Why States Need To Step Up Now To Protect Women & Girls

Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo.
A young girl watches a speech at a campaign rally in 2016.
In 2009, President Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls, whose member s— the heads of each federal agency— were charged with taking the needs of women and girls into account in the policies they drafted, the programs they created, and the legislation they supported.
This year, the Trump White House has effectively disbanded this important Council, calling it “redundant.” Despite campaign promises to the contrary, the Trump administration has again and again sent a strong message of disdain toward policies that are of matter to women and girls—wide-ranging issues like health care, child care, education, and workforce equity, to name a few. The members of President's family who were vocal on those issues last year have been notably silent to the point of irrelevance. As any woman who has ever been shouted down by a man in a meeting knows, talk is cheap.
The disbanding of the Council is only one of the many signs that women's rights are being threatened. But if you are a woman in the workplace like me, you don’t need the state of affairs in Washington to tell you that misogyny is alive and well. As Secretary to New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, I am honored to hold one of the most senior positions in our state government, and I am the first woman to ever serve in this role. Yet despite this accomplishment, I still sometimes find that I have to prove myself and my competence against the forces of misogyny.

If you are a woman in the workplace like me, you don’t need the state of affairs in Washington to tell you that misogyny is alive and well.

I am 34 years old, and I am proud of the hard work that put me in my current position. I began my political career at 16, interning for the Political Director of the AFL-CIO. At 19, I interned for then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s PAC. I graduated from Cornell University — twice. By 25 I had managed a congressional campaign and at 27 I was Director of President Obama’s political organization in New York. At 29, I was the Deputy Chief of Staff to the New York Attorney General and now, at 34, I am one of the youngest to ever hold this role. At the governor's direction, I spearheaded our administration's campaigns to pass $15 minimum wage, the nation's strongest paid family leave policy, and the first-ever four year free public tuition program‎.
Because of my experience, I was surprised that when my appointment was announced, my qualifications took a back seat to the men in my life—I was “the daughter of” or the “wife of” (never mind the fact that when I did work with my husband, I was his boss).
When I challenged a male state senator in a debate on Twitter, he responded "your father taught you better,” (we later apologized to each other for letting things get so heated). When my appointment as top aide to the Governor was announced, the New York Times headline called me the "daughter of a powerful lobbyist.” To them, perhaps, these words were a distinction without a difference. But for many women, we all too often find ourselves being labeled on the basis of our gender, not our accomplishments.

The news coming out of Washington deeply concerns me because the progress we have made on women's rights is being pushed backward, not forward.

I am proud of the men in my life, but I didn't choose their professions and they neither choose nor define mine. I have gone toe to toe with elected officials, union leaders, reporters, editors and advocates, yet I often find myself fighting to prove over and over again that I deserve the position that I hold—a feeling many working women are still all too familiar with, even in 2017.
Now, we are facing a new climate in which many women feel more under attack than ever. The news coming out of Washington deeply concerns me because the progress we have made on women's rights is being pushed backward, not forward. That’s why I am proud to serve as Chair of the first-ever New York State Council on Women and Girls, and make sure that, in our State, progress always moves in the right direction.
Under this administration, we have seen ultraconservatives in Washington attack our reproductive rights, attempting to defund Planned Parenthood and claiming that maternity care is not an essential health benefit. And we have seen the Department of Education consider rolling back Title IX protections for women on college campuses who have been sexually assaulted.
Our Council on Women and Girls is fighting back. Our members are the leaders of our State agencies, who will make sure that every policy enacted and each program created takes into account the experiences of women and girls and tries to further advance equality in our state. We also have a Steering Committee comprised of leaders outside of State government from academia, advocacy, business, media, and non-profit space who will inform and direct the Council’s work (Refinery29's own Global Editor-in-Chief Christene Barberich is a member). We will focus on education, economic opportunity, workforce equity, leadership, health care, child care, safety, and STEM.

Our Council on Women and Girls is fighting back.

Governor Cuomo has made protecting and furthering women’s rights a keystone of his administration. He has taken action to secure the reproductive rights of women in New York State no matter what happens at the federal level, worked to eliminate the pay gap in New York—which, at 89 cents on the dollar, is the smallest in the country, but is still too high. As I noted before, he passed the most comprehensive Paid Family Leave plan, giving new parents and employees with ill relatives up to 12 weeks of paid leave, and raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He has issued regulations making sure that all women, no matter their sexual orientation or marital status, can qualify for insurance coverage of infertility treatments.
Yet we know there is still more to be done. So why now and why New York? Because New York is the perfect place — where women are CEO's, play writs, actresses, advocates. We run banks and fortune 500 companies. We decide what news is published and which topics are topical... and when we feel we are being told to sit down and shut up we stand taller and speak louder.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York, which passed in 1917, three years before women gained the right to vote across the country, we again recognize the leadership role New York must play, and we encourage other States to recognize the responsibility they now have to protect the rights of all American women and girls.
Melissa DeRosa is Secretary to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and Chair of the New York State Council on Women and Girls. Join the conversation about the council and its launch by following the hashtag #NYWomenLead.

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