Unleashing The Potential Of Women

Featured Columnist: Steven M. Appel

Candidate for 69th Assembly District of NY

This Friday, August 26th is Women’s Equality Day. On this day in 1920, the 19th Amendment was enshrined in law and women were granted the right to vote.

For millennials, it’s inconceivable to imagine a time when women had no say in decisions that intimately impacted their daily lives and the political life of our nation. Yet such was the plight of women in America less than 100 years ago—and for millennia prior in many parts of the globe.

In 1900 America not only could a woman not vote, serve on a jury or run for political office, she also couldn’t sue in court, own property, or select the career of her choice. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that women were not “persons” under the 14thAmendment and thus did not deserve equal protection under the law. Women were wholly beholden to the men in their lives. These ideas stemmed from a long history of inherited assumptions about gender roles that limited the ability of women to reach their deepest potential—their “pursuit of happiness.”

It took the valiant efforts of a diverse coalition of brave women—the Suffrage Movement—to fight for justice and equality. We owe these women an extraordinary debt of gratitude. Their work paved the way for a century of victories for women in America—and the possibility for the election of the first female president in U.S. history.

By all measures, women have come a long way since 1920. Today, many women in America enjoy the freedom to pursue their deepest potential, unimpeded by the obstacles of past centuries. It is no longer unrealistic for a little girl to boldly dream of one day reaching the Supreme Court, piloting a spacecraft, curing cancer, or even becoming President of the U.S. Yet the work to forge a more equal society is far from over.

When I was 10 years old, I lost my mom to breast cancer, a terrible disease that has affected so many women around the world. My mom was a special woman—whip smart, kind, empathic, with a wonderful sense of humor. As an attorney she balanced the demands of raising four children with a successful career. Through personal example, she taught me that smart, successful women are not to be feared but admired.

A few days before she died, my mom talked to me about the importance of unity and inclusion. The conversation I had with her in early May 1996 has replayed itself in my head over and over again for 20 years.

I consider myself a feminist largely because of my mom. So much of who I am today I owe to her goodness. My mom taught me about the importance of equality, empathy, and inclusion. As co-founder of the Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding (CERRU) at Queens College-CUNY, I also witnessed firsthand the transformative power of putting oneself into the shoes of another. My feminism stems from the values I learned from my mom. And my five years at CERRU taught me that the future of America lies in our capacity for understanding each other.

I yearn for a world where men seek to understand how women experience their environment, and together work to positively reshape the fabric of our society. I yearn for a world where men assume an active role in encouraging female leadership at the highest levels of business, government, and civic society. I yearn for a world where we move beyond tired assumptions about how men and women are supposed to act. And I yearn for a world where men reflect often and ask themselves: “If I was a woman would I want to be treated that way?”

Sadly, however, many men in America today believe that sexism is over and the difficult work has ended. These men probably haven’t spoken to women lately about the nuances of lived sexism—unequal pay; the dehumanizing of women in power by maligning their voice or looks; the appalling lack of female CEOs; work environments that treat child rearing as the sole domain of women & punish women for having kids; men who expect their female partners to do more household chores; the continuing assault on women’s reproductive rights, etc.

This lack of intercultural conversation in our society is one of the reasons my platform for NY State Assembly includes large-scale community dialogues in addition to continuing the fight for equal pay, women’s reproductive rights, and other women’s issues. To more effectively tackle the problems we face, I believe we need more dialogue and understanding in America.

Listening to the landscape of lived experiences around us—and deeply understanding those perspectives—is critical to building a world where women and all people are treated equally.

The moral trajectory of history can be seen as the gradual removal of obstacles preventing people from fulfilling their deepest potential. The struggle for civil and human rights in America is the struggle to unleash the talent and creativity of all people in our great nation.

As we celebrate women’s equality today let’s not forgot to listen to the women around us. Their voices must guide us as we seek a more understanding, innovative, and vibrant America.

Steven M. Appel is a candidate for NY State Assembly in the 69th District. In 2009, he co-founded the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding at Queens College-CUNY where he served as assistant director for five years.

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