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Bella Abzug Wasn’t the First: Jewish Woman Won in 1925

When Bella Abzug died last month, pundits and journalists alike agreed that the prominent feminist was the first Jewish congresswoman elected to office.

But a self-described “political history junkie” from Capitol Hill was dubious.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, consulted his library. He found “Women in Congress: 1917-1990″ and began researching congresswomen with Jewish-sounding names.

He contacted the library at the House of Representatives, and was ultimately led to the University of California at Berkeley’s Western Jewish History Center, located in the Judah L. Magnes Memorial Library.

There he confirmed that one of those Jewish-sounding names — Florence Prag Kahn — was indeed a Jew.

Kahn — a Republican — was elected to Congress in 1925 to succeed her husband, who had died in office.

She was subsequently re-elected six times to represent California’s 4th Congressional District, until she was defeated in 1936.

“I don’t want to take credit away from Bella’s remarkable career and her contribution to history,” Forman said, noting that Abzug, who died March 31 at the age of 77, was the first woman elected in her own right without succeeding her husband.

“But,” he added, “there is a very rich and wonderful story about Jewish participation in American politics which is often overlooked.”

Forman said he became skeptical of last week’s news reports for two reasons: Even in times of deep-seated anti-Semitism, there has been significant Jewish participation in politics; and many women were elected to Congress in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

“It is important to remember the pioneers — even if they were Republicans,” he added.

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