Celebrating the Life of ‘Battling’ Bella Abzug ’45

This July marks the 100th anniversary of the trailblazer’s birth.


Black and white headshot of Bella Abzug smiling

A renowned civil rights lawyer, peace activist, women’s rights champion, and U.S. congresswoman, Bella Abzug ’45 (pictured in one of her trademark hats) served as “a warrior for every social justice movement of her day.” Through her work, advocacy, and action, she earned her nickname “Battling Bella” (also the title of her biography) and paved the way for other women to hold high-level positions of political office and fight for equal rights.

“Women will run the 21st century. . . . This is going to be the women’s century and young people are going to be its leaders.” —Bella Abzug (1997)

Bella Abzug ’45 (1920–1998)

“A warrior for every social justice movement of her day.”

Early Life

Bronx Beginnings

Bella Savitsky Abzug was born in the Bronx on July 24, 1920, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. She was a civil rights activist throughout her life.

Early Life

Finding Her Voice

Abzug liked to say she was “born yelling.” As a young woman, she delivered impassioned speeches in the New York City subway for causes she championed. She continued making an impact with her words throughout her career. Watch her in action.

Columbia and Beyond

Life On and Off Campus

At Columbia Law, Abzug served as editor of the Columbia Law Review. During World War II, she took a sabbatical to work at a shipyard. She also married Martin Abzug in 1944 (they remained married until his death in 1986). Listen to her speaking at Columbia.

Columbia and Beyond

Start in Civil Rights

After graduating from Columbia Law, Abzug worked as a civil rights lawyer, including in the highly publicized case of Willie McGee, a Black man from Mississippi charged with raping a white woman.

Activism in the 1960s

Fighting for Women’s Rights

In the 1960s, Abzug founded Women Strike for Peace, a group that lobbied for a ban on nuclear testing, and marched to protest the Vietnam War.

Political Career

Redefining “A Woman’s Place”

In 1970, at the age of 50, Abzug ran for and won a seat in Congress under the slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.”

Political Career

Congresswoman Abzug

Abzug authored or co-authored several historic bills, including:

Title IX.

The Freedom of Information Act.

The Equality Act of 1974, the first bill in U.S. history that aimed to protect gay people from discrimination.

Activism from the 1970s and 1990s

Making History

Abzug left Congress in early 1977, but her work continued. She wrote two successful books: Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972) and Gender Gap (1984, with co-author Mim Kelber). In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Abzug to lead a new National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, which led to the seminal 1977 National Women’s Conference

Activism from the 1970s to the 1990s

A Global Perspective

In 1991, she co-founded the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, a global women’s advocacy organization that promotes human rights, gender equality, and the integrity of the environment.


Opening Doors

Abzug died in 1998, but her legacy lives on. She was the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from New York and the first woman to run for mayor of New York City. Though she lost both races, she paved the way for other women to run for political office and fight for equal rights. 


A Lasting Impact

“When Abzug first took office in 1971, there were only 13 women in the House of Representatives. By the time she left in 1977, she was one of 18 women in that chamber. Today, there are 101. When she ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1976, there were no women in the Senate; today there are 26.” (“Feminist Activist Bella Abzug Paved the Way for Women Politicians,” Teen Vogue)