‘Not Just One of the Boys’: How Women Fought Their Way to N.Y.’s Seat of Power

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New York’s government has never looked so female.

After record numbers of women ran and won in November, there are now 70 women in the State Legislature, the most women ever to serve in the state’s lawmaking body.

But 2019 is not just a historic year for women in Albany; it’s also a historical one. Exactly 100 years ago, the state’s first-ever female legislators arrived in the Capitol, making New York the first state east of the Mississippi River to have women writing laws. (New Yorkers also played a role in the eight frontier states that had already elected women: Of the three women who became the first-ever female state legislators in Colorado in 1894, two were originally from New York City.)

In the century since, New York’s female lawmakers have steered conversations on reproductive rights, child care, education, labor and far more. Their bills have often inspired change on the national level.

They have also made clear how far New York still has to go. Even today, women make up only 32.9 percent of the Legislature. That makes New York 15th in the nation for female representation. (Only Nevada is half female.) Women still tell of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Nevertheless, for 100 years, they have persisted. Here are some of their stories.

1919

New York’s first female legislators arrived at the State Assembly chambers on Jan. 1, 1919. The armed guard couldn’t believe it.

“You must go to the other door, lady. This door is for members of the Assembly,” he told Ida Sammis, according to her written account of that day.

The election of Ms. Sammis, from Long Island, and Mary Lilly, from New York City, directly followed women winning the right to vote in New York in 1917. The women’s suffrage movement had deep roots in their state, most famously at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and New York was the first eastern state to grant women voting rights. Eleven western states and the Alaska territory had legalized women’s suffrage before.

New York’s law predated the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women’s suffrage nationally, by three years.

Within 14 days of her arrival in Albany, Ms. Sammis, a Republican, became the first woman to sponsor a bill into law, when Gov. Alfred E. Smith signed her bill to regulate the hunting season for water fowl.

She also attracted attention for her spittoon, a vessel that male legislators used to spit out chewing tobacco. Ms. Sammis had no use for hers — so she filled it with ferns instead, a story that female legislators still tell today.

Ms. Lilly, a Democrat, sponsored a number of bills that might seem bold even today. One would have forced the fathers of children born out of wedlock to pay child support. Others would have abolished the death penalty for minors, and required women’s night court to have a female judge. None passed.

Her very first act as a legislator, she told a woman’s suffrage magazine in 1919, was to submit a resolution asking the state’s United States senators to lobby for the 19th Amendment.

The women, who both ran for office as widows, left observers pleasantly surprised. A journalist wrote in the New York Tribune in 1919: “Both are revealing to the people that women with mature minds, at an age when some women are beginning to worry about crow’s feet, can be of real service to the state.”

1930-1950

After the initial victories of 1919, women’s progress in Albany slowed. Just three more women were elected in the 1920s.

But then the Great Depression, followed by the wartime frenzy of the 1940s, pushed women into public life. In the Assembly, the number of women peaked in 1947 at eight — the highest number until 1975.

In 1933, New York passed a minimum wage law barring employers from paying women “oppressive and unreasonable wages.” The law was critical in the nation’s labor fight: It was the first state minimum wage law after the Supreme Court in 1923 ruled such laws unconstitutional. The court would eventually strike down New York’s new law too, but the backlash paved the way for a federal minimum wage in 1938.

Rhoda Fox Graves became New York’s first female senator in 1935, winning an empty seat upstate. She had tried for the same seat three years earlier, running against the incumbent, even though local party leaders told her not to. She lost by less than 200 votes.

Ms. Graves served in the Senate for 14 years. By the time she died in 1950, she was still the only woman ever elected to the chamber.

Still, the number of female legislators in the Assembly continued to rise, as men went to war and women stepped in to take their places. Mary Gillen, of Brooklyn, pushed to create school lunch programs. Maude Ten Eyck, from Manhattan, led a charge to make the state pay for child-care facilities.

The state university system, which now includes more than 1.4 million students each year, owes its start to Elizabeth Hanniford, from the Bronx, who was elected in 1947 and helped write legislation to create the system.

1950-1980

When people talk about the women’s rights movement, they often mean the 1960s and 1970s, two heady decades of victories in state capitols, Washington and the courts.

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, to ban gender discrimination in public schools, and the Equal Rights Amendment. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.

In New York, women saw their numbers more than double, and voters sent some of the state’s best-known women — especially black women — to Albany.

There was Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman elected to the State Senate in 1964. (Bessie Buchanan became the first black woman in the Assembly, in 1955.) Before she won that seat, Ms. Motley wrote the complaint for Brown v. Board of Education. She later became New York City’s first female borough president, and then the first black female judge in Manhattan federal court.

There was also Shirley Chisholm, who was elected to the State Assembly in 1965. She would go on to be the first black woman in Congress, and the first black woman to run for president in 1972.

Women were also scoring major legislative victories. In the 1970s, led by Assemblywoman Rosemary Gunning, New York City launched a housing court for the first time.

Perhaps the most iconic moment in New York’s legislative history came in 1970, when the state legalized abortion, three years before Roe v. Wade.

The fight was led by Assemblywoman Constance Cook. An article in The New York Times described how she argued for the bill: “rarely raising her voice and never doubting ultimate success.”

Ms. Cook’s husband was clear about who was the brains of the operation. “Hell, she’s a woman, right?” he told a reporter at the time. “And to get to where she is, she had to be at least as smart as the men in that game.”

That was also true of Mary Anne Krupsak, a former state senator who in 1975 became the first female lieutenant governor of New York. To win that seat, she defeated in the primary the favorite of the state Democratic Party: a young man named Mario M. Cuomo.

Ms. Krupsak wasn’t done there. After her first term, unhappy that her running mate, Gov. Hugh Carey, hadn’t given her enough to do, Ms. Krupsak decided to challenge Mr. Carey for his job instead. (She lost; New York still has not had a female governor.)

1980-2000

By the 1980s, women had been debating policy and writing laws in the Capitol for decades. But one thing hadn’t changed: The only bathroom near the Assembly chambers was for men.

The female lawmakers decided to act.

Every time an assemblywoman had to use the bathroom, she approached the majority leader with a pink piece of paper, telling him she needed a pass to the ladies’ room, recalled Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, who was first elected in 1980 and is the longest-serving woman in Assembly history.

At one point, the women presented the Assembly’s leadership with a pink toilet seat.

After session ended that year, the men’s room was split in two, with one for women.

The number of female legislators surged in these decades. Between 1979 and 1983, the number nearly doubled, to 22 up from 13.

Then came the so-called Year of the Woman, the name commentators and historians gave to 1992, when more new women won seats in Congress than in any previous decade. The phenomenon arrived in Albany, too: Between 1991 and 1993, the number of female lawmakers jumped to 34 from 28, the biggest-ever two-year increase until 2017.

After decades of serving only on “women’s issue” committees, such as social services, they won important posts on other powerful bodies, such as the judicial, education and ways and means committees.

Still, many of their male colleagues still saw them as something of a novelty. After Nancy Larraine Hoffmann, a former model and go-go dancer, won a Senate seat in 1984, The New York Post called her the “most beautiful woman lawmaker to reach the Capitol in decades.” Eight years into her tenure, other senators were still complaining that all she did was “shout, walk and wiggle.”

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick deliberately tried to avoid attention to her appearance. The first openly gay member of the Legislature, she campaigned only in skirted suits and pearls before winning a seat in 1990.

Ms. Glick, who successfully led a codification of Roe v. Wade this year, after more than a decade of trying, said much had changed since then. She recalled that when she first took office, people asked what it was like being the only gay legislator.

“I’d say, ‘Homophobia would be a welcome change of pace because of the sexism,’” she recalled.

2019

Whether it was because of a blue wave or a pink wave or a fourth wave (of feminism), women ran for and won elected office in record numbers last year, in New York and around the country.

It’s not just the numbers that are newsworthy, though they are: Twenty women in the State Senate and 50 in the Assembly, the most ever in both chambers, many of whom unseated incumbents and bucked the wisdom of talking heads.

There’s also the staggering array of diversity that these women bring. Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the head of the Senate Democrats, is the first woman to lead a New York legislative chamber, and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat from Buffalo, is the first woman to serve as the second-most powerful member of her chamber.

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz is the first Dreamer. Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages was the first person to breast-feed on the chamber floor, and Senator Julia Salazar is the first democratic socialist, as well as one of the youngest-ever senators.

In just two months, the women have led a dizzying push for long-stalled legislation, on both so-called women’s issues — contraceptive coverage and abortion, for example — and others, such as protection for immigrants, gun control laws and election reform.

In a speech on her first day as Senate majority leader, Ms. Stewart-Cousins marveled at the fact that not too long ago, women had not been allowed on the Senate floor. Across the building, Ms. Peoples-Stokes was striking a similar note.

She quoted Susan B. Anthony by saying that “whenever women gather together, failure is impossible.”

Then she pivoted to another equally illustrious source. “‘We can’t change the world unless we change,’” she recited. “Biggie Smalls.”

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