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Voices of women in government and politics

The 100th anniversary of American women securing the right to vote will occur on Aug. 26. In other times, it might have been normal to hold a parade or large festivities to mark the centennial, but virtual celebrations will be in order in the time of the pandemic. We asked several Island women engaged in politics and government to reflect on the anniversary. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they looked briefly to past success but urged even greater vigilance and action going forward,

Lois B. Morris

Ms. Morris is vice-president of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and North Fork, whose mission includes encouraging registration and voting, as well as hosting candidate debates. Reflecting on the long and difficult fight to win the vote for women, she urged pressing on:

“Women’s right to vote was hard-won. On this 100th anniversary of such a grand accomplishment, let us take heart and stay strong as the struggle continues to  protect voting rights for all Americans. And remember that our fundamental responsibility as citizens is to vote our choices in every single election.”

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams

Ms. Brach-Williams recalled when she first ran for the Town Board, she was one of two women running for the seat. “I liked the fact that not one word was ever said that only women were running.” In a later election, when she was the only woman on the ballot, “I had voters tell me they were voting only for me because they thought it important for women to be at the table. Of course, in a perfect world, elections would be gender and color blind and based upon what skills and experiences people bring to the table.” 

However, citing benefits in group decision making when there is diversity, she said “We as a town need to do more. I think the acceptance of women in government is here but our committees don’t reflect that. Women make up 24% of seats on the various public committees.  We need to do a better job recruiting qualified women and figure out what the hurdles are to their greater involvement.”

Betsy Morgan, Mayor of the Village of Dering Harbor

“Gender wasn’t an issue when I decided to run for mayor, but all of us on the current board were motivated to change the past culture and usher in a new one of inclusivity. It’s extremely important to me that everyone feels that they are heard. Women are not well represented in corporate or government leadership, and I think this fact can make women more sensitive to listening to different points of view. As a board, we’ve worked hard to build consensus. In such a small village, it’s imperative to listen to everyone and to make fairness the guiding principle for all decisions.”

Ms. Morgan said that of the two active boards, Zoning and Architectural Review, one is chaired by a woman and is 3-2 women to men; the other, chaired by a man, is 3-2 men to women. “So we’ve achieved a 50-50 male/female split in representation. I feel great about the women and the men we have working for the Village.”

Heather Reylek, leader of Town Democratic Committee

“A memorable moment for Shelter island was when Barbara Keyser (R) was elected as supervisor. Although she was a very intelligent qualified official, there was a terrible undercurrent of nastiness and unkindness about having a woman in that office. But, she was a ground breaker.”

Reflecting on the women who built on the 19th amendment’s success: “My mother was born in 1923. She was very well read and informed and part of the local creation of LWV. Although she has passed, women like her have stepped up and facilitated women becoming involved in politics. We have made progress. Not only did we break the barrier for the supervisor role, but we have Bridget Fleming as our County Legislator.”

Ms. Reylek cited a number of other women in public service over the years on the Island, including Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, Receiver of Taxes Annmarie Seddio, former Councilwomen Chris Lewis and Sharon Kast, town justices and assessors. Looking to the future, Ms. Reylek called for every citizen to be informed and engaged in the political process. “Although Shelter Island has one of the highest voter turnouts in New York State, I want everyone to vote. Voting by mail, and no-excuse absentee voting will make this happen. Although it’s been 100 years since women gained the right to vote, there has never been a more critical time than now for women to stand up and be counted.”