A lot of attention will be focused on women’s issues this weekend in speeches, gatherings and rallies, and NYSUT women are doing their part to ensure those issues remain front and center as they organize local committees statewide and support women candidates for office.
“We have a yearly platform that gets worldwide coverage and attention and elevates our issues to the front page of papers, all over social media… and the evening news,” said Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president. “We still have a long way to go when it comes to income equality, laws that protect women against violence, and issues pertaining to women's health. On an international scale, we still have far too many women who don't have equal access to education and proper health services.”
NYSUT women are taking a stand politically, too.
“After generations of being forced to lower our voices and to take a backseat to others, we’re finally taking our seat at the table of governance,” said Molly Reilly, a teacher and mayor of Sackets Harbor in rural Jefferson County. “I also hope that the growing number of female voices in leadership is only the beginning.
“Thanks to our votes, 2019 is shaping up to be an historic year for women—from the groundbreaking number of women seated in the 116th Congress to the election of U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi to the position of House Speaker,” added Reilly, a member of the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES Professional Association.
Kelley Hawksley, president of the Beaver River Teachers Association in Herkimer County, said she finds the growing women’s movement similar to the suffragette movement.
“In any activity you have strength in numbers… It’s very important to be visual,” said Hawksley.
Hawksley said women in the North Country face a wide array of challenges, including quality childcare, equal pay for equal work, cultural opportunity, employment opportunities, health care, respect from male coworkers and students, and access to educational opportunities. There is a high rate of poverty in her region, too, and feelings of isolation can be a big issue, she said.
“I just helped a student today with an application for HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program). She’s the highest functioning member of her family,” said the rural math teacher, whose district is in a town where there is a gas station, dollar store, candy shop and one operating paper mill.
Kathy Briggs, a music teacher and president of the Lake Placid Educators Association, said three of the most pressing issues facing women in her region face are the lack of affordable day care, lack of medical specialists – including mental health professionals – and domestic abuse and the stigma surrounding it.
Briggs said she has one colleague who drives 40 miles a day for day care. Meanwhile, she said other colleagues have to drive several hours to Glens Falls or Burlington, Vt. for most types of specialty medicine, including dermatology.
There are also even heavier concerns.
“The rates of domestic abuse are higher in the North Country than other parts of the state. St. Lawrence County just hired three additional staff members to handle the high caseload of child abuse and neglect cases there,” Briggs said.
Paul Pecorale, NYSUT second vice president, said that, in his travels throughout the state, he sees inequities in women’s health care even for women with health insurance. There should be a normalized, proper care for health necessities, said Pecorale, who will be walking to lend his voice to women’s causes and concerns.
DiBrango has been encouraging NYSUT women to start women’s committees in their own local unions. Sandie Carner-Shafran is one of the women union leaders who heeded that call.
“What inspired me was being part of NYSUT’s first women’s conference, then the women’s committee. Jolene said to go out and build it,” she said. “We’re going to take this on.”
The fledgling SABEA women’s committee will meet Jan. 29 to hone their areas of concern, then officially kick off the committee Feb. 26 at a meeting that DiBrango will attend.
Quoting author and activist G.D. Anderson, DiBrango said: “’Feminism isn't about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength.’”
“Women,” DiBrango said, “are rising all over the state and nation and letting their collective voices be heard. We won't stop showing up and speaking out until women have equal rights in all aspects of their lives.”