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Impact of Bella Abzug on Southern Rape Laws

Info: 2015 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 6th Aug 2021 in History

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Identification and Evaluation of Sources

My IA will be an attempt to answer the question: To what extent was Bella Abzug successful in exposing the southern rape law “as a tool, for those in positions of power, to control African Americans and to deprive white women of their agency”? The evaluated primary sources will clarify how Bella Abzug was able to successfully expose the southern rape law for what it truly was.

The Little Book of Feminist Saints

This book was written by Julia Pierpont. This book was written to bring awareness to woman, such as Bella Abzug, who have made a great impact on others. This book mainly focuses on July 24, Feast Day. This book considered the role of Bella Abzug during the Mississippi rape case. Willie McGee was wrongfully accused of rape, and Bella Abzug was the lead counsel for him between the years of 1948-1951. During this time Bella Abzug left a mark on the south. She wrote her first supreme court petition and she received her first death threat. This source is valuable because it gives insight on how intolerant she was in terms of prejudice. It also states how, even though some of her strategies failed, she was able to expose the rape law for what it truly was.

Bella Abzug, Champion of Women, The Washington Post

This source is valuable because it allows readers to gain insight on Abzug’s life. It explains how, just a few years after graduating from Columbia Law, she was working as a specialist in labor law, and Abzug perfected her legal skills by taking on the Willie McGee case. It also states how she was a participant in Left civil rights campaigns in the late-1940s and early-1950s. During this time she witnessed the obstacles that the Left faced in achieving their goals as anti-communist.

Her trips to the South during 1948-1951 were challenges of endurance.


Bella Abzug was a lifelong activist for human rights and women’s rights. Bella was often ahead of her time, and often lost her battles, but she continued to fight. Bella was a leading activist for a series of political and social movements. She participated in the civil rights movement, the movement against nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam, and the fight for women’s rights.

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Bella was a feminist, and she believed that women needed to be empowered socially and economically, and to achieve this women needed to become as politically active as men. She said “You can’t continue to have a world without equal participation of men and women. That’s my central thesis. It’s not that I think women are superior to men, it’s just that we’ve had so little opportunity to be corrupted by power. And I jokingly add that we want that opportunity. But seriously, I believe that women can change the nature of power.”

Bella Swas born in Bronx County, New York on July 24, 1920. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants, and decided at a very young age that she wanted to be a lawyer. She studied at Hunter College, where she was the president of the student council. After she finished school at Hunter College she went on to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. She graduated from Columbia University in 1947, where she earned her law degree. Abzug had applied to Harvard Law School, but she was rejected because she was a female. After graduating from Columbia, she worked as a lawyer for many years. She first started out in labor law. While doing this she fought and defended the rights of employees in the workplace. She later moved on to civil rights cases, and worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. Her most controversial case was that of Willie McGee. On November 3, 1945 a young man named Willie McGee was falsely accused and arrested for the rape of a white married woman in Laurel, Mississippi. In 1946, several lawyers later, Abzug defended Willie McGee in court. She urgently took the the case to the Supreme Court. During this time she accomplished two stays of execution, which is a delay in a court order. In order to achieve this she contended that “negroes were excluded from the jury”. According to the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution “criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury consisting of jurors from the state and district in which the crime was alleged to have been committed. Under the impartial jury requirement, jurors must be unbiased, and the jury must consist of a representative cross-section of the community.” On her trip to Jackson for the special hearing board scheduled by the governor of Mississippi, Abzug never considered her personal safety, even though she was pregnant during this time. The night that Abzug first arrived in Jackson she was denied the hotel room that she had previously booked, and no other rooms were available. That night she went back to Jackson’s bus station and stayed overnight. The next morning at court, she fought vigorously for racial justice for six hours. Unfortunately she did not achieve change, and after the third trial and conviction, all appeals were denied.

During the late-1940’s and early-1950’s she was a participant in Left civil rights campaigns, and she witnessed the obstacles that the Left faced while trying to achieve their goals as anti-communist.  Her trips to the South during 1948-1951 were enduring. She suffered strong opposition from Mississippi officials, attorneys, and journalists. Nevertheless, Abzug persevered through the tough times that the Southern political and legal system inflicted upon her. She continued to push for civil rights, not only in the courtroom, but also to the public. Her public defense of Willie McGee highly contributed to the left’s national push for civil rights court reforms. Abzug was able to form a new conception of civil rights at the height of the Cold War. Through both civil rights and civil liberty cases, she was able to join other progressive attorneys and activists who used the law to battle prejudice and anti-communism.  The main reason she chose to represent McGee was because she believed that the Jim Crow Laws were an example of political and social suppression in the cruelest form possible. By challenging the Southern rape law so strongly, she was able to enlighten the public and other lawyers about the discriminative Southern justice system. She was soon an advocate for social change.

At age 50, Bella decided to run for political office, and gained a seat in the House of Representative. She gained attention with her slogan, “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” Bella also focused on veterans issues and gay rights. Bella also coauthored and helped pass the Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Privacy Act.

Bella constantly fought for more female representation and participation in politics. As the cofounder and first cochair of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she called for an equal number of women and men in elective offices. She was a member of the Democratic National Committee, and also fought for equal representation of women at Democratic Party conventions.

Bella was urged to run for the Senate in 1976, but unfortunately, she lost, and this was the end of Bella’s career as an elected official. However, Bella still remained politically active. During this time in her career, she became concerned more with women’s issues and the environment. In 1985, she organized a panel titled, “What If Women Ruled the World?”, for the U.N. Women’s Conference in Kenya, and it was attended by thousands of women. After this Abzug founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in 1990.

Following through on her belief that women’s participation was necessary for social change, Bella developed the Women’s Caucus. Bella and WEDO went on to play a leading role at the U.N., and worked through the Women’s Caucus to highlight the issues of underrepresentation of women in politics.

According to a Gallup Poll, Bella was one of the 20 most influential women in the world. Bella gave her last speech at the U.N. a going into the hospital for open-heart surgery. She died a month later. A year before her death  Bella said, “Women will run the 21st century. The new millennium has to have significant change. We can’t continue the errors of the past, which have been created largely by one part of the population. This is going to be the women’s century, and young people are going to be its leaders.” Bella leaves a powerful legacy for the future in the many activists she trained and organizations she founded.


This investigation has allowed me to gain insight into the methods used by historians. It is also allowed me to gain insight into the challenges that historians often face. I believe this has allowed me to develop a skill that is necessary while conducting investigations like this. I believe I can accurately analyze sources on the same subject, but present a different view on the topic. While researching, I read books written by historians based on my subject, analyzed evidence, and read government documents related to my topic, all of which are methods used by historians.

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While analyzing evidence I became more aware of the challenges historians face. As I began reading about this subject, I was initially surprised that the main focus of the sources that I was using were significantly different from each other. For example, Julia Pierpont, in her book, The Little Book of Feminist Saints, argued that she was a “saint”, and that if were not for her intelligence and skill then the rape law would have never been changed, Others sources, for example In the Eyes of Willie McGee written by Alex Heard, discusses how Abzug may have made things worse for him. It discusses the possibility of whether he would have had an easier trial if she were not his lawyer. Many people despised the fact that she was a woman, so they were harsher towards her, thus affecting McGee. They also despised the fact that she was white, also leading to harsher treatment.

Although I initially found it difficult to decide which historian was accurate, as I continued to research I began to better understand the work of the historian. In history, there is no “absolute truth”. It is the historian’s job to locate the most acceptable version. This requires assessing the values and limitations of the sources, in order to find a version that is the closest to the truth. I personally found this to be a very large setback during my investigation. However, by considering the limitations of the sources I was able to reach a conclusion. For example, In Julia Pierpont’s book because the book focused mainly on Bella Abzug, while Alex Heard’s book was mainly opinion based I decided to focus more on Pierpont’s. I believe her  view is more accurate and well-researched

This investigation has provided me with a valuable insight into the values and limitations historians face. It has also allowed me to understand the importance of understanding and analyzing the reliability of sources when forming a conclusion.



  1. “ABZUG, Bella Savitzky.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/People/Detail/8276?ret=True.

Internet Source

  1. LII Staff. “Sixth Amendment.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, 10 Oct. 2017, www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/sixth_amendment.
  2. “Bella Abzug.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 10 Apr. 2019, www.biography.com/people/bella-abzug-9174815.


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