THE OBITUARY YESTERDAY OF FORMER REP. BELLA ABZUG (D-N.Y.) SHOULD HAVE SAID THAT IN HER SECOND SUCCESSFUL CONGRESSIONAL RACE, IN 1972, SHE INITIALLY WAS BEATEN IN THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY BY REP. WILLIAM FITTS RYAN, WHO DIED OF CANCER BEFORE THE GENERAL ELECTION. ABZUG THEN BEAT RYAN'S WIDOW, PRISCILLA, IN THE GENERAL ELECTION. (PUBLISHED 04/02/98)
Bella Abzug, 77, the Democratic congresswoman and reform and anti-war activist who represented New York for three terms in the 1970s and continued to champion women's rights worldwide for two more decades, died March 31 in a New York hospital after surgery for a heart ailment.
A lawyer who had specialized in labor law, civil rights and civil liberties and who was a founder of the Women's Strike for Peace, she first was elected to the House in 1970 at age 50. At the time, there were only 10 female U.S. representatives, but a burgeoning women's liberation movement was raising consciousness across the country.
Rep. Abzug, who lived in Greenwich Village, initially represented a district with a mix of ethnic groups and political philosophies stretching from Manhattan's Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. She campaigned on the slogan "This woman belongs in the House," and she beat radio personality Barry Farber and soon became one of the most outspoken members of Congress.
She took stands against the Vietnam War and wrote bills to prevent sex discrimination and improve the status of women. She introduced the first gay rights bill in Congress. She also denounced her white, male colleagues, saying they were part of a privileged elite and out of touch with America.
Despite criticism over her unwillingness to make political compromises, Rep. Abzug later was an assistant whip to House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). She served on the House Government Operations Committee and chaired a subcommittee on government information and individual rights. She was co-author of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, which restricted the FBI's right to withhold information, and worked on behalf of the long-proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
Bella Savitsky Abzug was born in the Bronx, where her Russian immigrant father operated the Live and Let Live Meat Market. She became a Zionist at age 12 and went on to collect money and give speeches on behalf of the cause.
At Hunter College, she was president of the student government. She attended Columbia University law school, where she became a law review editor.
In private practice after World War II, she represented auto workers and longshoremen and defended people accused of subversive activities by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). She handled several high-profile civil rights cases and, in the 1960s, led demonstrations in Washington on behalf of nuclear test bans.
For much of her life, she was outspoken about practically everything, sounding, one writer noted, "defiantly argumentative even when she is agreeing with you." But soon after she came to Congress, her raspy-voiced, rapier-like pronouncements turned her into a publicity magnet. She quickly became a feminist icon.
Rep. Abzug was called a lot of things in the days before political correctness began to change many public speech patterns. She often pointed out that if she had been a man, she might have been described as "courageous" instead of "abrasive," "forceful" instead of "strident."
"There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing," she said in the book she wrote about her first year in office, "Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington."
"Whether I'm any of these things, or all of them, you can decide for yourself," she said. "But whatever I am -- and this ought to be made very clear at the outset -- I am a very serious woman."
Her concern about being taken seriously had begun when she was a young lawyer. On her mother's advice, she began wearing hats in the office, so her clients would realize she was the attorney, not a secretary. From then on, she was rarely photographed in public without a trademark floppy chapeau.
Only one man was able to order her to go bareheaded. He was the House of Representatives' irascible doorkeeper, William "Fishbait" Miller, who made the demand when she was about to step out on the House floor for the first time. She told him to perform an impossible act, but removed the offending hat anyway.
She met with another defeat her first day on the job, when she introduced a resolution asking that all U.S. soldiers be withdrawn from Indochina. But later in her term, she used a procedural tactic to force the Nixon administration to surrender Vietnam documents that were known as the Pentagon Papers. She was also the first member of Congress to call for Richard Nixon's impeachment.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen described the New York congresswoman as a "walking, breathing early-warning system on the war in Vietnam and on abuses by the CIA and FBI. . . . She had a good eye for certain issues, and in the vast sea of mediocrity called Congress, you had to concede that Bella Abzug stood out -- that she was not just another interchangeable part." Rep. Abzug's loudmouthed, rabble-rousing ways got her redistricted out of her seat by the New York legislature only two years after she was elected. She returned to Congress nonetheless, running in what had been a neighboring district against another liberal Democrat, Rep. William Fitts Ryan.
He had a fatal heart attack three months after she defeated him in the primary, and some Democratic stalwarts blamed her for his death.
But by 1975, she was described by congressional colleagues in one survey as an important member of the House. A Gallup poll found her to be one of the 20 most influential women in the world.
She aimed for the Senate in 1976 and lost a close race to Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the Democratic Party nomination. She later ran unsuccessfully for New York City mayor and again for the House. In 1986, she lost another House race.
She never stopped picking battles. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter fired her from a voluntary position on a Labor Department advisory committee on women after she criticized his decision to cut funding for women's programs. The following year, she attacked Carter's objections to abortion as "biologically inappropriate."
In 1996, she said she supported President Clinton's reelection "because the Republicans are advancing a pre-fascist state."
In 1990, she founded the international Women's Environment and Development Organization, which has worked to make women more visible in government and society. She was a key player at the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing three years ago.
Before the 1996 election, she toured the country to generate interest in a 12-point women's rights program to improve health care and educational and economic opportunities. She was president of the Women's Foreign Policy Council, presiding officer of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year, co-founder and chair of the National Women's Political Caucus and a commentator for Cable News Network.
Her second book, "Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women," written with Mim Kelber, was published in 1984.
She retained her status as a high-profile feminist, with celebrity friends and supporters, and she continued as a delegate to Democratic national conventions. She served as chair of the New York City Commission on the Status of Women and directed the National Parity Campaign to increase the number of women in office.
She battled breast cancer and heart disease and, in recent years, had used a wheelchair to help her get around.
Her husband of 42 years, stockbroker Martin Abzug, died in 1986. Survivors include two daughters, Isobel and Eve Gail, and a sister. CAPTION: Bella Abzug, shown here after meeting with President Gerald Ford at the White House in 1975.