Columnist

Let’s make Women’s History Month history

By Alexis Grenell |  

March 29, 2016 |  

(Demetrius Freeman / Mayoral Photography Office)

I went to a small Jewish high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where my classmates came mostly from other majority white, Jewish enclaves.

Raised in the multi-ethnic Bronx, I commuted daily on the D express train, transferring at 125th street for the local. So when my principal asked why I wasn’t participating in a cultural exchange program called, “Blacks and Jews,” I quipped back that every day was Blacks and Jews for Alexis. The program brought students together a few times a year for various activities, including guided tours through Harlem. It seemed strange to me that anyone would need a field trip to a neighborhood just a few blocks north.

I did attend an event once, because I heard Ja Rule would be there (he was not), and found the whole thing a contrived substitute for actual integration.

To this day I’m uneasy with shallow symbolism, specifically when it comes to Women’s History Month.

First designated by Congress in 1987, Women’s History Month, a.k.a. March, is 31 days in which we’re supposed to do something to recognize half the population.

In the male-dominated field of politics, it’s often just an opportunity to check the box on women’s rights and score some cheap points. The New York state Legislature, which is less than a quarter female, marks the occasion with a “Women of Distinction” award. There is no corresponding “Men of Distinction” award, because as everyone reading this will agree, that just sounds stupid. Kind of like the Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Actress, I’m not sure there’s a significant biological difference in ability to justify separate categories of “distinction.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger feels much the same way. On the Senate’s Women of Distinction Day she usually fires up a rant about how women need equal rights and respect 365 days a year.

“It’s not that constructive, but it’s a little cathartic,” she admits.

Speaking of not constructive, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a proclamation earlier this month and announced a random exhibit called Women Attorney Trailblazers. But his least helpful contribution to women’s rights may actually be the Women’s Equality Party, a sham ballot line he created to pander to female voters, which has failed to achieve anything beyond bolstering his own re-election. Although he’s also campaigning for paid family leave after previously dismissing it, I imagine that his 20-point gender gap in a recent NY1/Baruch College poll might be the real motivation.

So what’s the right note for a man in politics to strike on a strange, and arguably sexist, month?

Wry, sincere, and a little bemused, as per Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Last week, the mayor co-hosted a networking event with first lady Chirlane McCray at Gracie Mansion for women in politics. The invitation required guests to bring a mentee, and it made for a forward-looking, fun evening. Although the event was pegged to Women’s History Month, barely anyone mentioned it at all.

As various women stormed the podium and did most of the talking, de Blasio seemed to genuinely enjoy himself. When he did speak, it was to name-check the women in his administration and their accomplishments. At no point did he take credit for hiring them as a heroic achievement. Instead, he made repeated off-hand comments that gender balance is just an obvious reflection of population statistics, rather than something worthy of award: “We had a novel thought, what if you looked at the demographics, figured out who was the majority, and gave them most of the jobs?” he deadpanned.

The mayor’s rhetorical eye-roll was a refreshing change from the way male politicians usually blather on about their mothers for lack of anything real to say. He seemed to really get how ridiculous it feels to single out women as a discrete sub-genus of the species. And the event had a purpose beyond symbolism that was useful to the people there.

While there are various arguments for it, Women’s History Month – like “Blacks and Jews” – in politics remains a poor substitute for a more complex discussion.

Fortunately, we're not condemned to an eternity of Women of Distinction Awards.

Every year the president has to issue a proclamation declaring March Women’s History Month, which means that next year he, or she, can put an end to it.

It’s a proposition worth considering.

Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. Follow her @agrenell.

 

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