Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Remember Her?

     In August over 500 people were arrested in Washington, DC, when they took part in a sit-in outside the White House to protest against a pipeline that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. In September, gay advocacy groups organized celebrations across the country to commemorate the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, allowing openly gay people to serve in the military.

     Now, in October, crowds of young people are gathering in New York's financial district and in other U. S. cities to support "Occupy Wall Street," which started as a movement to get money out of politics, but expanded to become a general protest against corporate greed.

     It's enough to make you think you're back in the 1970s, when protest was part of the political landscape, and was even brought into the halls of Congress.

     Do you remember Ms. Savitsky? She was a leading social activist in the 1960s and 1970s. She joined other feminists to create the National Women's Political Caucus and at the age of 50 was elected to Congress. In response to criticism that a woman's place was in the home, she famously said, "This woman's place is in the house -- the House of Representatives."

     She was born in New York in 1920, of Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father died when she was 13. Since she had no brothers, she was the one who stood up and said the Kaddish at his funeral, usually the son's role. It wasn't her first act of feminism. She was a natural leader who played marbles and checkers with the boys on the streets of Manhattan, where she earned the nickname "Battling Bella." But she was also a top student who played the violin, learned Hebrew, was elected president of her high school class, and raised money for Zionists.

     She attended Hunter College in New York, where she was elected student council president, and earned a law degree from Columbia University, where she was editor of the law review. She took a job with a New York law firm, specializing in labor union law. She was routinely ignored by the union members because she was a woman. So in order to get noticed, she began wearing her trademark hats.

     She also began to take on civil rights causes, and appealed the case of Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman in Mississippi. He'd been sentenced to death by an all-white jury that deliberated for 2 1/2 minutes. She won two stays of execution, but eventually lost the appeal and McGee went to the electric chair.

     In the 1960s she was active in Democratic politics and, with other feminists, created the Women's Strike for Peace. She was also an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment; she lobbied for a nuclear test ban treaty, and protested against the Vietnam War. 

     In 1970 she ran for Congress, representing a district in Manhattan that included Greenwich Village, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. She beat out the establishment Democratic incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, and entered the House of Representatives in 1971.

     In Congress she continued her efforts to get the U. S. out of Vietnam, and along with Congressman (and later Mayor) Ed Koch, she introduced the nation's first gay-rights bill, known as the Equality Act of 1974. She also co-authored the Freedom of Information Act, and was one of the first members of Congress to call for President Nixon's resignation after the Watergate scandal. She was recognized as the "third most influential" member of Congress and one of the 20 most powerful women in the world.

     In 1976 she ran for the U. S. Senate, but was edged out in the Democratic primary by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to win the election and serve out four terms in the U. S. Senate. She ran for Mayor of New York in 1977 but lost out to her friend Ed Koch. She later ran again for Congress but was defeated.

     She nevertheless remained politically active throughout the 1980s, working for women's rights, supporting Israel and becoming active in the environmental movement. She also made brief appearances in several movies, including Woody Allen's Manhattan.

     Ms. Savitsky met her husband, Martin Abzug, after graduating from college, while visiting relatives in Miami, Fla. They were at a concert by classical violinist Yehudi Menuhi. The couple was married in 1944, and remained married until Martin's death in 1986. Bella Abzug developed breast cancer. She died in 1998 at the age of 77.

Ed Koch, Bella Abzug and President Jimmy Carter, in 1978

     Martin and Bella Abzug had two children, Eve and Liz. In 2004 Liz founded the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, to mentor and train young women to become leaders in political, corporate and community life.

     To this day, Bella Abzug is remembered as one of the most powerful voices in the fight for women's rights. She wrote laws that banned discrimination against women in obtaining credit cards and mortgages, and she spent her life helping mothers obtain comprehensive child care, ensuring that homemakers were eligible to receive Social Security and fighting for abortion rights for all women.


Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

I remember her so well! She was such a great role model in a very different time and made such a difference through her tireless efforts. One of my most thrilling surprises was to meet her in the green room when we were both filming (different) segments of The Sally Jessy Raphael Show in 1988. She was very kind and down-to-earth and it was so nice to talk with her, however briefly.

The Querulous Squirrel said...

Now THAT'S a life! Found you through Mature Landscaping. Your blog caught my eye because I'm 60, too, and wondering how to flourish in this stage of the life cycle and historical context.

Linda Myers said...

Principal-driven woman. Something to emulate.

MerCyn said...

As I was reading I thought - this sounds like Bella Abzug. Who is this Savistsky person and why do I not recall the name? Never knew her maiden name!

Olga said...

Aw, yes, remember her well...but didn't recognize Savistsky either.