Suffolk Closeup: A woman’s place


Women have made some progress in achieving elective office on Long Island — but not nearly enough.

The under-representation of women in governments on Long Island and in representing the island on the state and federal levels is documented in a just-issued report by the Women’s Center at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, where I teach.

It’s entitled “Envisioning Women on Long Island: Women in Governance” and it addresses a situation that must be changed as a matter of fairness and, yes, democracy.

“Women’s representation in governance is a critical hallmark of democracy,” writes Dr. Cristina Notaro, assistant dean of the college’s School of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Carol Quirke, associate professor of American Studies and director of the Women’s Center.

They put a focus in the report’s summary on the Suffolk County Legislature and on governmental councils in Suffolk where “women are underrepresented.” They write: “Only in the Nassau County Legislature are men and women near parity.” They add: “The gender divergence is stark in executive positions. Women lead less than 15 percent of Long Island towns, cities or villages.”

“Similarly, at the state and national level women are poorly represented,” they note. “Statewide only 1 percent of women hold positions in the Senate. The Assembly is better, as over 20 percent of members from Long Island and statewide are women — this is still 30 percent from parity, however.”

Further on the state level, “Few women have ever held a statewide executive position. Since the state’s founding in 1777, no woman has served as New York State’s governor, attorney general or comptroller and there have been only four women lieutenant governors.”

“By bringing attention to women’s persistent under-representation in governance, the Women’s Center at SUNY Old Westbury hopes that ‘Envisioning Women on Long Island: Women in Governance’ will inspire more women to run for office and enhance support for qualified women candidates,” they say.

The data, compiled by student interns at the Women’s Center, tell the story.

•    Only two of the 10 town supervisors in Suffolk County are women. And one of the two, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, is not running for re-election as she prepares to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
•    On the 18-member Suffolk Legislature, five are women.
•    The top governmental position in Suffolk County, county executive, began in 1960 and of those who have held it, there have been eight men and no women. In neighboring Nassau County, the county executive post was created in 1938 and has also been held by eight men and no women.
•    Of members of the state assembly representing Long Island, four are women. Of the 11 from Suffolk, only one is female.
•    Of the nine people representing Long Island in the New York State Senate, there are no women. Indeed, there has never been a female state senator from Suffolk County.
•    Of the five members of the House of Representatives with districts on Long Island, one, Kathleen Rice, is a woman. There has never been a female member of the House of Representatives from Suffolk.

I’ve written for many years about the under-representation of women in elective office on Long Island. In my time, I have seen Judith Hope in 1973 win the town supervisor’s job in East Hampton, becoming the first female town supervisor on Long Island and doing a spectacular job.

She would later found the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee devoted to helping women run for public office. She also became the first woman chair of the New York State Democratic Party and in that role was the key to encouraging Hillary Clinton to run for the U.S. Senate.

What a contrast it would be if Ms. Clinton wins the U.S. presidency next year, and for the dismal situation of women in governance on Long Island — especially in Suffolk — to continue.

I have seen the formation on Long Island of The Partnership to Advance Women Leaders. Especially striking in its activities was an event a few years ago that drew 500 people —“Ready, Set, Lead!—Empowering Women in the Political Process” — at which the all-male chairs of Suffolk’s Democratic, Republican, Independence and Conservative Parties were put on the spot in terms of explaining their stance toward women candidates. They said they would welcome them.

The first female United States Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, addressed that event saying that only with women being fairly represented can the U.S. be a “fully representative democracy.”