, social and political change in all arenas. It's like the black movement, which started out over the right to a seat in the front of the bus and then extended itself to pursue for the black people their rightful piece of the whole system. The women's movement, like the black movement and the movement of the young people, comes at a time when the system is not responding to the largest numbers of its people. This puts all these movements in a very critical perspective, because out of all this ferment the last thing we can realistically expect is for things to remain the same. (p 202)
  • This moment in history requires women to lead the movement for radical change (p 203)


  • I've been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, 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 these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am-and this ought to be made very clear at the outset-I am a very serious woman. I am not being facetious when I say that the real enemies in this country are the Pentagon and its pals in big business. It's no joke to me that women in this country are terribly oppressed and are made to suffer economic, legal and social discrimination. I am not evoking a wild fantasy when I claim that I'm going to help organize a new political coalition of the women, the minorities and the young people, along with the poor, the elderly, the workers and the unemployed, which is going to turn this country upside down and inside out. We're going to reclaim our cities, create more jobs, better housing, better health care, more child care centers, more help for drug addicts; we're going to start doing something for the millions of people in this country whose needs, because of the callousness of the men who've been running our government, have taken a low priority to the cost of killing people in Indochina. To some people all this may sound a bit grandiose, but let me tell you something: This is the only thing we can do and still survive.
  • Perhaps the best way to change Congress to make it more representative, to make it more responsive-is to show people exactly what it is. This is the reason I've decided to keep this diary. I want people to share my personal experiences in struggling with the system. Having spent many years as the legislative director of Women Strike for Peace, I'm no innocent to Washington. I've already had a pretty good whiff of what to expect. The inside operation of Congress-the deals, the compromises, the selling out, the co-opting, the unprincipled manipulating, the self-serving career-building-is a story of such monumental decadence that I believe if people find out about

it they will demand an end to it.

  • I felt if we are going to get anywhere, Congress has got to begin to reflect in its composition the great diversity of this country.
  • I am an activist. I'm the kind of person who does things at the same time that I'm working to create a feeling that something can be done. And I don't intend to disappear in Congress as many of my predecessors have. My role, as I see it, is among the people, and I am going to be outside organizing them at the same time that I'm inside fighting for them. That is the kind of leadership that I believe will build a new majority in this country, and it was primarily in the hope of being able to exemplify that kind of leadership that I ran for Congress.
  • These are very special times we live in. The priorities in this country-against the will of the people-are upside down. At this moment, as the 92nd Congress is about to convene, the mood of the country is one place and its government is someplace else.
  • I want to bring Congress back to the people. If that proves to be impossible to do by working from within, then I'm prepared to go back outside again-to the streets-and do it from there.


  • It's also important for me to run again so that other women will be encouraged to do the same. One thing that crystallized for me like nothing else this year is that Congress is a very unrepresentative institution. Not only from an economic class point of view, but from every point of view-sex, race, age, vocation. Some people say this is because the political system tends to homogenize everything, that a Congressman by virtue of the fact that he or she represents a half million people has to appeal to all sorts of disparate groups. I don't buy that at all. These men in Congress don't represent a homogeneous point of view. They represent their own point of view-by reason of their sex, background and class.
  • the liberals. They've not only been a terrible disappointment to me, but further proof that the nature of Congress must be changed. Unfortunately, the liberals have failed to take notice of the massive and fundamental movement for social change in this country, so they're still too busy patching things up when what we need is a whole new set of works. I'm sympathetic with them; I think they did very well in such things as defeating the SST and getting the detention camp bill reversed; and I know they've been trying hard to get us out of Vietnam; but I'm also very annoyed that they aren't out there fighting for and organizing people, encouraging the young to register and the underfranchised to run for office. We need activists for leaders-and they aren't filling the bill.
  • the men in Congress represent essentially their own class interests and are opposed to any kind of real change that might benefit people at large.
  • who are they representing? Themselves or their constituents?
  • People are desperate for help, for leadership. There's no place else to go but to me, they say, and the sad thing is that very often they are right. That's what I want to help change.
  • Earth’s most valuable and most neglected natural resource: women.
  • much of what has been done in the name of progress and growth and development has been done without much regard for the effects on human beings—women, men and children—on water, air and soil, on our delicately balanced, intricately interconnected global ecology.
  • Women are not just victims. We are thinkers, organizers, and activists. We are part of a worldwide women’s movement that has brought into every nation of the world, no matter how poor or oppressed, the message that women can work together to take control of our lives and to bring our collective experience, wisdom, and numbers into the areas where the policies and decisions are being made about the future of our planet.
  • It was thousands of women marching and demonstrating against dangerous Strontium 90 nuclear fallout who helped to win the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests and who have continued their struggle against the nuclear arms race and hazards in areas ranging from Greenham Common, Europe and the U.S. to Africa and Asia.
  • it was Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s vision and leadership as head of the UN Commission on Environment and Development that told us of “our common future” and what we must do to assure that we have a livable future. Dr. Brundtland is an inspiring example of what can happen when the right woman is in the right place.
  • Women are both affected by and effectors of the environmental crisis. We must be part—a central part—of the solution. Our views on economic justice, human rights, reproduction and the achievement of peace—all elements of the environment/development crisis—must be heard at local, national, and international forums wherever policies and decisions are made that can affect the future of life on our planet.
  • Women are participating in large numbers at the grassroots levels, but in the overwhelming majority of nations, we still lack effective political power. And that is also true in the United Nations—in the Secretariat and in the member nation delegations.
  • All over the world, ordinary citizens are coming forward to assert their democratic and human rights, and concern about the environment permeates their demands.
  • Some of you may have been at the UN Decade of Women conferences in Nairobi in 1985. That was where global feminism came of age—a symbol of sisterhood, of international women’s networks, of our hopes for a better, fairer, safer world. Nairobi was the birthplace of the “Forward-Looking Strategies” document, the most comprehensive historic statement of our agenda, encompassing peace, equality, human rights, sustainable development and environmental protection. Now we must move on and expand our vision. The women’s movement is strong and continues to grow. We are everywhere, and we will be heard . . . or else we—women, men and children—will all hear from Mother Nature. Remember, hell hath no fury like a woman—or an Earth—scorned and despoiled.

Abzub, Bella. 1995. "Women's Environment & Development Organisation. Bella Abzug. Co-Chair, Women's Environment & Development Organisation (WEDO). Plenary Speech." United Nations.

  • Imperfect though it may be, the Beijing Platform for Action is the strongest statement of consensus on women's equality, empowerment and justice ever produced by governments...It is an agenda for change, fueled by the momentum of civil society, based on a transformational vision of a better world for all.
  • We are bringing women into politics to change the nature of politics, to change the vision, to change the institutions. Women are not wedded to the policies of the past. We didn't craft them. They didn't let us.
  • As women, we know that we must always find ways to change the process because the present institutions want to hold on to power and keep the status quo.
  • Some wonder how I have kept going for so long and how I manage to remain optimistic. When governments were removing the brackets from the document over the last two weeks, the French tested another nuclear weapon in the Pacific, NATO was bombing Bosnia and the Serbs were shelling Sarajevo. Refugee camps overflowed in too many places around this globe. Conditions for women on factory floors did not change. Women died in childbirth and in their homes Hunger gnawed at the bellies of millions. The world went on, in its downward spiral we all know all too well. In the face of so much pain, I remain an incurable optimist. I am fueled by the passion of the women I have been privileged to meet and work with, buoyed by their hope for peace, justice and democracy. I am strengthened by each of them. And to each government delegate who pushed the boundaries of progress I thank you. I thank the United Nations and my sisters in the NGO community for your good humor and hard work. I wish each of you well and sustainable optimism for the days ahead. Never underestimate the importance of what we are doing here. Never hesitate to tell the truth. And never, ever give in or give up.

Quotes about Bella Abzug

  • She did not appear in Brooklyn, but about five minutes before the Washington press conference started I had a call from an Abzug aide asking whether Bella could appear with me and my supporters at the event. I could not discover whether she intended to endorse me, or what she had in mind, but I said yes because I could see no reason to say no. After my statement, Mitchell and Dellums spoke; they gave me strong and moving endorsements. Then Bella made a strange statement, largely about movements and the underprivileged in politics. She said lit about my candidacy, except that it was "an idea whose time has come," if I remember correctly. Later a reporter asked her whether she had endorsed me or not. Bella hedged. She said she supported "the idea" of my candidacy and would support me in those states where I was running. Bella never offered to campaign for me in Florida, North Carolina or even New York, for that matter. It was a letdown, and also bewildering: if she intended to sit on the fence, why did she ask to appear with me when I made my announcement for the Presidency?
  • I believe in the stubbornness of civil disobedience and I'm not afraid of it. I remember one May Day demonstration. In 1971. Still wartime. We were arrested and we were in this big, sort of football field. Barbara Deming and I were walking around, arm in arm. We had been arrested together. It was very cold. Everybody was finding someone to walk very close to. Later on, one person wasn't enough, we would try to get into groups that huddled: fifteen. But at that point, Barbara and I were walking arm in arm and it was a pretty messy place, because that was the year they arrested thirteen or fourteen thousand people, just picking them up off the street, and then they didn't know what the hell to do with them. At that point we were in a football field. Later, we were put inside a stadium. And so we were walking around, arm in arm, talking to each other, and then congresspeople came in to see what was going on, and Bella Abzug came over to talk to us. She and I had always had these disagreements about the electoral work and what you can call action, direct action, and we would talk to each other about this. So she came over and she looked at me and Barbara walking arm in arm. She asked how we were. She was a congresswoman at this time. She was worried about us. We said we were all right. And then she said, "Well, I guess you're where you want to be and I'm where I want to be." And we laughed, we all laughed together. And I want to say about Bella that she was at this Women's Pentagon demonstration. She came, she walked with everybody, she didn't look for any limelight of any kind. She just sort of walked, and begged me not to get arrested. Again, she said she thought it was a waste of time. I could do more outside. But she really was just a part of the action. That's what we wanted all of our leaders to be, just a part of the women's action.
  • Bella Abzug established a standard of integrity and chutzpah (nerve, courage) that challenges us all to tell the truth and to fight back.
    • Debra L. Schultz Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement (2002)
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