BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
The Queens Tribune held its first-ever Women’s History Month awards ceremony last week that honored six women who have paved the way and cracked what was once seen as an unbreakable glass ceiling.
The “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” ceremony, which was held on March 30, included a cocktail hour, dinner and awards.
For their contributions, the Queens Tribune honored Stella Aquino, the business director of Empire BlueCross BlueShield’s Actuarial Valuation; Barbara Armand, founder, president and CEO of the Armand Corporation; Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-Jamaica); Vasundhara Kalasapudi, geriatric psychiatrist and executive director of India Home; Jenifer Rajkumar, director of Immigration Affairs and special counsel for the New York Department of State; and Claire Shulman, the first woman to be elected as Queens borough president.
Each of the women who received an award noted in her speech the influence of other women who paved the way for her.
Upon receiving her award, Aquino not only shared it with her mother and sisters, but with every woman in the room, asking that all women attending the event stand in acknowledgement of their achievements.
“I would like to share this honor with all the women who work hard in their home and in various industries,” Aquino said. “Statistics indicate that women comprise 57 percent of the United States’ labor force, yet women hold only 10 percent of leadership positions. We contribute not only here in Queens or in the United States, but we also have a global financial effect in over 100 different countries.”
Rajkumar, the youngest honoree of the night, said that her family— who migrated from India to the United States with $300 and a suitcase— contributed to her becoming a lawyer. Rajkumar said that her mother would create a family court whenever there was a fight at their home, with members of the family divided into opposing sides to come up with a justifiable conclusion to a given problem.
“Years after I became a lawyer and had been gratified in helping whoever I can, whether it be women, immigrants or those struggling and need help, I feel grateful every day, and I think at the root of it is that feeling that drives me to do everything I do or try to do today,” Rajkumar said.
Kalasapudi said that women’s roles in society have come a long way, but still have a ways to go.
“Compared to 50 years ago, women have come a long way but still there is a glass ceiling, which was actually proven when Hillary [Clinton] was not elected president of this country,” Kalasapudi said.
“Women are able to reach for certain positions, but still there is a ceiling. We need to break that—and maybe our future generation, our daughters and granddaughters, can do that.”
Armand concurred that the fight was far from over for equal opportunity for women.
“I think women have been so underrepresented in so many areas,” she said. “We have been so oppressed in social situations. This month is important because it shows all women’s contributions to everything in life. That includes business, family, science, technology, everything.”
Shulman, who served as Queens borough president from 1986 to 2002, gave advice to women who are considering a run for office.
“For all the young women who want a career in government, you’ve got to know more than anybody else,” she said. “Do not sit down on a project if you don’t know the history of a project, what is possible on the project and how it can be done. Pretty soon, people will respect you, listen to you and believe you, but you must be prepared. You can’t just go in and say, ‘I want to do this’ or ‘I want to do that’ or ‘I want to run for office.’ You have to prepare yourself; you have to be better than the next guy and you will succeed.”
Former City Councilman Archie Spigner and his wife, Leslie Spigner, accepted the award on behalf of Cook, who could not attend the event.
“One thing I would like to say about women is that it’s like a sisterhood,” Leslie Spigner said. “I don’t care what color you are, what race you are, what age you are. Women always have something in common —whether it’s children, marriage or husband. This is a sisterhood.”
Herminia Palacio, the city’s deputy mayor of health and human services, reminded the event’s attendees during her keynote speech that women still face barriers.
“So many of us are fortunate to stand tall on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” Palacio said. “Many of us can remember a time when the ceiling was not glass; it was brick. But just because you can see through the glass, just because the glass can be shattered, we must not forget that the ceiling, for too many, is still there.”
The event’s attendees touted the importance of Women’s History Month, but said that celebrating women’s accomplishments should not be confined to a month. Jesse Sligh, Queens’ assistant district attorney, said that Women’s History Month is important to him because he was raised by a single mother of seven children.
“But I wasn’t only raised by my mother—my maternal grandmother, great grandmother and paternal grandma all raised me together,” Sligh said. “So, when I say I was raised by women, I truly mean it.
They are who got me to where I am today.”
City Public Advocate Letitia James told the Queens Tribune that she had met with Chelsea Clinton earlier that morning to discuss proposed legislation that would prohibit businesses in both public and private sectors in the city from asking prospective employees about their salary history. James believes that this would be a step forward for women, who often do not earn the same amount as men.
And one attendee—Joseph Ficalora, president and CEO of New York Community Bank—praised one of the honorees.
“Claire Shulman is in her 90s and has served the public for many decades and continues to do so now,” he said. “She has served the Queens community more than just about anybody. She has done so with great depth of knowledge and the capacity to have influence in important places, whether it be in the Assembly or in Albany, with the governor, with the mayor. [Women] can learn [from Shulman] that there is no limitation to what they can accomplish. They don’t all have to be president, but they can all accomplish as much as any man can accomplish.”
James Farrell contributed to this article.
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144 or firstname.lastname@example.org