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Ex-Rep. Bella Abzug dies; feminist, Vietnam War foe

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Former Rep. Bella Abzug, the raspy-voiced, hat-wearing feminist who fought for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, died Tuesday.

Abzug, 77, died of complications following heart surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, according to Harold Holzer, her spokesman. She had been hospitalized for about 31/2 weeks.In the 21st century, "Women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women," Abzug said in 1996. She had helped pave the way nearly 30 years earlier.

With the slogan "This woman's place is in the House - the House of Representatives" and the backing of the Democratic Party's reform wing, Abzug beat Rep. Leonard Farbstein, a seven-term Democrat, in the 1970 primary on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

She then defeated talk-show host Barry Farber by fewer than 9,000 votes in the general election, becoming the first Jewish woman in Congress.

It was the early years of what was still known as "women's liberation," and tough-minded women were treated as a curiosity.

Abzug, a labor and civil rights lawyer and peace activist before she went into politics, became a lightning rod for publicity. She often said that the adjectives would have been different if she had been a man - "courageous" instead of "abrasive," "forceful" instead of "strident."

On her first day in Congress, Abzug introduced a resolution to withdraw all U.S. soldiers from Indochina. It was defeated. She had better luck when she invoked a little-known procedural tactic that forced the Nixon administration to surrender the Vietnam documents known as the Pentagon Papers.

In 1976, she decided to run against Daniel P. Moynihan in the Democratic Senate primary instead of running for a fourth term. Moynihan won the primary and, that November, the Senate seat he continues to hold.

"Battlin' Bella" and "Mother Courage," as she was dubbed by the tabloids, also lost runs for New York City mayor and two attempts to return to Congress.

Her last bid was in 1986, the year her husband, Martin Abzug, died.

She is survived by her two daughters, Isobel and Eve Gail.