Politics

Mark-Viverito questions critics and sexism at City & State's On Diversity event

An interesting wrinkle emerged the moment the speakers at a recent City & State panel on women in government took to the stage: two of them were men. City Councilman Dan Garodnick and Stony Brook Professor Michael Kimmel were a strong visual representation of one of the central topics discussed at City & State’s On Diversity event: including men in discussions about sexism and so-called “women’s issues.” The women on the panel, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, were able to speak to that, as well as the topic they know well: leading from the front and getting women involved in government despite the sexism.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

Sexism in government

Even as one of the most powerful people in New York City, Mark-Viverito spoke of her personal agency being questioned because of her gender. “There’s this assumption that when there’s a tough decision has to be made, somehow (when) I made a decision, I’m in the pocket of the mayor,” she said. Mark-Viverito had recently been criticized in the press and by social justice advocates unhappy with her decision to leave so-called “right to know” reforms up the NYPD. Proposed legislation that would have police officers give their own identifying information at the end of a police encounter had wide support in the Council, but Mark-Viverito chose not to bring it to a vote. “(Critics thought) somehow, I had to be forced into that because I could not have made that decision on my own. That’s sexist. And when I say it’s sexist, what do I get back? ‘Oh you’re always throwing the sexism card around.’”

Rozic too spoke of the particular struggles of being the youngest woman ever elected to the New York state Legislature. “I face both the dose of sexism but also ageism, which is a lethal combination at times,” she said. Rozic spoke of having conversations in the Capitol hallways with other lawmakers and being taken for a staffer, a girlfriend or a wife. “I am at fault, sometimes I don’t wear that pin who identifies who you are,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have to wear that pin in order to be recognized as one of 150, someone whose vote is just as equal as the next person.”

Of course, being a woman in politics almost automatically makes you a cheerleader for the cause of getting more women into elected positions. Rozic noted that being a young assemblywoman comes with the challenge of countering what leadership is supposed to look like. She tells people, “You can be young, you can be a leader. You can look like me and be an assembly member.”

Like Rozic, Mark-Viverito spoke about representing diversity in more than just gender. She is not only the first Puerto Rican Latina City Council speaker, she said, she also represents the second-poorest district in the city. “Those experiences help shape the decisions we make and the laws we make and the policies we set forth,” Mark-Viverito said. “Having Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, we’ve seen the value of the perspective that she brings. That’s how we break it down. That’s how we uproot those inequalities and those sentiments, is by forcing there to be a reality check.” 

Getting men in on ‘women’s issues’

“White men are the greatest beneficiary of affirmative action in the history of the world,” Professor Michael Kimmel said as he opened up the discussion. “It’s called the history of the world.” And yet, the Stony Brook sociology professor said, most men of all races think that gender does not matter to them. He distilled decades of study of men and gender into a call to action to all those at the On Diversity conference: “We cannot fully empower women and girls unless we engage boys and men.” After all, Kimmel said, men too have a stake in what are generally considered “women’s issues.” Men are sexual partners when it comes to reproductive rights, fellow students when it comes to campus sexual assault, and are involved in every issue as fathers.

Mark-Viverito made her own pitch, explaining that she needs allies on all fronts when it comes to advancing a progressive agenda. “That’s why I’m an ally on the LGBT struggles, that’s why I’m forceful about immigration rights,” she said. “Because I know that the rights that I have, and the privileges I have or that I want for myself, are ones that I want everyone else to have.”

In one of the most intimate moments in a panel that was full of personal stories, Councilman Dan Garodnick talked about his shifting attitude toward family leave. He took time off from work when each of his sons was born, calling it “a perfectly natural thing to do.” But even as he willingly and happily spent time with his newborn children, he felt uncomfortable telling people he was doing it. “I wanted to project to anybody who asked me that I was constantly on my phone … that I wasn’t missing a beat, that everything was seamless, and that I was not off the grid even for a moment,” he said.

But Garodnick’s view of family leave, traditionally considered a “women’s issue,” changed over time, especially after a conversation with his wife. “If I were to go back and do this again, I would shout that family leave from the rooftops,” he said. “I am here to proudly tell everybody that I took it. Not only took it once, took it twice and even took some extra time … It’s important for men to say publicly that they’re doing it.”

Garodnick’s experience is not unique. According to Kimmel, men often become allies to women’s issues through their relationships with the women they love. Men then just have to generalize those feelings and politicize them. “You want to find an instant feminist?” he asked. “Talk to a man whose daughter just hit puberty. And he will tell you, ‘Oh my god, there are boys out there who are looking at my daughter the way I was taught to look at girls. This has got to stop today.’”

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