Where is the Women’s Equality Agenda?
Several women’s rights groups are putting the pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release the bill language for his proposed Women’s Equality Agenda and to pass the legislation before the current session draws to a conclusion.
During Cuomo’s State of the State Address in January, the governor proposed a ten-point agenda that aims to shatter the glass ceiling by passing an equal pay law; zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace; strengthen employment, lending and credit discrimination laws; strengthen human trafficking laws; end family status discrimination; prevent landlords from denying housing to qualified tenants based on the source of funds; stop housing discrimination for victims of domestic violence; stop pregnancy discrimination; protect victims of domestic violence by strengthening the Order-of- Protection laws and lastly to protect a woman’s freedom of choice by enacting a Reproductive Health Act.
The Concerned Clergy for Choice and the New York City and New York state chapters of the National Organization for Women took to the halls of the Legislative Office Building last week to lobby for the support and passage of the Women’s Equality Agenda.
The governor has yet to release the bill language for any of the ten-points, but lobbyists are not seeing that as a negative sign for women’s equality.
“This is the governor that gave us marriage equality, gave us gun control. He’s told us that we would have protection for women, such that New York law will conform with Roe v. Wade and current medical practice,” said Rabbi Dennis Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice. “The governor has given us his word and we have confidence that [it] will be enacted to protect the women of New York state.”
Sonia Ossorio, the president of the New York City chapter of NOW, called the lobbying efforts a “first step” as a measure of raising awareness because of the lack of bill language available to both the general public and legislators.
Zenaida Mendez, president of New York state NOW, went further to say, “each of these [ten] points have been lingering in the legislature for years.”
The Concerned Clergy for Choice and NOW held two separate press conferences last Monday and Tuesday to raise awareness about each of the ten points of the Women’s Equality Agenda.
Senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, took to the podium to empower the crowd of men and women lobbying for the reform agenda.
“When you go out there to lobby, know that there are ten points and you understand that all of these ten points are equally important,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It is not about ‘we’ll do this for you now ladies and maybe next time we’ll do that’ or ‘we can accept this ladies, we cannot do this Reproductive Health Act.’ It’s a ten-point package. We consider each of the ten points important. We want women’s lives to be better in New York and we know that if we work together — all of us together, all of our allies, energizing women and men who understand that women cannot be put on hold … it is time, it is time, now is the time and we will get it done.”
Assemblywoman Addie Russell, D-Theresa, chair of the Assembly’s Task Force on Women’s Issues, said the potential passage of the Women’s Equality Act would have a ripple effect throughout the nation and even globally.
“So while we might think that this is something we’re doing for the women here in New York, you drop a pebble in a pond and the ripple effects go on and on,” Russell said. “It’s time for New York to stand up for its women and also to stand up for women across this globe.”
Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, was also at the NOW press conference voicing her discontent with the current state of affairs regarding unequal treatment for women in the state.
“We can do better in New York,” Savino said. “We know that women still face discrimination in housing because of the expectation that they’re not going to earn as much money or their income is not as stable. We can do better in New York. We know that women are still concerned about the ability to make decisions for our own families — how large our family is going to be or whether we’re going to have a family at all. We can do better in New York, we can be the leader in this nation.”
Also at the event was Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, who decried the lack of progress regarding women’s rights in New York.
“It is unfathomable to me that we are standing here talking about the need to protect women’s equality as if it’s something that hasn’t already been done,” Gianaris said. “The fact is, it is unfathomable that women make less than men for the same job in 2013. It is unfathomable that this type of discrimination that we’re fighting against is still going on in the state of New York in the 21st century. It is unfathomable to me that we still need to adequately protect women’s rights to choose in our laws in New York state. This is New York state, our history is a very proud one when it comes to women’s rights. We are leaders, not only in this nation, but around the world and yet here we are, talking about the need to take additional steps because we have not done enough. There is a lot of work to do in the next two months.”
The day before the NOW event, the Concerned Clergy for Choice held its own press conference and a briefing on their lobbying endeavors in an effort to demonstrate that, while many religious groups may oppose a woman’s freedom of choice, there are clergy who support reproductive rights and the right to an abortion.
“New York state needs to break down the legal obstacles causing gender discrimination and inequality,” said the Rev. Larry Phillips of the American Baptist Church, “thereby improving women’s lives, especially the lives of working mothers and older women. As a member of the clergy, who has served two different congregations over a span of nearly forty years, I have witnessed firsthand how these barriers of discrimination result in inadequate housing, reduce work and professional achievement and for a working mother, diminished opportunities for her children.”
“Our goal as representatives of a diverse network of religious leaders from all corners of New York state is to make sure our policy makers know of our religious support for women’s equality,” Ross said. “We want our policy makers to know that opponents of women’s health care do not speak for us. We believe in safety and quality for women at work at home and when [they are] in need of health care.”
A Siena Poll conducted in March asked voters if they support enacting “what the governor calls the Reproductive Health Act, aimed at protecting reproductive freedom for women, ensuring a woman’s rights to make private health care decisions regarding pregnancy.”
Eighty percent of polled voters said they support the measure, including 72 percent of Catholic voters, 85 percent of Jewish voters and 80 percent of Protestant voters.
“I speak for the majority of 7.4 million Catholics who call New York home,” said Sara Hutchinson, director of domestic programs at Catholics for Choice. “At Catholics for Choice we lift up the voice of the majority in the Catholic faith who disagree with the Vatican and the bishops on issues on sex and sexuality, reproductive health care and what’s the role of religion in public policy.”
When asked if the Women’s Equality Agenda would have a better chance of passing if it was a series of different bills, Savino responded with, “I’ll be happy to vote on any of these bills whether we bring them together as one piece of legislation or we bring them together as ten individual parts.”
On the other hand, Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said the strategy was to have an omnibus bill. “There may be ten technically separate issues, but they all integrate with each other,” she said.
The Reproductive Health Act, which would protect a woman’s freedom of choice, is the most contentious part of the agenda and has garnered the most attention from both sides. When asked if the next logical step would be to remove the measure from the Women’s Equality Agenda, every member on the podium at the NOW press conference responded with a resounding “No.”
This piece was originally published by the Legislative Gazette.