Women Challenging the Machine: Elizabeth Holtzman, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug

It’s 2022, and still difficult to be female and politically powerful, but three New Yorkers helped clear the way


New York has not been an easy place for ambitious female politicians. Until this past August, every governor in the state’s almost-250-year history had been a man. A woman has never been elected mayor of New York City. Almost every woman who has won an election statewide—Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and, potentially, Kathy Hochul—was first elevated to the post through a sudden vacancy. Sexism explains much of it. Bad luck matters, too. The expense of running for office here and the insular, chauvinistic nature of machine politics have frustrated female candidates for decades.

But there have been a few superstars. Elizabeth Holtzman beat back a Brooklyn Democratic establishment that wanted nothing to do with her. Shirley Chisholm, in the same borough, smashed through barriers of gender and race. And Bella Abzug, in the technicolor 1970s, was at the forefront—with Chisholm—of the feminist movement. Their histories are important to remember today, as women continue to try to shatter glass ceilings.

Elizabeth Holtzman

Long before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there was Elizabeth Holtzman.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, the 30-year-old Holtzman decided to mount a long-shot primary campaign against her local congressman, 84-year-old Emanuel Celler. A liberal lion who had served in Congress since the Harding administration, Celler was the co-sponsor of the Hart-Celler Act, which eliminated national quotas for immigration, and steered the civil rights and voting acts through the House in the 1960s, where he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Back home in Brooklyn, however, Celler was hardly visible; he had stopped keeping an office in the district. And while he was progressive on issues of race and economics, Celler was still of the old world with regard to feminism.

“Her fulminations are as useless, as we say, as a wine cellar without a corkscrew,” Celler told The New York Times in June 1972, shortly before his primary against Holtzman. “So my conclusion is: She is as irritating as a hangnail, which nail I am going to cut off on June 20.” Holtzman was hustling across the district day and night, shaking hands at subway stations and movie theaters, where a hot new film called The Godfather was drawing audiences in droves. An active reform Democrat who opposed the war in Vietnam, Holtzman was up against the powerful Brooklyn machine, which was backing Celler, a supporter of the war, to the hilt. But a shock came later that month when Holtzman edged past Celler and another candidate in the race. Turning 31 that August, Holtzman was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She held the record until 2015 when upstate Republican Elise Stefanik entered Congress at age 30, a milestone surpassed by AOC four years later when she took office at age 29.

Holtzman’s House tenure was even more auspicious than her upstart campaign. She was a member of the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. She brought a lawsuit against Nixon for the bombing of Cambodia. Partnering with Senator Ted Kennedy, she authored the Refugee Act of 1980, raising the annual ceiling for refugees coming to America following the end of the Vietnam War.

That same year, Holtzman mounted a bid for the Senate. In the Democratic primary she defeated a number of candidates, including her old boss, John Lindsay, the former mayor of New York. On the Republican side, the veteran senator Jacob Javits had lost to a more conservative challenger, a relative unknown from Long Island named Al D’Amato. Holtzman appeared on a glide path to the Senate until Javits, a moderate Republican, decided to stay in the race on the Liberal Party line, angering progressives. In the three-way contest, Javits siphoned votes from Holtzman, the Democrat, and allowed D’Amato to narrowly win.

But while Holtzman was finished in Washington, she was still a force in Brooklyn. Shortly after losing to D’Amato, she became the first and only woman elected Brooklyn District Attorney. The crusading liberal became the chief prosecutor, charged with locking up defendants in the crime-addled 1980s. “It’s the way you deal with issues of life and death,” she told the Washington Post. “You’re not one of 535 people … If it goes right, you’re responsible; if it goes wrong, you’re responsible.” Holtzman instituted a number of reforms, including hiring more women and people of color. She set up a special unit to investigate cases of police brutality. And, as she had in Congress, she focused on hunting Nazi war criminals living in the United States. She took the post seriously, but higher office was on her mind—the mayoralty, another shot at the Senate—and in 1989 she made history again, becoming the first woman elected city comptroller.

But her remarkable political career would go no further. In 1992, she entered the Democratic primary to take on her old foe D’Amato, but this time she also had to fend off another female trailblazer, Geraldine Ferraro, who had been Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 presidential contest (which they lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide). Both women went down in defeat to Robert Abrams, then the state attorney general. Holtzman’s attacks on Ferraro’s ethics and family finances would come back to haunt her a year later, when the Queens congresswoman furiously backed Alan Hevesi in a primary against Holtzman. With controversy surrounding a $450,000 loan Holtzman took out for her Senate campaign the prior year—conflict-of-interest accusations arose because the bank Holtzman took the loan from had a sister company that won a bond contract with the city—Holtzman lost to Hevesi in 1993.

At 52, she was out of elected office and off to a career in the private sector, joining the law firm Herrick Feinstein LLP, where she co-chairs the government relations group. She wrote several books on the George W. Bush administration and published a memoir, Who Said It Would Be Easy, while continuing to be active on a range of cherished causes, including the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. And she weighed in extensively during the impeachment of Donald Trump—in 2019 publishing The Case for Impeaching Trump.

Shirley Chisholm

For progressive politicians across America, Shirley Chisholm is still a lodestar.

The first Black woman to serve in Congress and the first woman ever to seek the presidential nomination, Chisholm rose to fame in the 1960s and ’70s as a fiery educator-turned-politician, breaking racial and gender barriers wherever she went. Her punchy campaign slogan—“unbought and unbossed”—became a rallying cry for outsiders everywhere.

A child of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, she lived with relatives in Barbados for a stretch of her youth. At Brooklyn College, she won prizes for debating; afterward, she taught nursery school and earned a master’s degree in elementary education at Columbia. As director of the Friends Day Nursery, in Brownsville, an impoverished Black neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn, and the Hamilton-Madison House Child Care Center, in Lower Manhattan, she rose to prominence as an authority on child welfare. From 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant in the daycare division of the city’s bureau of child welfare.

Politics, naturally, was on Chisholm’s mind. She became a volunteer with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters. In 1964, she won a seat in the State Assembly and parlayed that into a tough congressional victory in 1968 over William Thompson Sr., the borough’s first Black state senator.

Chisholm was a star almost immediately. After receiving an unwanted assignment on the Agricultural Committee—Central Brooklyn was, of course, bereft of farmland—she challenged the seniority system, fighting her way onto the Veterans Affairs and, later, Labor Relations committees. “Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there,” she said in a statement at the time. “Only nine Black people have been elected to Congress, and those nine should be used as effectively as possible.”

In 1972, Chisholm launched her campaign for president. She didn’t expect to win, especially with another popular liberal in the Democratic primary, George McGovern. But she hoped her bid would be a “catalyst for change” in an era pervaded by overt racism and sexism. Chisholm would wear a button bearing the forward-thinking slogan “Welfare Not Warfare,” and aimed to assemble a multiracial, working-class coalition to challenge those in power. Her campaign reached out to whites, Latinos, Blacks, anti-war activists, union workers, students, and the poor. “We must have this coalition,” Chisholm said. “This nation must be turned around.”

The Democratic establishment, predictably, did not embrace her, and other Black politicians were wary of such a bold insurgency. For liberals, it was a precarious moment, with the backlash to the counterculture movements of the 1960s brewing and Richard Nixon, the Republican president, cementing his popularity ahead of his re-election campaign. Chisholm ruffled feathers because she was not willing to defer to the Black male leaders who traditionally dominated the realms of politics and civil rights.

“When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black,” she told the Associated Press a decade later, shortly before she left Congress. “Men are men.”

Chisholm later lamented that she had been misunderstood during her political career, especially when she decided to visit the arch-segregationist George Wallace in the hospital after he survived an assassination attempt, in 1972. “Black people in my community crucified me,” she recalled to the Times. “But why shouldn’t I go to visit him? Every other presidential candidate was going to see him. He said to me, ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said: ‘I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.”

After the presidential campaign, Chis-holm remained in Congress until 1982. She decided not to seek re-election after her husband, Arthur Hardwick, a Buffalo liquor store owner who had served in the Assembly with her, was injured in a car accident. “I had been so consumed by my life in politics,” she said that year, “I had no time for privacy, no time for my husband, no time to play my beautiful grand piano. After he recovered, I decided to make some changes in my life. I truly believe God had a message for me.”

Chisholm led a quiet life after politics, eventually moving to Florida; she died in 2005, at the age of 80. A 407-acre park on the East New York waterfront, Shirley Chis-holm State Park, was named for her in 2019.

Bella Abzug

There was no one in Congress—or anywhere, perhaps—quite like Battling Bella. For a time in the 1970s, she was a feminist icon, a politician-celebrity who turned heads in every room she entered.

Born, like Elizabeth Holtzman, to Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, Bella Abzug was class president at her high school in the Bronx and majored in political science at Hunter College while simultaneously attending the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In 1944, she was one of the few women to earn a degree from Columbia Law School.

Abzug took on labor rights, tenants’ rights, and civil liberties cases, practicing law at a time when women were rarely admitted to the bar. She volunteered to go to Mississippi to defend Willie McGee, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. (McGee was executed in 1951 for the alleged rape; the case attracted worldwide attention as a miscarriage of justice in the Jim Crow south.) She later became an outspoken proponent of liberal causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War.

In 1970, politics came calling, and she pulled off an upset against a Manhattan congressman, Leonard Farbstein. With her trademark wide-brimmed hats and polka-dotted dresses, Abzug was arguably the most recognizable woman in American politics. She had a voice, in the words of writer Norman Mailer, that “could boil the fat off a taxicab driver’s neck.”

In Washington, she was known as both a voluble presence and a canny legislator, attaching amendments to unrelated pieces of legislation and altering bills so that funding for almost any program included a provision banning sexual discrimination. In 1972, her seat was eliminated during the decennial redistricting process, and she decided to run against another well-regarded liberal, William Fitts Ryan. The primary was bitter—Ryan, an early Vietnam War opponent, was a reform Democrat too, and he was battling cancer—and Abzug lost badly. But Ryan died before the general election and Abzug was appointed on the Democratic line to replace him, defeating a third-party candidacy from Ryan’s widow.

Returning for another term, she became the first member of Congress to call for Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Writing in a journal that was published as Bella: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington, in 1972, Abzug said she spent “all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.” … “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash, and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made very clear at the outset—I am a very serious woman.”

With her talent and fame, Abzug was naturally hungry for higher office, and mounted a bid for the Senate in 1976. The Republican incumbent, James Buckley, was considered vulnerable, and Abzug entered a crowded Democratic primary to face him. Her top opponent was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the United Nations ambassador, who campaigned to Abzug’s right, arguing for the paring back of social welfare programs that Abzug wanted to protect. The primary was so fierce that Abzug refused to say whether she’d back Moynihan if he won. She’d lose the race by a single percentage point.

Abzug’s star was bright enough that Andy Warhol was commissioned, in 1977, to paint her portrait for a Rolling Stone cover celebrating her next political venture: a run for mayor of New York City. (The cover would get bumped by Elvis Presley’s death.) She was an early front-runner, but she was in a packed field that included her former colleague in Congress, Ed Koch, as well as then-New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo and the beleaguered incumbent, Abe Beame. The campaign, coming shortly after New York’s brush with bankruptcy, was less hospitable to a proud liberal like Abzug. She finished several percentage points behind Koch, who ran hard on support for the death penalty.

Abzug would run for Congress several more times but never reclaim political office. She continued to work on women’s rights for the remainder of her life, founding an international women’s group, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which focused on environmental issues, and leading a conference of nongovernmental organizations that paralleled the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, in 1995. In 1998, she died of complications following heart surgery, at the age of 77. Like Shirley Chisholm, a  park was named for her: Bella Abzug Park was christened in 2019, at Hudson Yards, in her old House district.  ❖

Ross Barkan is an author and journalist from New York City.

Correction: In the print edition we wrote that Holtzman’s record of being the youngest woman elected to Congress was broken in 2019 by the 29-year-old AOC. In fact, Republican Elise Stefanik broke it first, in 2015, when she entered the House at age 30.

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