BY NATHAN DUKE
Editor In Chief
Women’s rights activist and suffragette Susan B. Anthony once said, “Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputations can never effect a reform.”
Since 1987, March has been designated Women’s History Month to celebrate the triumphs made by bold women who refused to stand quietly by and hope for change, but rather fought— often putting their own personal or financial well-being on the line— to improve the lives and expand the rights of women.
New York has a long history of women who broke the mold.
In 1968, Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm became the first black presidential candidate for a major party’s nomination when she vied for the top of the Democratic ticket in 1972. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Geraldine Ferraro, born in Newburgh, became the first female vice presidential candidate for a major American political party when she ran with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. Prior to that, Ferraro headed the Special Victims Bureau at the Queens County District Attorney’s Office in the mid-1970s and, in 1978, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she focused on legislation to bring equity to women in the areas of wages, pensions and retirement plans. From 1993 to 1996, she served as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
And in 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady and U.S. senator for New York, became the first woman at the top of a major political party’s ticket after she won the Democratic primary. In President Barack Obama’s administration, Clinton served as secretary of state.
Although New York City has never had a woman mayor, women have held the position of comptroller (Elizabeth Holtzman) and City Council speaker (Carol Bellamy, Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito). None of the state’s governors have been women, however, two women have been elected as U.S. senators to represent the state— Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand.
In Queens, Claire Shulman became the first woman to act as borough president in 1986 and she held the office for 16 years. And every borough president since— Helen Marshall, who served three terms, and current Borough President Melinda Katz— has been a woman.
But before they scored political victories in the some of the nation’s top positions, women had to fight to even be legally allowed to vote.
The Suffragette movement, which was founded in the United Kingdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advocated for the right for women to vote in public elections. New Zealand was the first self-governing nation to grant all women over the age of 21 the right to vote in 1893. In the United States, white women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in several western territories—Wyoming and Utah— in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until 1920 that the U.S. Constitution was ratified to grant women the right to vote.
In the United States, Women’s History Month’s origins date back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911. Celebrations regarding women’s achievements began to pop up around the nation in the late 1970s and, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation that declared the week of March 8 as National Women’s History Week. A congressional resolution passed the following year proclaimed that Women’s History Week would officially be celebrated in early March.
But it wasn’t until 1987 that Congress designated all of March as Women’s History Month. And in 2011, Obama’s administration was the first in 48 years to release a comprehensive federal report on women’s social and economic well-being.
Mayra DiRico, the president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said that Women’s History Month is an important celebration that reminds Americans— and Queens residents— of the significant strides that women have made as well as their contributions to the history of the nation and borough, respectively.
“We are blessed by the generations of women that have made their mark on the great borough of Queens,” she said. “From pioneers for women’s rights and equality to cultural and educational leaders, women have enriched lives and added to the economic prosperity of the borough. Every woman serves as a role model for their daughters and with continued passion and focus, they too will establish their legacy.”
Queens’ congressional delegation has honored Women’s History Month in various ways during the past few weeks. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria) recently joined activists to call for the “Fearless Girl” statue, which squares off against the iconic Wall Street bull, to be a permanent fixture. The statue is a bronze likeness of a small girl with her hands on her hips that was installed near Bowling Green on the eve of International Women’s Day and has become a symbol of gender equality.
Maloney listed Susan B. Anthony, abolitionist Lucretia Mott, women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman to be elected to Congress 100 years ago, as several of her heroes.
“While we have made great strides since Rep. Rankin was sworn in in 1917 and the suffragists were successful in 1920, we still have much to accomplish,” she said. “We must keep fighting for women, for full equality, so that women are given equal pay for equal work, for policies that support all working families like paid leave and for the Equal Rights Amendment.”
U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) held an event earlier this month at the New York Botanical Garden to honor Women’s History Month. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing), who was the first Asian American member of Congress from New York and the first woman elected to the legislative body from Queens since Ferraro, was a keynote speaker during the event.
“Each year, we gather to celebrate the contributions of women pioneers and reflect on the progress we’ve made, but also recognize the work that remains in the fight for equality and opportunity,” Crowley said of Women’s History Month.