Women's Equality Day: What We Can Learn From Activist Bella Abzug

Women's Equality Day: What We Can Learn From Activist Bella Abzug

Women across the nation: today, we have reason to celebrate. August 26th is Women's Equality Day, a national holiday that coincides with the certification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. This historical day marks the biggest victory of the American Women's Suffrage Movement, which spanned over 100 years and was one of the most successful, nonviolent, civil rights movements of all time. 

Despite the significance, this movement remained largely ignored until 1971 when one determined political leader from New York introduced legislation to change that. Bella S. Abzug (1920-1998) was one of the most influential female politicians of the 20th century. She was a U.S. Representative, lawyer, community activist and key leader in the Women's Movement. She successfully introduced legislation to establish Women's Equality Day. She courageously advocated for many important issues that impact women to this day, including women's health, abortion rights, funding for day care and the passage of laws prohibiting employment discrimination. 

Abzug was known for her spirited passion, but was often widely criticized as being too radical, too noisy, too aggressive, too disruptive, too irritating in her relentless fight for women's rights. 

If this sounds familiar, it may be because women are still being criticized today as being "loud" or "inappropriate" for being vocal in our ongoing quest for equality, which has not ended with the passage of the 19th Amendment or the women’s movement of the 1970s.

Born in 1920 in the Bronx, Abzug was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. At the young age of 11 years old, Abzug reportedly knew she wanted to become a lawyer. She attended Hunter College where she served as student body President. She earned her law degree from Columbia University Law School, where she was the editor of The Law Review. 

Abzug served three Congressional Terms in the 1970s and tirelessly advocated for women's rights in the years that followed. When campaigning for her Congressional seat, Abzug boldly stated, "This woman's place is in the house — the House of Representatives." She was the first woman to run for U.S. Senate from New York, as well as for Mayor of New York City, blazing the trail for future female political leaders like Hillary Clinton.

She chaired President Carter's National Women's Advisory Council and presided over the National Conference on Women in 1977. She also authored two books, Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington and The Gender Gap, which she coauthored along with Mim Kelber. Towards the end of her life, Abzug co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), which seeks to achieve full economic rights and equal representation for women internationally.

Abzug credited her husband of 42 years, Martin, a stockbroker and novelist, with being her best friend and supporter. The two met on a bus in Miami on the way to a concert and they later married and had two children together, Eve and Isobel. Abzug was also known for her colorful, wide-brimmed hats. The New York Times reported that Abzug once explained why she started wearing them, stating:

"When I was a young lawyer, I would go to people's offices and they would always say: 'Sit here. We'll wait for the lawyer.' Working women wore hats. It was the only way they would take you seriously …."

Women still grapple with balancing work and home life, seeking fairness and equality in the workplace and the world, while trying to remain true to our very nature as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and caretakers.  So we are dismissed at times, frowned upon for seeking flexible work schedules, passed over for promotions or bonuses because we sought maternity leave, and maybe still assigned the tasks of answering the office phones and getting coffee. 

There is still evidence that a woman only earns 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns, though President Obama has taken the steps to change this with the first bill he signed in office, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other initiatives. 

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Even more troubling, there has been a recent movement throughout the nation by some who disregard the importance of our health, who seek to erode our reproductive rights, and who attempt to shame and silence us. 

In February of 2012, Sandra Fluke was prohibited from testifying before a House committee about the vital importance of insurance companies' coverage for birth control.  She eventually addressed only Democratic members of the House, and was then famously labeled a "slut" and "prostitute" by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. (Limbaugh later retracted his remarks, though Fluke characterized his apology as inadequate. She later was a featured speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.) 

Earlier this year, an all-male panel of eight House legislators met to consider a restrictive abortion law that would not provide exceptions for rape, incest or even the health of a mother. Regardless of one's views on abortion, it would make sense to have a woman included on a panel that discusses our bodies and health.

More recently, feminist activist Sarah Slamen was forcibly dragged out of a Texas State Senate committee meeting when she fiercely voiced her opposition to similar strict anti-abortion proposals. Internationally, women face even harsher battles, and are still tortured, starved, raped (and punished for being raped), and even killed, just for being women.

So, what does this mean? That the work of our fearless leaders like Bella Abzug is far from over and that a holiday like Women's Equality Day still matters.

Abzug and so many others activists disregarded their critics, held steadfastly to their beliefs, fought for what they believed in and did not let sexist slurs, stereotypes, or setbacks stand in their way on the road to equality. They fought fiercely yet peacefully, passionately and with dignity to earn and protect our equal rights. So too, can we, by remembering on Women's Equality Day and always, how far along we've come, where we are today, and where we want to go tomorrow — men and women, together. As equals.