In March we celebrate Women’s History Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of incredible women from our past, pioneers of our present and trailblazers in training. …
In March we celebrate Women’s History Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of incredible women from our past, pioneers of our present and trailblazers in training. 2020 marks a particularly significant milestone as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. This amendment is monumental in the long fight for equality for women, but that fight did not start or end in 1920.
I grew up in Cayuga County, N.Y., not far from Seneca Falls, where the first women’s rights convention in the United States was held in 1848. The convention marked the birth of the fight for women’s suffrage, and one of its organizers, Martha Coffin Wright, lived in my hometown of Auburn. Although the 19th Amendment was not ratified until more than 70 years later, the convention was that pivotal first step in calling for women’s equality and the right to vote.
Even more than a century later, we are still talking about gender equality. This is why truly honoring women during Women’s History Month should not stop at simple recognition. Women’s History Month is about more; it is about appreciating the strides that have been made and continuing to fight for representation and equality.
Women make up 50.8 percent of the population in Suffolk County, yet only five of the 18 elected officials who make up the Suffolk County Legislature are female. The good news, however, is that women can be found everywhere in Suffolk County government, including in top posts. At the Legislature, for example, my chief of staff and the counsel to the Legislature are women. Women can also be found leading some of the most high-profile departments and agencies, including the Suffolk County Police Department, the Economic Development and Planning Department, the Human Rights Commission and — soon — the Department of Labor, Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
New to the Legislature this year is another avenue for amplifying the voices of women: The Suffolk County Women Veterans Advisory Board, an initiative sponsored by my colleague Legis. Susan A. Berland, was formed to provide female veterans with a platform to advocate for their best interests. This new board, made up of female veterans who often find themselves in the minority in veterans organizations dominated by men, will make recommendations to the Legislature and offer insight into the needs of this community of women.
Representation such as this is critical on the journey to equality, because it leads to policy changes such as the Suffolk County RISE Act, which was passed in 2018 to combat antiquated, institutionalized policies that for too long have created salary inequities between men and women. The Restricting Information on Salaries and Earnings (RISE) Act prohibits employers in Suffolk County from inquiring about the salary history of a prospective employee. This policy is now in place statewide as of last month. Given that women have consistently earned less than their male counterparts, the goal is to break the cycle so candidates’ salaries can be determined by their qualifications, not their prior salaries. The average woman on Long Island earns about 81 percent of what a man earns, and while New York is making tremendous strides, our work will not be finished until there is no disparity.
The push for equality aside, Women’s History Month is also about recognizing women for their contributions, which is why since 2003 the Suffolk County Legislature has honored “Women of Distinction” to acknowledge and recognize local women who work for the betterment of our county and nation. One outstanding woman is chosen from each legislative district, and from that pool of honorees, an overall countywide winner will be chosen by the Suffolk County Women’s Advisory Commission and recognized at the Legislature’s March 17 general meeting in Hauppauge.
This year’s honoree from the Seventh Legislative District is Erinkelly Connell, of Medford, whose tireless work with our local residents in mind makes the world a brighter place. A licensed behavior analyst, Erinkelly is an active Girl Scout leader who organizes dozens of community enhancement activities for her troop. In 2017 she spearheaded “Operation VFW,” an effort to save the century-old Medford VFW Post 2937 when the organization lost the use of its kitchen, cutting off the ability to hold events and rent the hall. Thanks to her efforts, the VFW has now become a de facto community center for the entire Medford hamlet. Seventeen other incredible women will be considered alongside Erinkelly as the Women’s Advisory Commission choses an overall winner for the countywide designation. Picking one winner is no easy task, as each of the women considered is accomplished, community-minded, generous and distinguished in her own right.
Still, we must not rest. Women’s rights are human rights. It is incumbent on everyone to tell the story and continue to fight for equality for women. Will you join me?