Gotham Gazette Thu, 25 Apr 2019 12:08:31 +0000 en-gb (Webmaster) Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health Eric Adams Brooklyn women's health

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams

Tampons. Periods. Breastfeeding. Hot flashes.

These terms, and others relevant to women’s health, have traditionally been considered taboo — inappropriate for polite conversation and therefore left unmentioned. That silence has had serious consequences for women and girls, who are denied access to feminine hygiene products, charged more at the cash register for “women’s” versions of household items, and made to feel ashamed about their bodies.

This taboo extends to sexual health, with terrible costs for young adults who have been denied information about reproduction, contraception, and healthy relationships. As a result, the United States has disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and domestic violence.

The lack of healthy dialogue on these matters has delivered unhealthy results. Thankfully, strong leaders are stepping up and speaking out, and we’re beginning to see the benefits. Through the leadership of elected officials such as State Senator Sue Serino and Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, with support from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the New York State Legislature recently voted to eliminate the sales tax on tampons, sanitary napkins, and other feminine hygiene products. (Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged to sign the bill).

Just as we provide an exemption from the sales tax for necessities such as groceries and clothing, feminine hygiene products will be properly defined as necessities for women who menstruate, not luxuries. The exemption will particularly assist low-income New Yorkers who have had to choose between or ration such basic necessities due to their limited resources.

New York City now has an opportunity to build on the momentum from this achievement. The City Council is preparing to hold a hearing on a critical proposal by Council Member Ferreras-Copeland and Speaker Mark-Viverito to offer feminine hygiene products for free in public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities.

This is a logical extension of our shared interest in promoting common-sense public health measures, both physical and psychological. Consider that a girl in school who has her period but is not carrying tampons or pads must visit a guidance counselor or the school nurse and explain her situation, often needing to negotiate hall passes and having to wait to be seen - the entire experience seems to have been intended to maximize embarrassment and class time missed. In jail, each woman receives a very limited supply of feminine hygiene products each month while additional supplies are sold for extortionate prices at the commissary; many must improvise with rolled-up toilet paper, a humiliating and unhealthy situation. Any woman or girl who is forced to use menstrual items for long stretches of time, due to issues of access or affordability, is put at higher risk for cervical cancer, toxic shock syndrome, and other concerns resulting from product overuse.

We need action at all levels of government. In homeless shelters, many women and girls simply cannot afford to buy feminine hygiene products, as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and flexible spending accounts disallow such purchases. Legislation such as the Fund Essential Menstruation (FEM) Products Act of 2015 from Representative Grace Meng, which would reclassify feminine hygiene products to allow for purchase with flexible spending accounts, is essential to move forward and should be a bipartisan priority. For starters, we should ensure that every member of the New York State congressional delegation gets behind the bill.

These initiatives are critical to eliminating inequities that undermine the position of women in our civil society. A recent report from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), for example, documented that products sold to women cost seven percent more on average than nearly identical products sold to men. This includes basic hygiene products such as shaving razors. We have a shared responsibility, men and women alike, to demand that these disparities end now. Companies that continue this behavior need to be called out in the public arena and pressured to answer for these discrepancies.

We must continue to drive the conversation about gender equity, especially around women’s health, to break the silence and remove the taboos. When I became Brooklyn borough president, I was deeply concerned that women who have recently had children are often ostracized for breastfeeding and pumping milk at work or in public areas, despite the fact that the law protects their right to this practice. I was proud to open our lactation lounge at Brooklyn Borough Hall last year, as part of the Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone initiative by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), so women in Downtown Brooklyn have a comfortable lounge in which to breastfeed or pump milk. And, we are able to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and to celebrate the practice.

I am now pressing forward with City Council Members Laurie Cumbo, Robert Cornegy, Jr., and Corey Johnson (the latter are two of the standout male leaders in the fight for advancing women’s health) on a proposal to require the City to create dedicated space for nursing moms in a range of municipal government offices that serve the public, such as New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) job centers and New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) borough offices.

This conversation should include the entirety of women’s lives. Our society has often avoided discussion of menopause, depriving many women of information about the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and an awareness of available treatments. In our celebration of Women’s History Month this past March, Council Member Cumbo and I organized a day of panel discussions and workshops to speak with women about every stage of life and to start a conversation surrounding the natural changes that occur in life, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. For some, it was the first time anyone had engaged them on these topics. We ask businesses and other institutions to follow suit and to reasonably accommodate these life transitions.

The days of relegating women’s health to second-class status or worse are over, and our laws and policies must reflect that for every stage of a woman’s life. Men, who still write most of those laws and policies, have a responsibility to join in this conversation and to insist on fairness and equality.

Eric Adams is the president of Brooklyn. On Twitter @BPEricAdams.

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Time to Say and Do More for Women's Health Wed, 01 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Rethinking ‘Women’s Issues’ in Public Policy rosenthal cumbo

Council Members Rosenthal (front) and Cumbo (photo: William Alatriste)

Access to reproductive health care is generally viewed as a “women’s issue,” a label that some say excludes men and more specific impacted groups from a variety of important conversations, and can make it more difficult for so-labeled issues to get the attention they deserve from public policy-makers. While closing the wage gap, securing paid family leave, combatting sexual assault and domestic violence, and protecting and improving access to reproductive health care impact everyone, not just women, the “women’s issue” label often marginalizes examination. Women, as 50 percent of the population, also have stake in every issue, from housing to economic development to transportation.

New York City Council Members Laurie Cumbo and Helen Rosenthal aim to use their roles as newly-elected co-chairs of the Council’s Women’s Caucus to “invite, include, and encourage men to be a part of the conversation,” as Cumbo said, and to make sure that women’s issues are not seen as separate, but rather, as the “economic issues” and “community issues” that they are, Rosenthal said, so that the responsibility of recognizing and responding to “women’s issues” falls on the entire City Council, not just the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues.

“It’s critical that we recognize that families are being shortchanged when women aren’t bringing their whole dollar home,” Cumbo told Gotham Gazette, referring to the fact that women earn 79 cents for every dollar that a man earns in a parallel position. Cumbo said closing the wage gap - ensuring “equal pay for equal work” - and improving the public safety of women in New York City at a time when reported cases of sexual assault are on the rise are her top priorities, both as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus and as chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues.

The Council’s women’s issues committee has oversight of the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, and holds hearings on issues deemed to be a public policy concern for women, like fairness in physical testing and the effectiveness of human tracking intervention courts. For Council budget hearings, the committee joins the Committee on General Welfare to examine social services agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).

While some of the traditional focus of the women’s issues committee has been on typical “women’s issues,” there is evidence of movement beyond those domains, beginning with how Cumbo and Rosenthal are conceptualizing their work as caucus co-chairs.

April 12 was Equal Pay Day, a date that symbolizes how far into the new year the average American woman would have to continue to work in order to earn what the average American man earned in just the previous year. A report released by the office of Public Advocate Letitia James right before Equal Pay Day found that the wage gap for women working in New York City government is three times as large (18 percent) than for women working in the private for-profit sector (six percent).  

“The wage gap doesn’t just hurt moms and their families, it hurts the economy,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO and executive director of, said in the press release that accompanied James’ report. “Women, and moms in particular, are the primary consumers in most families. When they can’t afford to buy basic necessities for their families, it also hurts our local and national economies.”

The report includes recommendations of equal pay for equal work (paying women and men the same when they are in parallel positions) and shows that women tend to be concentrated in certain city agencies, such as the Department of Education (77 percent women) and the Administration for Children’s Services (73 percent women), where the median annual full-time base salaries are $69,901 and $49,606, respectively.

Men overwhelmingly staff agencies like the Fire Department and the Department of Sanitation (91 percent men in both) where the median annual full-time base salaries are $76,488 and $69,339, respectively.

Rosenthal and others have called for valuing, monetarily, traditionally female-dominated professions on par with typically male-dominated professions.

James’ report also recommends that workplaces advance family-friendly policies that support working parents, something New York State recently did when lawmakers passed a budget including a 12-week paid family leave policy. Governor Cuomo signed paid family leave into law on April 4 and the state will begin the multi-year ramp up to the full policy. New York joins four other states that mandate some form of paid parental leave.

The United States, Suriname, and Papua New Guinea are the only three, out of 185 countries with available data, that do not require the availability of paid parental leave.

“Women's issues are everyone's issues," said Council Member Ben Kallos, the only man on the City Council’s five-member Committee on Women's Issues, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "We need a focused effort on issues like reproductive health and pay equity in order for everybody to rise together.”

Framing access to comprehensive reproductive health care as a “women’s issue” seems to ignore the link between a woman’s reproductive rights and her participation in the broader economy and society. As the Supreme Court majority wrote in a 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

Research shows that “characterizing something as a women’s issue actually reduces the probability that it will succeed,” said Alexis Grenell, a Democratic political strategist and City and State columnist. “The data shows that gender balance is very important for a bill to succeed, for several reasons.”

According to one such study, published in the journal Politics & Gender, “scholars find that increasing gender diversity within a legislature may lead to increased attention to, and successful passage of, women’s issues bills.”

The authors of the study go on to warn that “within this current framework, women’s issues may become synonymous with “not-men’s issues,” implicitly exonerating male legislators from taking leadership roles in these policy domains.”

The lack of women in the New York City Council is a concern to Council Member Rosenthal, who says she intends to use her platform as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus to highlight the gender imbalance of the Council and encourage more women to run for office. Currently, 14 of the City Council’s 51 members are women, and five of the 14 are term-limited out in 2017, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“We want to replace those women with women, and hopefully pick up a few more,” Rosenthal said, while acknowledging what a challenge that would be, given that only eight total seats will be open due to term limits in 2017. The “long game,” Rosenthal said, is to “get us into a position, when there’s a lot more turnover in 2021 to get ourselves up to 21 [female] Council members.”

To Rosenthal, achieving this goal means raising the issue at every given opportunity. At a “Women’s Herstory” event organized by Council Member Cumbo to honor women in uniform during Women’s History Month, Rosenthal says she and Cumbo “took that opportunity with a room full of female leaders from a lot of different uniformed agencies to talk about women in leadership roles, and again raise awareness” of the Council’s gender imbalance. Rosenthal also brought up the issue during a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Equal Pay Day.

On April 7, members of the Council’s Women’s Caucus each hosted a young woman to serve as “Council Members for a Day,” an annual tradition at a full-body meeting of the Council.

Another program started by women in the City Council that aims to invest in girls and women is the Young Women’s Initiative, launched by Mark-Viverito last year. The YWI brings together stakeholders from community-based organizations, advocates, policy experts, and young women to identify gaps in services and create policy solutions to address gender and racial disparities.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio established a Commission on Gender Equity, which replaces the previous Commission on Women's Issues, and aims to improve the economic opportunity for all New Yorkers, particularly women and girls. The simple shift in language away from “women’s issues” to “gender equity” is significant in itself, implying a more inclusive commission that aims to achieve equity and involve more than just women. A bill has also been introduced in the City Council by Mark-Viverito that would establish a gender equity advisory board to study discrimination faced by New York City women and girls and the impact of that discrimination on their economic, civic, and social well-being.

Another priority for Rosenthal as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus is to “support women economically,” and “make sure that in all our areas of Council work, we’re identifying the disparity between men and women,” and ensuring that the Council addresses the needs of women, “both when it comes to funding items in the budget and in the legislation that we work on.”

Rosenthal’s role as co-chair has led her to increasingly view issues through the lens of how they affect women, she says. For example, Rosenthal is chair of the Committee on Contracts, and wondered aloud during an April 4 hearing on the challenges facing the human services sector whether gender is essential to the fact that the government pays the full costs of construction contracts, but does not cover the full cost of contracts with human services providers. The construction industry is male-dominated, while the human services sector is staffed mostly by women.

“We need families to be strong economically,” Rosenthal said, “and how can that happen when women” make less to begin with, and on top of that, “work in a sector where the contract itself is getting 80 cents on the dollar?”

Council Member Cumbo believes that classifying problems under the umbrella of “women’s issues” can be helpful, but only to a point. Calling something like preventing sexual assault or domestic violence a women’s issue may help rally stakeholders in support of the cause, yet, Cumbo says, “It is up to us to message it to say, ‘This is an issue that all people should be concerned about, and this is a discussion that men are very welcome to be a part of’ - it’s important that we work collaboratively to address these issues.”

Rosenthal also sees some merit in the “women’s issues” label. “I see it more as an opportunity - it’s simply another opportunity to talk about the role that women play in the working world and in their families, and another opportunity to make sure that their needs are addressed,” Rosenthal said, citing the fundamental biological differences between men and women when it comes to starting a family as something that needs to be addressed when creating policy. If men want to have a child, for example, they can do so with essentially no physical burden impacting their ability to go into the office, nor physical recovery time needed after a child is born.

Yet “from a policy standpoint,” Grenell says, “it’s not productive” to lump social problems under the women’s issues label, a construction that Grenell believes “creates a pink ghetto. This pink ghetto excludes men and gender nonconforming people and that reduces the efficacy of this construction.”

“Calling it a “women’s issue” makes it into a sort of niche matter, whereas abortion, paid family leave - these are not just women’s issues, these are people’s issues,” Grenell said.

The authors of the previously referenced study on the policy implications of female leadership on “women's issues” say their findings highlight the importance of reexamining the label - their results suggest that “legislators wishing to push for state investment in a woman’s issue may achieve the highest probability of success when they can gather a strong coalition of female sponsors and a near-equitable number of male legislators to join this sponsoring coalition.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Rethinking ‘Women’s Issues’ in Public Policy Mon, 25 Apr 2016 04:00:00 +0000
To Combat Increase in Reported Rapes, Experts Point to Prevention cumbo presser

City Coucil Member Laurie Cumbo leads a press conference (photo: William Alatriste)

Reported rapes are on the rise in New York City. Despite an overall downward trend in felony crime, 2015 saw a 6.3 percent increase in the number of rapes reported, up to 1,439 from 1,354. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and others have attributed this increase to the “Cosby effect,” meaning more women are coming forward to report rapes, including from years before, rather than more rape actually being committed.

In the early days of 2016, three reported incidents of rape - all stranger rapes - have garnered attention: two allegedly committed by for-hire vehicle drivers and the horrific alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old in a Brownsville playground. Most rapes are not widely reported in the media - most are committed by someone the victim knows.

Both the increase in rapes reported in 2015 and the Brownsville incident have made rape more central to public policy conversation.

While the city has implemented a number of measures in recent years to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, the question remains, what can elected and appointed officials do to help prevent these crimes from happening in the first place?

Of the 1,439 reported rapes last year, 166 were committed by strangers (up from 117 in 2014), and 14 took place in for-hire vehicles like taxis and Ubers (up from 10 in 2014). Speaking about this increase on WNYC radio last week, Bratton encouraged women going home late at night from bars or clubs by cab “to adopt the buddy system.”

That comment was met with widespread criticism, prompting a press conference outside City Hall on a frigid Monday morning, where City Council members and women’s rights advocates denounced the remark.

“It should not be the sole responsibility of a woman to guarantee her safety,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the Committee on Women’s Issues. Cumbo and others outside City Hall called on the NYPD to focus on preventing sexual violence and catching perpetrators, rather than telling women what they should do to avoid becoming a victim.

It’s important that in response to rape, the police department is not “encouraging women to implement buddy systems, but rather saying ‘you have a right to be safe,’” chair of the Committee on Public Safety, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson added.

Three bills have been introduced in the City Council which aim to better protect women from sexual violence:

  • Intro 762, which would require all taxicabs, hail vehicles, liveries, black cars, and luxury limousines to have a panic button installed that would allow a passenger to send a distress signal to law enforcement. There is currently no upcoming hearing scheduled on the bill, which has ten sponsors and has not been moved on since it was introduced by Cumbo in April, 2015.
  • Intro 869, which would require the NYPD to add sex offenses to its crime status report. They would be listed in total and by type of sex offense separately. The bill has eight sponsors and does not seem to have an upcoming hearing.
  • Intro 868, which would require the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to create a plan that would allow the public to communicate digitally with emergency responders using the City's 911 system. The system would allow the public to send digital communications including text messages, videos, and photographs. The bill was discussed by the Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Technology at a hearing Thursday morning.   

Those gathered outside City Hall on Monday demanded that these bills be passed, that the city allocate more resources to increase monitoring of high incident locations and improve access to rape crisis counselors and centers, and that the NYPD come out with a comprehensive strategy to address the rising number of sexual assaults.

A spokesperson for the NYPD informed Gotham Gazette that over the past two years, with support from the Mayor and the City Council, the NYPD has made several changes to better deal with sexual assault, including:

  • Increasing the size of NYPD special victims division, adding 30 investigators to make 240 total
  • Creating a DNA Cold Case Squad, Bronx Child Abuse Squad, Analytic Squad, and increasing the Sex Offender Management Unit by seven investigators to total 20 officers
  • Increasing specialized training for the special victims division from 5 to 10 days per year
  • Increasing efforts to encourage reporting of sexual assaults, distributing 32,000 cards and 16,000 flyers in 2015 which explained sexual violence and encouraged people to call the special victims division

Yet all of these legislative proposals or policy changes by the NYPD are designed to either stop a sexual assault from taking place once the threat of assault has already been made clear, or to help victims after they have been violated. In order to truly reduce the number of sexual assaults that take place, both advocates and the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention say ‘primary prevention’ or prevention education is the most effective method.

Primary prevention aims to stop sexual assault by focusing on potential perpetrators, rather than the victims, and can involve educating high school, middle school, or college-aged students. Prevention education raises awareness of sexual abuse and harassment, promotes positive social attitudes and a negative view of sexual violence and harassment, and promotes bystander intervention.

“We are not going to end sexual violence if we are not being preventative in our nature and engaging those who are committing the violence,” said Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of CONNECT. The organization works to end violence against women and girls by addressing “the root cause of violence” through “engaging men and boys to change the attitudes and belief systems” under which “men think that they’re entitled and privileged to treat women in a particular type of way.”

Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW-NYC, told Gotham Gazette that engaging “men and boys in the discussion of what is manhood, what are healthy relationships, and what does consent look like” through comprehensive sexual education in schools at a young age is “critically important” to reducing the number of sexual assaults that take place.

Some may take issue with teaching sexual education and primary prevention to middle or high school students, but, as Council Member Gibson pointed out in an interview, “the bottom line is our children are going to learn about sex one way or another” and, she said, it is certainly preferable that children learn about sex through trained educators.

The five individuals who are accused of gang raping an 18-year-old in Brownsville are between the ages of 14 and 17. One of the rape suspects, 15 years old, is about to be a father.

Yet educational efforts like the prevention programs “shown to prevent sexual violence perpetration,” according to the CDC Injury Center, are “not really standardized” in New York City schools, but rather are “up to the principle,” Min Um-Mandhyan, director of development and communications for the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, told Gotham Gazette.

The city does have some preventative efforts in place, but those mainly involve bystander intervention training for adults. Ossorio says the city’s district attorneys “work with nightclubs to partner with them and have an open line of communication to reduce assaults that may happen.”

A spokesperson from the Manhattan DA’s office told Gotham Gazette that its Sex Crimes Unit regularly conducts trainings to help individuals better identify and encourage reporting of sexual assault through sessions in conjunction with the New York Nightlife Association, tailored toward workers like bouncers, managers, and bartenders, and through training with representatives from local colleges and universities. DA Vance also awarded $38 million to cities across the country last year to test a backlog of rape kits.

“Providing [prevention] education in the schools for age-appropriate levels is something…the city could hopefully provide some more funding for. We know that it is important in terms of prevention.” Jennifer Wyse, a social worker at Safe Horizon’s Community Program in Brooklyn, told Gotham Gazette.

When asked whether the City Council would like to see more primary prevention in schools, Gibson responded, “Absolutely,” and added that several Council members have put forth legislation on sexual education in schools.

“We obviously need to have this conversation during the budget…we’re very supportive of any effort [to reduce sexual violence] because look at what’s happening in this case in Brownsville,” Gibson said, referring to the fact that the alleged perpetrators were teenagers. “Any way we can prevent these cases, we support.”

“New York State has really put more funding behind” primary prevention programs, Um-Mandhyan said. The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault is one of six Regional Centers for Sexual Violence Prevention in New York State that implement primary prevention and community-based strategies to decrease sexual violence. In April, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the allocation of $4 million in federal funding to the six regional centers.

“Unfortunately, New York City doesn’t really have a separate funding stream for rape crisis programs for sexual assault,” Um-Mandhyan said. “City Council is going to launch into budget season, so we’ll really be pushing for a funding stream.” Pointing to the disparity in access to rape crisis programs and resources for victims in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Um-Mandhyan said the Alliance would also like to see the city allocate more resources to underserved neighborhoods.

At Monday’s press conference, Gibson called the increased number of sexual assaults a call to action. “We are in the midst of a new budget season, so we have a very unique opportunity. We must ensure that we not only talk about it but we ‘be about it.’ We must put money where our commitment is…We must be sure that we provide the resources and programs necessary.”

When asked whether primary prevention education is something the City Council would consider implementing in New York City’s schools, Cumbo told Gotham Gazette that she hopes to pass a bill, Intro 952, at the next City Council stated meeting, which would require the Department of Education to report information regarding school compliance with state regulations governing comprehensive health education and sexual education for students in grades six through twelve.

There was another bill introduced in the City Council, however, not mentioned at Monday’s press conference, which would require the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to develop a sexual assault prevention and response curriculum that would include training in affirmative consent for students, faculty, campus safety officers, and college administrators in New York City’s college campuses, as well as provide better information to students about available services for sexual assault victims.

The bill, Intro 517, was laid over by the Committee on Higher Education in February, 2015.

What advocates who work with sexual assault victims want to happen, Um-Mandhyan said, is “to see the city adopt sexual violence prevention education in public school curricula. It’s important to work with youth as prevention tends to work more effectively with younger people…We believe when you get to college level, it’s already too late.”

Gov. Cuomo made has made campus sexual assault a significant focus, pushing New York colleges and universities to adopt new measures related to preventing and responding to rape.

Bratton’s ‘buddy system’ comments were quick to elicit condemnation by City Council members, who called on him to come out with a comprehensive strategy from the NYPD to reduce sexual assaults.

But with the CDC and organizations that work to help victims of sexual assault pointing to primary prevention as the single most effective method to reduce the number of assaults that occur, the responsibility for coming up with that “comprehensive strategy” to prevent and reduce sexual assault, including providing funding for primary prevention programs and legislation to implement them in schools, rests with city lawmakers, not the NYPD.

by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette, @MegOConnor13

To Combat Increase in Reported Rapes, Experts Point to Prevention Fri, 15 Jan 2016 05:13:31 +0000
The City Council Definition of Women's Issues Cumbo

Council Member Cumbo at a Women's History Month celebration (photo: Ben Max)

On Monday, March 30, the New York City Council will host a Women's History Month celebration at City Hall. Council members will likely celebrate women heroes of city government, past and present, and acknowledge the history-making leadership of both Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina to hold the position, and Public Advocate Letitia James, a former council member who is the first woman of color elected to city-wide office.

At a different Women's History Month celebration last Friday evening in Brooklyn, Mark-Viverito lamented the fact that there are currently only 15 women among the Council's 51 members. She also said that with six, including herself, term-limited out of office after 2017, there is a need to recruit a new wave of women to run for local office. There's a good chance this message will be echoed Monday night in Council Chambers.

Monday's event will come on the heels of a month of City Council preliminary budget hearings held in those very chambers. One such hearing, on Tuesday, March 17, featured the Council's Committee on Women's Issues, which is chaired by Council Member Laurie Cumbo. Without one clearly defined city agency to call in for budget oversight on its own - like, for example, the Education Committee has the city's Department of Education - the women's issues committee is matched with other committees for budget proceedings. Groupings are not uncommon, as there are 38 council issue committees. But, Women's Issues is one of only a handful of council committees dedicated to a specific demographic group and where it fits for its budget hearings defines its focus narrowly.

Because it has jurisdiction over child development, for budget hearings the Committee on Women's Issues joins the Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Juvenile Justice to analyze the budget of the city's Administration for Children's Services (ACS). For budget purposes, it means a definition of "women's issues" as those related to children, poverty, and families in crisis.

On the City Council website, the women's issues committee has the following description: "Issues relating to public policy concerns of women, domestic violence, Office to Combat Domestic Violence and Agency for Child Development."

As Mark-Viverito, Cumbo, and many others readily note, the "public policy concerns of women" are unlimited. Asked by Gotham Gazette for more clarity on the budget hearing grouping, council sources pressed that the Council has been extremely active in addressing a wide variety of issues important to women and that female council members are at the forefront in many ways - points that are true, of course, especially considering that both the speaker and the powerful finance committee chair (Julissa Ferreras) are women.

When asked to further explain the budget hearing grouping, Council Member Cumbo said in a statement, "Through our collaboration with the Committees on General Welfare and Juvenile Justice, we have worked to assess the operations of the City agencies most frequently used by women and families."

This set-up is not new: since 2009 the Committee on Women's Issues has been partnered with the Committee on General Welfare for preliminary and executive budget hearings. The Committee on Juvenile Justice has been part of this group for three years. These trends span multiple council speakers and mayors, of course, as well as chairs of each of the three committees. The Women's Issues Committee is one of the smallest in the Council, with just five members.

Getting at her committee's much broader focus than what its budget hearings indicate, Cumbo also said that Women's Issues "is uniquely positioned to address the challenges faced by the millions of women who make up more than half of our city's population. We have a broad responsibility to ensure that women from all walks of life have access to critical programs and services to meet their personal, familial, and professional obligations." She points to wage equity, education, entrepreneurship, and affordable housing among key issues she is focused on as chair.

Since the start of 2014, when Cumbo became chair, Women's Issues has held joint hearings with the a variety of other committees including education, finance, civil rights, public safety, and health, among others. These groupings, unlike that for the budget, suggest the reality, that all issues are "women's issues."

To that end, women members of the City Council meet as a Women's Caucus - as do the Council's Jewish members, LGBT members, and Black, Latino and Asian members - and evaluates how to best influence public policy of all kinds. Of these four caucuses, the only one with a parallel council committee is women's. Perhaps the Women's Issues chair should be at most, if not all, council budget hearings.

On the subject, Democratic political consultant and City & State columnist Alexis Grenell said, "We have a tremendous amount of female leadership right now in New York City, a feminist Mayor, and receptive male colleagues in government. It's a very interesting time to expand the conversation about so called "women's issues" beyond traditional categories and think about what a gender mainstreaming agenda might look like."

Council Member Stephen Levin is the chair of the General Welfare Committee. On the subject of why his committee is partnered with Women's Issues for budget hearings, he emphasized that it should not be read into too heavily.

"There's a significant amount of overlap in the issues that we work on with the women's committee," said Levin. "So when you're talking about child care, child welfare issues, there's certainly an area when we've done joint hearings." He concluded, "I wouldn't read too much into it other than there are a lot of times that we do work closely together."

At the preliminary budget hearing, Cumbo gave opening remarks, acknowledging that it is Women's History Month - calling it "herstory" month - and recognizing the great strides that women have made and will continue to make. She singled out Speaker Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate James for their remarkable achievements. She also spoke about the work that the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) must do to "positively impact the women and girls of New York, including women and girls of color that face even greater economic disparities."

With Mark-Viverito and James, Cumbo will co-host the event at City Hall Monday evening, as she did a Women's History Month event in Brooklyn on March 20 with colleague Jumaane Williams.

Pointing to the overarching mission of her committee, Cumbo said at the budget hearing that it is essential the City supports children and families, "while also empowering the women across our city."

She told Gotham Gazette that she is continuing to explore "future opportunities to work with multiple Committees year-round to identify effective ways to cultivate a more inclusive society where any woman can reach her full potential."

by Shannon Ho and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

The City Council Definition of Women's Issues Fri, 27 Mar 2015 17:28:23 +0000