SHE STOOD OUT ON CAPITOL HILL by calling for an end to the Vietnam War and the impeachment of Richard Nixon before either position was fashionable, but most Americans may remember Bella Abzug as the Woman Who Wore Hats. A three-term congresswoman from New York who rarely ventured into public without an eye-popping topper, Abzug was once asked to explain. “When I first became a lawyer [in 1947], only about two percent of the bar was women,” she said. “People would think I was a secretary. In those days professional women in the business world wore hats. So I started wearing hats.”
Not that she needed a gimmick to get attention. During five decades of public life, Bella Savitzky Abzug, who died on March 31 at 77 following heart surgery, was a fearless advocate for civil rights and women’s liberation and her native New York City—for which she once proposed statehood. Her outspoken opinions, accompanied by raspy-voiced speeches and bone-cracking handshakes, were not for everyone: On learning that she was attending a 1995 women’s rights conference in Beijing, George Bush quipped, “I feel somewhat sorry for the Chinese.” But Abzug was beloved among liberals. “In a just country,” says Gloria Steinem, “she would have been President.”
As it happened, her achievements were considerable. The daughter of a Russian immigrant butcher, she studied law at Columbia University and married stockbroker Martin Abzug in 1944. They raised two daughters while Bella worked as a civil rights lawyer in the South and, later, as a peace activist in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and across the country. First elected to Congress in 1970, she passed up a fourth term for an unsuccessful Bicentennial run for the Senate. Martin died in 1986, and health problems forced her to occasionally use a wheelchair in her final years, but Abzug worked full-time on women’s rights and environmental campaigns until the end.
Few would begrudge her in death what she so often claimed in her clamorous life—the last word: “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing,” she wrote in her 1972 autobiography, Bella! “But whatever I am…I am a very serious woman.”