Bella Abzug Remembered on Bank Street

Bella Abzug, 1920-1998, was the most potent embodiment of women’s political power when she arrived in Congress in January 1971. | COURTESY OF LIZ ABZUG

Bella Savitzky Abzug, who with her election to the US House of Representatives in 1970 from a West Side district became the embodiment of the rising political voice of America’s women, was honored in March, the 20th anniversary of her 1998 death, with a street naming at the corner of Bank Street and Greenwich Avenue in the West Village. Abzug, who was born in the Bronx in 1920 and raised there, lived at 37 Bank Street for more than 20 years.

Abzug won election as a progressive, anti-war reformer in an upset primary victory over longtime Democratic Congressmember Leonard Farbstein. Though her district was then eliminated after Census-dictated redistricting, Abzug went on to serve two more terms in a reconfigured West Side district. In 1976, she chose not to seek reelection, instead waging a Democratic primary fight for the US Senate, which she narrowly lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to serve there for 24 years. In 1977, Abzug fell just short of making it into the mayoral primary run-off that pitted Mario Cuomo against the victor, her fellow House member Ed Koch, who served at City Hall for 12 years.

Abzug was known for her relentless advocacy of peace, labor and civil rights, and other progressive causes — as well as striking hats with which she cut an indelible figure. She was the first member of Congress to introduce gay rights legislation, her approach being a full-scale incorporation of sexual orientation into the protections afforded by the 1964 Civil Rights Act against discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and other categories. Curiously, for many years after that, the LGBTQ community pursued a narrower focus on winning employment protections only. It was not until 2015, with the introduction of the Equality Act, that LGBTQ advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill returned to the comprehensive vision Abzug laid out 41 years before.

At the street naming ceremony last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Liz Abzug, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Eve Abzug hold up the sign for Bella S. Abzug Way. | COURTESY OF LIZ ABZUG

At the street-naming ceremony for Bella S. Abzug Way on March 29, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said, “She was a strong voice with a thick New York accent for those who needed her most, namely the poor and marginalized. Bella was truly ahead of her time, championing issues like gay and civil rights well before many of her peers. Those issues are still very much relevant today, and I am delighted that her legacy will live on forever at the corner she called home with her family, friends, and constituents… It is an honor well deserved for a true New York icon.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, “Bella Abzug was a role model for so many women who were blocked from entry into the corridors of power. She was a tireless, tough-as-nails trailblazer, who embodied the very best of New York. As a leader and advocate for peace, for labor, for civil rights and gender equality, she never hesitated to speak out.”

Abzug’s two daughters, Eve and Liz Abzug, in a joint statement, said, “My sister and I are thrilled that our great mom is finally getting the recognition in her beloved Village and on the street where our family joyfully lived and which was part of the district she represented as a congresswoman in the 1970s.”