Women's Movement Loses Great Agitator

Bella Abzug 1920-1998 

by Mira Weinstein, Press Secretary

Bella Azbug backstage at NOW's 1995 Rally for Women's Lives

With great respect and sadness, the National Organization for Women said goodbye to feminist pioneer Bella Abzug. "Bella influenced our movement in countless ways. Her contributions toward changing the world made a difference for millions of women," said NOW President Patricia Ireland.

As co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, Abzug helped bring more women into politics. Her leadership encouraged many women to run for political office; her activism helped them win. At a tribute to Abzug, current U.S. congresswomen paid their respects to one of the activists who paved the way for future women to serve in elected office. Washington, D.C.'s Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said Abzug "did not taste the social movements of our time. She drank deeply."

Representative Maxine Waters, D-Calif., thanked Abzug for teaching women "how to love ourselves [and] how to believe in ourselves." Other speakers at the event remarked on Abzug's pressure on the Democratic National Committee to fill races for open congressional seats with women candidates. She spoke often about the need for women to occupy at least 50 percent of congressional seats by the year 2000.

Abzug's commitment to women's rights stemmed from her commitment to universal human rights and peace. She was clearly not afraid to take on tough issues. Her first act as a member of Congress was to introduce a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Southeast Asia. Abzug's legislative credits include introducing the bill that established Women's Equality Day on Aug. 26; she was also an early co-sponsor of both the Equal Rights Amendment and Freedom of Information Act. Her support for universal child care, reproductive rights, equal pay, women's health and educational equity led the way toward enactment of key pieces of legislation.

"She had a very broad vision of equality and justice," Ireland said. She cited Abzug's work on behalf of the environment and women's health as part of that vision. "The organization she founded makes that vital link between women's oppression and environmental destruction." Abzug co-founded the Women's Environment and Developent Organization (WEDO) in 1990. WEDO is a leading voice in the struggle for safe, healthy and equitable living conditions for women around the world. Under Abzug's direction, WEDO became one of the leading advocates for strong action at several United Nations conferences.

Abzug's commitment to equality was global. She was a major leader at U.N. conferences over the past 20 years. Under her leadership, an international feminist conference in 1992 developed resolutions on improving women's status in many areas including politics, religion, the media, labor and health. She also contributed her energy and enthusiasm to the U.N. World Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo. In 1995, Abzug led a delegation to the Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing. Out of that conference, Abzug developed the "Contract with the World's Women," a global campaign to implement the U.N. Platform for Action, and she worked tirelessly for its adoption.

Abzug achieved several "firsts" while breaking new ground for women. Among her history-making achievements she was the first Jewish woman elected to Congress and the first woman elected on a peace and women s rights platform. The National Women's Hall of Fame recognized her contributions with induction in September 1994.

"We owe a lot of our progress to Bella's relentless traveling, writing, organizing -- and agitating -- on behalf of women," Ireland said.

"Whatever the issue, we could depend on Bella to present the feminist argument articulately, clearly -- and with her unique sense of humor. She pulled no punches. Although we will miss her dearly, she leaves a wonderful legacy for those of us who continue the struggle for equality."

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