(WOMENSENEWS)–By 1970, the women’s movement had begun to have an impact on political life in the United States. Although some feminists believed real change would only come from working outside “the system,” others ran for electoral office. Along came a Jewish New Yorker, the daughter of immigrants, who had been, she said, “born yelling” in 1920, the year American women won the vote.
Bella Abzug had already made her mark as an activist lawyer. In the 1950s, she defended Willie McGee, an African American accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi. Locked out of hotels there by white supremacists, the eight-months pregnant Abzug slept in a bus station.
In the 1960s, she helped start Women Strike for Peace to oppose nuclear testing and, eventually, the Vietnam War.
Her 1970 campaign slogan was, “This woman’s place in is the House–the House of Representatives.” She won and on her first day in Washington, introduced a resolution to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. To her opponents she said, loudly and publicly and profanely, “fuck you.”
Re-elected for three terms, Abzug, with her trademark flamboyant hats and a voice that Norman Mailer said “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck,” became a national voice for women’s equality and progressive politics. She was the first person to call publicly for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. She supported gay and lesbian rights, the United Farm Workers, the Equal Rights Amendment and many other causes. Her blustery style either annoyed or inspired a citizenry accustomed to more “ladylike” behavior.
In 1977, she presided over “The Spirit of Houston,” an unprecedented, federally-funded national women’s conference that emphasized–and paid attendance fees for–women of low income, racial diversity and all ages.
Out of elective office–she lost a bid for the Senate in 1978–Abzug went international, playing a major role in organizing the United Nation’s International Women’s Conferences and co-founding the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, a world-wide activist and advocacy network.
She stopped yelling when heart surgery took her life in 1998.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”