Bella Abzug

Sheridan Sansegundo | April 2, 1998

Bella Abzug, Congresswoman, feminist, environmentalist, lawyer, part-time resident of Noyac, and outspoken activist for any number of left-wing causes, died on Tuesday at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.

She died at the age of 77 of complications following heart surgery, but had been in poor health for some time.

A leader of the feminist and anti-war movements, she represented Manhattan's Upper West Side in Congress for three terms, beginning in 1970. Although a number of women had served in Congress before her, she was a political outsider and was elected through her own grass-roots campaign, having little or no influence with Democratic Party leaders.

In an indication of the feistiness that was to characterize her Congressional career, the first thing she did upon arriving in Washington was to introduce a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.

The second was to fight for the right to wear her exuberant hats on the floor of the House. The trademark hats, together with a stentorian voice and a belligerent style that sometimes created enmity, made her instantly recognizable wherever she went.

During her six years in Congress, Ms. Abzug fought for national health insurance, money for day-care centers and affordable housing, an end to the draft, abortion rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment. If she did not win many of these battles, she was nonetheless respected for her indefatigable efforts on behalf of causes that are now, 20 years later, becoming mainstream issues.

In 1976 she gave up her House seat to run for the Senate, the first woman from New York State ever to do so, but lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Though her later attempts to win office were also unsuccessful, she never slowed up as a political activist.

She worked for women's rights for two more decades, practiced law, started a lobbying group called Women U.S.A., was a Presidential Adviser to President Carter for two years, and founded the Women's Environment and Development Organization, which works with international agencies.

Ms. Abzug was born on July 24, 1920, in the Bronx, the second daughter of Jewish immigrants, Esther and Emmanuel Savitzky. She knew from the age of 11 that she wanted to be a lawyer, and shortly thereafter gave her first public speech while fund-raising in the subway for a Zionist youth organization.

She was student body president at Hunter College and an editor of the Columbia Law Review. In her first law practice, she represented union workers.

In the 1950s, Ms. Abzug, though threatened by white supremacist groups, argued the appeal of a black Mississippian who had been convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. She also represented several of Senator Joseph McCarthy's targets, people indiscriminately accused of Communist activities. She was counsel to the Civil Rights Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the 1960s she became active in the antiwar movement and in 1961 founded Women Strike for Peace when the United States resumed nuclear testing.

As she became more involved in politics, Ms. Abzug moved with her husband, Martin Abzug, a stockbroker and novelist, to Greenwich Village. Mr. Abzug died in 1986, while his wife was making another unsuccessful run for Congress, this time vying to represent Westchester County.

Her last attempt, for her old Upper West Side seat, was in 1992, when she was eliminated from the field at the party convention.

On the East End, she had been involved in recent years with the environmental issues surrounding breast cancer, which she herself suffered from, working with such groups as One in Nine.

"She was such a force for life and for good - a galactic force," said the biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook. "She embodied the saying 'think globally, act locally.'"

Asked in an interview whether she felt things had changed much since she was one of only nine women in Congress, she replied, "Not enough. All we have is 10 percent, that's the average for parliaments around the world. In my heart, I've always believed women will change the nature of power, rather than power will change the nature of women."

Ms. Abzug is survived by two daughters, Eve and Liz Abzug of Manhattan, and a sister, Helen Alexander of Great Neck.

A funeral service is planned for noon today at the Riverside Chapel in Manhattan.