“Battling Bella” Abzug and the Equality Act

The Equality Act, which would give LGBTQ Americans full federal equality, has an over forty-year history — but has yet to be passed into law.

“This Woman’s Place Is in the House”

In January of 1971, Bella Savitsky Abzug (D-NY) — known as “Battling Bella” for her daring, no-compromise approach to activism, politics, and just about everything she did — was sworn into the United States House of Representatives. Not shy about her feminist politics, belief in economic equality, and opposition to the Vietnam War, Abzug had campaigned, and won, with the slogan:

“This woman’s place is in the house — the House of Representatives.”

She became part of the third generation of American women to serve in Congress during a tumultuous time in American history, overlapping with the Women’s Liberation Movement, the sexual revolution, U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal. Earlier generations of women legislators felt the need to conform to masculine norms to succeed in Washington. Representative Mary T. Norton (D-NJ), elected in 1933 from New Jersey’s 13th district, had famously stated: “I’m no lady; I’m a member of Congress, and I’ll proceed on that basis.” This new generation, however, sought to challenge prescribed gender roles and established congressional practices. They wanted, in the words of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), “to shake the system up within the system.”

Born on July 24th, 1920, in New York City, Abzug attended Hunter College and Columbia University Law School, pursuing a career as a civil rights lawyer. Seeking public office for the first time at the age of fifty, she brought her years of experience fighting for the underdog and the emerging second wave feminist movement to Washington with the determination and grit she became known for. “Women have been trained to speak softly and carry a lipstick. Those days are over,” Abzug once remarked, riffing on former President Theodore Roosevelt’s description of his foreign policy — and she meant it.

During her three terms in Congress representing New York’s 19th, and subsequently 20th, district, Abzug co-authored Title IX, a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education, and was an avid supporter of the still unratified Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Originally conceived by the suffragist Alice Paul in 1923, the ERA simply states that: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” In 1971, Abzug also established Women’s Equality Day, celebrated on August 26th, to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote. Her bold and outspoken approach to women’s liberation earned her the ire of the anti-feminist and right wing activist Phyllis Schlafly, a vocal opponent of the ERA, who was horrified by Abzug and thought she had no respect for morality and conservative values. “Battling Bella’s” work as a prescient advocate for gay rights, however, is lesser known.

The Equality Act of 1974

As a resident of Greenwich Village, the gay vote had helped propel Abzug to the halls of Congress. Indeed, she went so far as to campaign at the Continental Bath to secure the votes of gay male constituents. Gay New Yorkers in Abzug’s district voted for her as a bloc, and she was not insensitive to their concerns at a time in U.S. history when, despite the emerging Gay Liberation Movement, gays and lesbians were primarily seen as personae non gratae or mentally ill.

In 1974, gay activists in New York City were fighting to pass a city-wide gay rights ordinance. Abzug, inspired by the emergence of the first national gay rights organization, the newly formed National Gay Task Force (NGTF), had the idea to circumvent local homophobes by introducing federal legislation that would, in one fell swoop, give gays and lesbians full equality under the law. Enlisting the co-sponsorship of Ed Koch (D-NY), the closeted New York Congressman who would go on to become the mayor of New York City, Abzug courageously introduced the Equality Act on May 14th of 1974 — the first piece of federal legislation to address discrimination based on sexual orientation. The act would amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation in public accommodations, public facilities, public education, federally assisted programs, housing, and financial services. Anticipating contemporary “hate crime” legislation, the act further stipulated penalties for anyone who willfully injured, intimidated, or interfered with a person on the basis of sex, marital status, or sexual orientation and empowered the U.S. Attorney General to take civil action against such discrimination.

While the introduction of the Equality Act was as audacious as the iconic wide-brimmed and colorful hats Abzug perpetually wore, it was little more than that — the bill failed to make it out of committee in the House. But Abzug had not expected success; rather, she knew the value of a well-timed and strategically placed statement. Immediately after being sworn into the House of Representatives, she had introduced a bill to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam — a measure which also failed, but made a powerful anti-war statement and showed “Battling Bella” meant business. After consulting with the NGTF, Abzug knew that the introduction of federal legislation — even if it failed — would insert gay rights into the national conversation and help gays and lesbians across the country imagine themselves as members of a broad coalition.

The Civil Rights Amendment of 1975

The following year, in 1975, the NGTF urged Abzug and Koch to try again. This time, the pair got twenty-four members of Congress (including themselves) to co-sponsor their proposed legislation: the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975. Bruce Voeller, director of the NGTF, along with NGTF national coordinator Nathalie Rockhill, organized a press conference on Capitol Hill, inviting prestigious organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women (NOW), to attend. Rockhill was slated to introduce Congresswoman Abzug, who would then explain the bill to the press. The Civil Rights Amendment of 1975, Abzug explained as she spoke into the microphone, would extend the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 to protect gays and lesbians in all of the areas covered by the proposed Equality Act of 1974; and like the Equality Act, the amendment would penalize anyone who discriminated against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Again, the bill did not pass — nor was it expected to. 1975 was not yet the right time for American gays and lesbians to receive the full acknowledgement of the federal government. It was only in December of 1973 that the board of trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had voted to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, prompting its removal from the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, published in 1980. In short, the view of gays and lesbians as equally deserving the full benefits of American society was simply too new. Abzug, Koch, and the NGTF did, however, incrementally move the cause of gay rights forward. For the first time in American History, twenty-four members of Congress were on record as supporting full federal equality for gays and lesbians.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Following the initial failure of the Equality Act, beginning in the 1990s, Congressional efforts shifted to the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). More narrow in scope than the Equality Act, ENDA would prohibit discrimination in hiring practices and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and, in some versions of the bill, gender identity. In 1994, ENDA was introduced in the House by Congressman Gerry Studds (D-MA) and in the Senate by liberal lion Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Both times, the bill died in committee. The bill was reintroduced throughout the ’90s and early aughts, each time failing to gain traction.

When, during the 2007 midterm elections, Democrats gained a Congressional majority for the first time in twelve years, partly due to the unpopularity of Republican President George W. Bush, many thought the time for the successful passage of ENDA had arrived. Veteran Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) was seen as the right man to get the job done. Frank was known for his wit, gruff demeanor, and no-nonsense attitude. When he publicly came out as gay in 1987, he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily do so. Along with out lesbian Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Frank introduced a version of ENDA which included protections for gender identity. When the bill, yet again, died in committee, Frank introduced a version that excluded gender identity, much to Baldwin’s dismay. Baldwin, who was a generation younger than Frank and more forward-thinking on LGBTQ issues, planned to introduce an amendment in the House to restore gender identity protections. The exclusion of gender identity, she argued, would have harmful consequences to transgender Americans, as it was unlikely that a bill focused specifically on gender identity protections could pass both houses of Congress in the near future (National Center for Transgender Equality). The bill, however, passed a vote in the House only to meet prompt defeat in the Senate.

ENDA was introduced again in 2009 by Frank in the House and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in the Senate, only to die in each chamber’s respective committee. Merkley, the junior Senator from Oregon, was looking to make his mark as a new progressive voice in the Senate, having defeated Gordon Smith, a two-term Republican incumbent, in the 2008 Senate election. ENDA was introduced twice more by Merkley: in 2011, where it again stalled in committee and in 2013, where it passed the Senate with bipartisan support — including the backing of President Barack Obama — in a 64–32 vote only to then die in the House. Since 2013, Congressional focus has shifted from ENDA back to a version of the broader Equality Act, first introduced almost 40 years prior.

The Equality Act of 2017

Like the cyclical life of the mythic phoenix, the Equality Act was dusted off and reborn in 2017. This version, introduced on May 2nd, 2017, in the House by Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) and in the Senate by Jeff Merkley, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act, and laws regarding employment with the federal government to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. Discrimination in employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service would thus be prohibited. The bill would also authorize the Department of Justice to bring civil action on the basis of complaints made in response to such discrimination. Though the bill has yet to be referred to committee, the Equality Act of 2017 was introduced with bipartisan support and a total of 241 co-sponsors — far more than the twenty-four members of Congress who supported the Civil Rights Amendment of 1975 and with more support than any piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation has received.

“The Women’s Century”

Bella Abzug, ever the challenger of the status quo, ran for the United States Senate in 1976. She was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary, losing by a margin of 1% of the vote to the more moderate and tempered Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Leaving the House in 1977, she made a bid for the Mayor of New York City, but lost to her colleague Ed Koch. In 1978, President Carter appointed her to the National Advisory Committee for Women, where she served as co-chair. Though she never again held elected office, “Battling Bella” continued her advocacy for women’s and civil rights into the 1990s. She died on March 31st, 1998, following complications from heart surgery.

Bella’s daughter Liz, a proud lesbian, has continued her mother’s legacy, founding the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute (BALI), a not-for-profit organization housed at Hunter College that empowers young women to become leaders for social change. Remarking on her mother’s legacy, Liz noted that if Bella were alive today, she would be less than impressed by the state of LGBTQ rights because the Equality Act — specifically employment protections — are not yet law (Washington Blade). Furthermore, Liz said, her mother would be critical of the modern LGBTQ Rights Movement for overemphasizing marriage equality at the expense of other vital and life-altering rights and protections.

The need for the Equality Act is clear: LGBTQ Americans lack equal protections in all states, resulting in what the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) describes as a “patchwork” of protections that have the potential to render people’s lives uncertain and unliveable. Since taking office in January of 2017, the Trump Administration’s attacks on LGBTQ rights further underscores the need for broad legal protections.

The Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Alabama Senator with a folksy accent and record of opposition to civil rights for minority Americans, has signaled that under his leadership, the DOJ will adopt a narrow interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In an amicus brief submitted in federal court in July of 2017 and in a departmental memo issued in October of 2017, Sessions, reversing an Obama-era policy, took the position that Title VII does not afford employment protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), a plain-spoken critic of the Trump Administration, neatly summarized Sessions’ approach to the role of Attorney General by describing him as a “throwback.”

“Battling Bella” was a forward-looking politician and activist, but it is now past due for LGBTQ Americans to have full federal equality and first-class American citizenship. While Abzug could not have predicted the rise of a threat to civil and human rights such as Donald Trump, she correctly anticipated the role women and young people would play in twenty-first-century politics, and the vibrant, intersectional social justice movement that coalesced in response to Trump’s presidency.

“Women will run the twenty-first-century,” she said, “this is going to be the Women’s Century and young people are going to be its leaders” (BALI).

Though she would be nonplussed by the current state of LGBTQ rights, she would certainly be heartened by the national surge in grassroots activism, led primarily by women.

It is time for the LGBTQ community and our allies to rise and to channel Bella’s tough, noisy, and fighting spirit to finish the work she started when she so courageously introduced the Equality Act into Congress over four decades ago.



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