Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Women In Westchester Politics
In an 1872 Illinois Supreme Court decision regarding the rights of women, Justice Bradley wrote: “It is true that many women are unmarried and not affected by any of the duties, complications, and incapacities arising out of the married state, but these are exceptions to the general rule. The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases. “
Twenty years before the Illinois decision, in 1852, Susan B. Anthony declared to the attendees of the Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York that “the right women needed above every other... was the right of suffrage”. It would be another 68 years of a hard-fought battle before women finally won the right to vote with the passage and ratification of the “women’s suffrage amendment”, the 19th Amendment
to the United States Constitution.
That amendment was ratified with one vote, a vote influenced by a woman. The 19th Amendment passed in Congress in June of 1919 but by July of 1920, its ratification came down to the State of Tennessee, where it appeared the amendment would fail by one vote. But one young man, Harry Burns, defied the male politics of the times and followed his mother’s urging instead.
As he cast his vote, Harry carried in his pocket a letter from his mother instructing him to “be a good boy… and vote for suffrage”. The success of the women’s right to vote, and the rare passage of an amendment to the United States Constitution, ironically hinged upon the influence of a woman behind the scenes. The passage of the 19th Amendment legitimized that influence and gave women a voice in the political process and the right to participate in their government.
Women’s influence was never more strongly felt than in last year’s Presidential campaign where their votes and grass roots efforts helped turn the political tide in several areas. It was women who helped elect the nation’s first African-American President, place a female candidate within serious reach of the office of President, and allow a mother of young children to expand her “benign offices of wife and mother” to a national level. In the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, those women “put millions of cracks in the glass ceiling.”
Professor Mary Hagerty, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, held a “Teach In” at Iona last week as part of Westchester County’s Women’s History Month on “the trends and patterns of women voting and their significant impact in politics and election results”. Referring to this as “women running in high heels”, Hagerty spoke of the “greater social capital” that women have to offer in the political arena.
According to Hagerty, the “gender gap”, the differences between how men and women vote in elections, was evident in 2008 when “women were the majority of voters, and a large majority of women voted for Obama”. Hagerty noted, however, that “the greatest gains among women in politics have occurred at the local government level, school boards, local council and mayoral races, and county legislative races”.
Hagerty explained the strong local political influence of women as due to their “social capital”, which she argued “may matter more than economic capital, at the local level”.
Hagerty explained that “Social capital” is a term coined by Robert Putnam, referring to an individual’s likelihood to join groups. In local government campaigns, door-to-door campaigning and existing social networks matter more than fund-raising abilities. However, the lack of access to business and financial power and contacts contribute to women’s lower success rates in higher profile statewide and national races, where, Hagerty noted “fundraising abilities are much more important to launch viable campaigns and candidates”.
Professor Hagerty shared with the audience a synopsis of a recent documentary, “Running in High Heels”, by Maryann Breschard, a young female
candidate for the New York State Senate which poses the question: Should women vote for women regardless of politics? The documentary suggests
that yes, women should vote for women because women in office are the leaders in issues affecting women, regardless of party.
That bipartisanship approach to issues was echoed by our local representatives. The Guardian interviewed Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, 88th District, and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, 90th District on their views of women in politics. Galef recalled how, when she started in the Westchester County Board in 1979, “very few women were in politics.
The public wanted to know if I was a lawyer or if I had young children. They were preconditioned as to what to expect from their representatives
and I did not ‘fit the bill’.” Galef noted that “many women rejected the concept that a mother could be in politics. Men were never critiqued in the same way; no one ever worried how they could juggle a political career and children”. Galef had to fight the resistance of the times not only from the public, but also from her fellow male representatives.
“Many men did not want women in government and were resistant to change”. Galef recalled an early bill she sponsored in Albany to replace all
male-only references in the New York State Constitution to gender neutral terms. “Many male voters complained it was ‘frivolous’ and talk shows across the state ridiculed the legislation as ‘crazy’. They did not understand how a male-oriented Constitution impacted women”.
In the face of such discrimination, Galef noted that “the women I worked with from both political parties bonded together to survive. We had a lot of meetings in the ladies’ room, away from the men” she laughed. “But those meetings in the County’s ladies’ room led to bipartisan agreements on the airport improvements, budget cuts to reduce taxes, and so forth”.
Galef stressed that the strengths of women are ideal for government. “Women are well suited to politics” Galef said. “We are particularly good at
compromise and juggling priorities and government is about both. But raising money to campaign is difficult and many women don’t have the
business contacts needed”.
What women lack in business contacts, they make up for in the ‘social capital’ noted by Professor Hagerty. “I got a lot of support from
the women I worked with in organizations” Galef said. “And so many women followed my career to see what we could accomplish”. However, Galef is concerned for the future of women in politics. “Women are still expected to know more and we are still striving to prove ourselves. We
do a lot more homework on the issues” she noted. “When I became a County representative, my options were limited.
I looked at the hours for the meetings on the County Board and realized I could do that and also raise my children. But women today have more options to work and raise children simultaneously. Politics is only one of their options”. Galef also noted the logistical and monetary constraints
of a political career. “I spend three nights a week in Albany. I could not do that and raise a young family.
And a political career does not pay as well as the other options available to women today. Women now own their own businesses and make
their own hours, their own incomes, and their own rules”.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin reiterated the unique complications of following a political path. “Government is a very hierarchical environment,”
Paulin noted. “Women don’t work that way. We have more of a natural ability to negotiate and listen and can generate more cooperation in a softer, calmer way”.
Paulin echoed Galef ’s observation that “politics is the art of compromise.” She also agreed that most of her female colleagues in Albany
waited until their children were older before running for office but were strongly involved in their communities before taking the leap into the political arena. However, Paulin noted that delay in initiating their political careers puts women at a disadvantage in the hierarchy of government. “We can never achieve the same seniority that men have,” she said.
“While women have a broader perspective of the issues, we may never get the highest positions in government.” Seniority in government
determines access to becoming committee chairs, without which, women’s influences are limited. But Paulin is hopeful that this will change as younger women run for office. She said, “2008 was the first year I’ve seen women with very young children in Albany.”
The Legislative Women’s Caucus for the State of New York tracks the participation of women in our State government. According to the Caucus, a total of 51women held positions in the New York State Senate and Assembly in 2007, the latest year reported, up from 28 in 1991. Those representatives are overwhelmingly Democrats, however, 43 out of the 51 in 2007, and 23 out of the 28 in 1991. Of those women, 15 women of color served in the 2007 state legislature: eight African-Americans, two Latinas, and one Asian-American in the Assembly; four African-Americans in the Senate, all of whom were Democrats. But the Republican Party is taking notice of their under-representation among women and is actively backing female candidates nationwide. According to a ‘Washington Lookout’ on the Women’s eNews web site: “In Illinois, Republican Rosanna Pulido will represent her party in an April 7 contest to replace Rahm Emmanuel,
who left his seat to serve as President Obama’s chief of staff.
And in California, two women, Democrat Judy Chu and Republican Teresa Hernandez, are vying for the right to replace former Rep. Hilda
Solis, now secretary of labor in the Obama administration. In California, former eBay chief Meg Whitman, a pro-choice Republican, has
declared her candidacy for the state’s gubernatorial office.
Despite such efforts supporting women in both parties, however, the United States lags far behind in equal representation in government. According to the above Washington report “Worldwide, 18 percent of national legislative seats are held by women, according to the Geneva-based Inter Parliamentary Union. It ranks the United States 71st in the world for female representation in government.”
New York’s representation is especially pitiful; according to the Women’s Caucus, “compared to other states, New York ranks 22nd in the percentage of women in the legislature”. The suffragette movement led to the development of “The League of Women Voters”, an organization whose initial intent was to “help women carry out their new responsibilities as voters”.
The League has since expanded to include both men and women and their stated purpose is now “to make democracy work for all citizens”. The League states that it is “strictly nonpartisan; [we] neither support nor oppose candidates for office at any level of government. At the same time, the League is wholeheartedly political and works to influence policy through advocacy.
It is the original grassroots citizen network, directed by the consensus of its members nationwide. The 900 state and local Leagues, comprising a vast grassroots lobby corps that can be mobilized when necessary”. The League has several branches throughout Westchester:
• Bedford, Lewisboro and North Salem - (914) 232-5735
• Bronxville, Tuckahoe, Eastchester, Mount Vernon, Yonkers - (914) 779-1288
• Harrison - (914) 939-7066
• Larchmont and Mamaroneck - (914) 698-2880
• New Castle - (914) 238-8994 or (914) 238-7529
• New Rochelle - (914) 632-5799
• Rye - (914) 939-1708
• Rivertowns (Hastings, Dobbs Ferry and Irvington) - (914) 478-0566
• Scarsdale - (914) 472-5175
• Somers - (914) 669-8182 or (914) 276-2419
• White Plains - (914) 949-1886
• Westchester County membership - (914) 949-0507
While organizations such as the League of Women Voters have changed from their original exclusively female membership to include men in their ranks, so too have men changed as more women join their ranks in government. “When I first started in government 30 years ago,
it was women who fought for the social issues like sexual harassment.”
Assemblywoman Galef said. “Now our male colleagues fight those same battles with us, even initiating the fight”. Galef gave the example of Jeffrey Dinowitz, Assemblyman, 81st District, Bronx, who sponsored a bill on human trafficking. She has also observed a new trend among male representatives who, even if they don’t back “women’s issues”, they still vote for them. “Many of the men in Albany didn’t see the need for a bill on pay equality for women, but they still backed it because they knew the women in their constituencies supported it” Galef said. “They know women are a strong voice and they have to acknowledge that”.
Galef also offered another theory why reluctant male representatives may still support traditional ‘women’s issues’. “Perhaps they are afraid of what the women in their families would say if they don’t!” she laughed.
Harry Burns’ mother would approve.