Magnificent Dozen, March 2002

Women's History Month Keynote
NY State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery
Friday, March 22, 2002; 6:00 pm
St. Josephs College, Brooklyn, NY

Thank you. It is a great pleasure for me to be with all of you tonight.

As you just heard, I am president of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Before I took this position, I held a number of other jobs, some considerably less executive in title.

However, whatever my title may have been, most of the work that I have done throughout my career has been in education...A field that I truly love.

Whatever role I had...As professor, program developer, community liaison, administrator.... I found that I often had the opportunity to make a real difference in individual peoples lives...One by one by one.

I came to realize, as I went along, that having the power to make someone's life better and being able to bring about some measure of progress, large or small, is what makes work...And life...Worthwhile.

I suspect that everyone here tonight might share that sentiment.

We are here, after all, to celebrate twelve women who have, through their work and lives, found many magnificent ways to better the lives of those around them. Senator Montgomery has had the vision to use march— women's history month— to spotlight women of accomplishment.

Of course, we know that women achieve every day of every week...Of every month...Of every year. Not just in march.

So I thank Senator Montgomery for deciding to honor 12 women, one for every month of the year.

Indeed, it seems we have been marking women's history month for a very long time now.

But in fact, it has not even been 25 years. Historians and biographers have ignored us because, they said, we led such private lives...Such silent lives.

We were too far from the centers of power to be of much interest.

Just ask Dr. Lawson from the Brooklyn Central Library, who is being honored here tonight.

How many women are subjects of biographies on those vast library shelves?

Oh, there are some exceptions Joan of Arc...Madame Curie...Maybe even Madonna, but the rest of us have been deemed dull, unaccomplished, unworthy.

However, in 1978, a small California commission on the status of women went out on a limb and declared the first women's history week, a week designed to shed some light on a topic that was virtually unstudied until that time.

The idea caught on, and before long, we were celebrating national women's history week, and as of 1987, national women's history month.

Ten years ago, we even had the year of the woman.

I suggest that we now take a cosmic view and declare the 21 century the women's history millennium.

That way, we would have time to tell the whole story.

Not that everyone really wants to hear it. Some people still seem to think it was a subject dreamed up by a pack of so-called "bra- burners"—do you remember them? so we ladies could pretend we had actually been the architects of human history, not just the caterers.

Everyone knows women were always around somewhere...Goodness!

Otherwise, there would not have been anyone to give birth to all those men who did the important things that constitute "real" history.

Well, you and I know that women's history is real history, and we women have done more than rock the cradle.

That has been just one part of our inherent role in binding our society and its people.

As one pioneering U.S. congresswoman famously said when asked how she could be a mother and a politician at the same time: "I have a uterus and a brain, and they both work."

So if women's names remain mostly a footnote in the history books, we know it is not because women lack the ability or the desire to shape our world and better it.

Too often, women's lives have been constrained by what a male- dominated society says we must or must not be. Even today.

The opportunities given or denied, the words that spark or quench a young girls spirit, have always made our roles clear in subtle and not so subtle ways.

It would be nice to think we did not need a women's history month.

It would be nice if all 141.1 million American women, and all our sisters who make up half of the human race, had an equal and valued place in the pantheon of history.

There have always been women undaunted by the obstacles in their path, who thought deeply and fought hard, and accomplished great things.

Indeed, American history is full of them, anonymous though they may be.

As we celebrate women's history month this year, we are being asked to remember the ways in which women sustain the American spirit.

Well, when the french political writer and social critic Alexis de Tocqueville made his celebrated tour of this country in the 1830's, he observed that much of what made America great was owed to the ...quote: "superiority of its women."  

In fact, as early as 1790, an American woman had already published a treatise on the equality of the sexes...And during the 1830's, when de Tocqueville was doing his tour, an association of female factory workers staged a strike in one of the major mill towns in Massachusetts; Mount Holyoke college for women was founded, and in New York City, a national convention of female anti-slavery societies held its first meeting.

Soon after, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had the audacity to demand that the word "obey" be struck from her wedding vowsmy friends, they were.

We, as women, owe it to generations past and future to discover and celebrate our heroes.

We must tell our story to set the record straight, to recognize the bold and brilliant women whose achievements have been overlooked, and most important, to continue to give women and girls everywhere role models, a sense of their own worth, and the confidence to pursue their dreams and goals.

Have you heard this song before?

That is because, even as women of much more enlightened times, as women of the 21st century living in this great country where we have made such impressive gains, our glass today remains both half full and half empty. During this month especially, we can celebrate the half-full; but we must also recognize the half- empty.

In so doing, we can come to understand why we must continue to struggle, continue to strive for excellence, for leadership roles... On whatever streets we walk and in whatever realms we exist.

Let me concentrate first on the good news on the glass of gender equality that is now half- full:

  • Women are almost half of the us workforce today, and in New York state, 54 percent are in the work force.
  • In the past 35 years, more than 70 million jobs have been added in this country; an impressive 43 million of them went to women.
  • In state legislatures, 23 percent of today's representatives are women, a five-fold gain from 1969.
  • Today, women are the majority of college graduates and graduate school students.
  • We do not have to look at Sarah Hughes or the Williams sisters to know how far women have come since title nine was passed in 1972: there has been more than a four-fold gain in the number of women playing in intercollegiate athletics today.
  • Well over 2.5 million high school girls are on the athletic fields today....A dramatic increase from the 300,000 who participated 30 years ago. This is an encouraging picture, one that points to the kind of progress we wish for and the sort we should applaud. However, that gender glass is also half-empty. disparities still exist and some are stark. for example:
    The wage gap. It is still with us. Full- time women workers earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Union workers fare somewhat better, making 84 percent of what union men make.
    The average college- educated 25 year old woman, who retires at age 65, will earn over half a million dollars less over a lifetime of work than the equivalent man.
    10 percent of white women in this country are poor;
    At 30 percent, the figure is even worse for women of color...And a quarter of our children are growing up in poverty, even counting the economic growth of the nineties.
    New York City employs 11,500 firefighters; 28 are women.
    In congress, women representatives are at record highs. But what does that mean? we have only 13.8 percent of the seats in the house and 13 percent in the senate.

Even in academia, where some people seem to expect more enlightened behavior patterns, we find that women with PhDs have not begun to reach parity with men.

Last year, the presidents of nine of the nations top universities conceded that serious barriers still existed for women professors...In the sciences in particular...As a result of what they called "unintentional institutional discrimination."

These are just a few of the headlines, both good and bad: a simplified, selective and mostly statistical snapshot of our socio-economic culture.

However, the fallout from these statistics filters not only into our institutions and workplaces, but also into our human relationships and profoundly affects our day-to-day lives.

Progress means change: change is challenge.

How many of us do not feel the friction?

One of the most discouraging trends we have seen in recent years is the tendency of some peoplewomen as well as mento say: hush, quiet down, you women have made your point, you have made your mark.

Look! There are women plural, women, on the supreme court.

Women in the white house.

Women CEOs; women's basketball teams.

YouJoyce Brownare president of a college that never before had a woman president, much less an African-American president.

What more can you possibly want?

We want more.

We know our gains are not secure, are not institutionalized, are not complete.

We know that we, or our sisters, are one paycheck from poverty or one affirmative action change from unemployment.

Last year, in a national poll of American women conducted by the center for policy alternatives and lifetime television, a very complex picture of our priorities and values as women emerged.

It was particularly interesting since the poll is part of a research project that has been tracking women's attitudes for the past ten years.

Now the poll was conducted last year, before this erstwhile recession and, of course, before the tragedy and shock of the September 11 country.

Even then, women were ambivalent about their progress.

While they felt they had some measure of control over their lives in general, only 40 percent felt that they had any control over their economic lives.

An overwhelming majority said that equal pay and benefits were their top priority.

Yet as important as the money was to them, over 70 percent said they would prefer a job with more flexibility and benefits to a job with higher salaries.

I think we know why.

As this survey also demonstrated, over the past decade, we women have urgently and consistently placed the high- wire balancing act of family and work as the top concern in our lives. we worry about making ends meet while having enough time to do everything we need to do...And still care for and spend time with our families and others we love.

Is it surprising, then, that the women in this poll said they want flexibility in their jobs...That they want portable retirement benefits and affordable health care that is not dependent on their jobs?

I believe that none of these persistent, vexing and life- determining issues will be resolved without women in positions to pressure for them.

I grant you there are good and well-meaning men in leadership positions who are prepared to partner with us or to push alone for solutions for these issues also.

However, I suspect that it will take women as the engine and many of us working in concert before they move forward in a meaningful way. earlier I mentioned that in keeping with the theme of women's history month this year, we are being asked to reflect on the ways in which women sustain the American spirit...And to honor the diverse and interlocking stories of women who have created and affirmed the American spirit in their lives.

It is the right assignment, given the new reality that was placed so starkly at our feet by the events of September 11th.

I believe that since that moment, we have all been reflecting on the American spirit and those things that define us as Americans.

Across the country, leaders have called upon us to draw strength from each other and to affirm our common humanity.

Perhaps the American spirit is our idealized vision of the human spirit. we are a sprawling nation, after all, made up of people coming together from different nations and continents with a myriad of traditions, cultures, languages and beliefs. it is a miracle that we survive.

However, I believe we hold together as a nation and as a people because of our profound, sustaining and common belief in a set of laws framed by the constitution and the bill of rights, laws that guarantee freedom of thought and expression. and freedom of thought has served America well.

As Adlai Stevenson once said, "The vigor of our political life, our capacity for change, our cultural, scientific and industrial achievements all derive from free inquiry, from the free mind from the imagination, the resourcefulness and daring of (those) who are not afraid of new ideas."

Indeed, as a people, we Americans celebrate the daring and fierce independence of our pioneers...And this month in particular, our silent and not so silent sister pioneers...Sisters such as Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony...Elizabeth Blackwell and Clara Barton...Wilma Rudolph and Billie Jean King...Rosa Parks.

I think of Shirley Chisholm, too. in 1968, from right here in Brooklyn, and some of the very districts represented in Albany by Senator Montgomery— she became the first black woman elected to the us congress. four years later, she made a run for the democratic party's presidential nomination.

Shirley Chisholm was daring, independent, and embraced another set of quintessential American qualities: optimism and hope. " I don't measure America by its achievement," she said, "but by its potential." 

That we must continue to do.

A moment ago I mentioned the survey that showed however before 9-11we women have been wrestling with questions of personal priorities.

Now, we have that fearful, gaping hole in our beloved skyline that can only begin to suggest the gaping hole it has left in our hearts. the soul-searching that many of us are engaged in today is searing and deep. we are asking fundamental questions of ourselves, regarding how we are living our lives...The value of our work...The way we spend our time...The quality of our relationships with friends, family and colleagues...Our obligations to our community...The nature of our spiritual lives. look around you. the literature is filled with stories of womenand men, too, if the truth be toldworried about whether the work they do, the hours they spend in their offices, is good work...Work that helps others; work that applies in the wider world in positive, constructive ways.

The challenge for women who explore these particular questions, however, is that they piggyback onto all of the other pressures and demands on their lives.

Indeed, when asked why women aren't more active in promoting their interests in the political sphere, one advocate, an attorney who frequently argues women's issues at the supreme court, said simply: "they're too busy."

That is true, and that is also our paradox.

However, like Shirley Chisholm, I am an optimist.

If the fabric of this country is democracy, then it is a fabric that surely has been stitched together by individual people...One by one by one. many are pioneers, with the fortitude and grit to become firsts, among them, of course...Women: our first female doctor, first female educator, first female astronaut.

These are the women we so admire, and sometimes, even mythologize. they are inspiring, and, as role models or heroines, continue to offer lessons about courage and nobility of purpose.

However, I believe the story of American women is also the story of women working together, indeed, stitching together...To forge bonds in a common cause.

Perhaps their stories are not so romantic or compelling.

We are not all born to be blazing heroines, after all.

But as the saying goes: while one can do much, one and one and one and one can move mountains.

I do believe that when women choose to work together, they help to form that more perfect union that is America's great potential.

Research tells us that this is what we need.

Indeed, one very respected study on the influence of women in the workplace found that it takes a critical mass of women25 to 30 percentto bring about any changes in those organizations.

Ten years ago, a record number of women went to Washington as elected representatives.

They became the critical mass in the congress that passed into law 30 bills on women's issues their first year, and 33 bills the next.

The previous record had been five.

Now that, my friends, is the American spirit.

That is the American spirit fulfilling its glorious potential.

I cannot help but think about the twelve women we recognize tonight, and how each of them also testify to this spirit.

You will be hearing about them in detail very soon.

They arrived here as honorees because of a strength of character built over a lifetime...And a dedication to the kind of good work I mentioned earlier, work that contributes to a common cause.

Like them, it was my good fortune to learn early in my career that I could, through my work, help to make a difference in some lives. However, I knew I could not do it alone.

I happened to be blessed with a supportive family, supportive friends and colleagues.

I was also blessed to be surrounded by strong women since childhood, anonymous women, to be sure, women not known in the hallways of power.

Indeed, it was their faith in me as a young girl that gave strength to me as a woman.

I emerged with optimism and hope.

What a powerful blessing that is.

For it gave me a deep and abiding faith that I could make a difference, and— that I was obliged to do so.

With it all came a deep and abiding trust in the bond that I share with all women.

If I may depart for a moment from America, I would like to leave you with a pertinent proverb from Africa...From Ethiopia, actually.

If you wait long enough, even an egg will walk.

I believe that if we women do, indeed, work together, if we honor the trust that we can make a difference, if we honor the spirit of our democracy...We will not need to wait for that egg to walk.

It has been my privilege to be with you this evening.

My congratulations to the magnificent dozen...And I thank you.