Women Shake Things Up in a Major Statehouse

For decades, women in New York facing heartbreaking medical issues in the later months of pregnancy had to fly to other states for terminations, thanks to outdated abortion laws. This January, after years of lobbying, activism and voting, that finally changed.

In the November 2018 elections, New York’s legislature saw a very similar outcome to the national results: progressive women storming the gates of the state capital in Albany. Since that change of power, New York State is already a model for passing certain kinds of legislation with particular importance to women. The women legislators—veteran and newbie alike—wasted no time focusing on issues like abortion and maternal mortality.

In particular, shortly after the first 2019 legislative session opened, a landmark Reproductive Health Act was passed, codifying Roe in the state law, after years of being stalled by a Republican state senate. Ditto for a long-awaited Child Victims’ Act, which had long been kept from moving forward thanks to a toxic combination of Catholic church and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers whose communities did not want allegations of long-ago child sexual abuse in their schools and houses of worship to surface.

Anna Kaplan. Photo by Joan Roth

Anna Kaplan. Photo by Joan Roth

Several Jewish women were newly elected to this state legislature in the 2018 midterm, joining prominent Jewish female state legislators with years of experience. Their presence, plus the Democratic-majority senate, had major influence in passing these bills and others that followed.

If Roe fails to survive the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, New York’s strong support for abortion rights and reproductive justice will make the state a beacon in a dark, misogynistic universe—which helps explain the backlash that the Reproductive Health Act has received from conservatives who have lied and cried “infanticide.” The reality is different. Now, later abortions—recommended only in dire medical circumstances for mother or fetus—will be available in New York State, allowing women to receive that heartbreaking, personal care at home instead of enduring out-of-state travel.

“Today we turn the page,” said Senator Liz Krueger when the bill passed. Krueger has represented New York City’s Upper East Side since 2002, and has been lining up the ducks for this moment for 10 years in Albany.

Krueger is a powerhouse, chairing the Senate finance committee, among other roles, and a new position of influence in the fight to legalize cannabis in the state; her involvement in that issue, she told Lilith, was spurred by her longstanding concern about unjust incarcerations. 

Julia Salazar. Photo by Joan Roth.

Julia Salazar. Photo by Joan Roth.

“Every issue is a women’s issue,” she said. “So it’s better to have more women at the table. Income issues have a disproportionate effect on women at both ends of the age spectrum—from young single mothers to older widows living on one income.”

Krueger’s tireless work was applauded by a large crowd at a Town Hall rally in Manhattan in February. One of the enthusiastic participants and sign-holders announced that “Liz Krueger is a rock star!”

As is the tradition, Krueger told Lilith in an interview in her Manhattan district office, a new senator is given a promising bill to sponsor, so that she or he will have an early success. In keeping with this tradition, Krueger says she invited newly elected senator Julia Salazar to sponsor a sister bill to the Reproductive Health Act—the Contraceptive Coverage Act, which makes it mandatory for insurance to cover birth control.

Salazar herself was making waves before she won November’s primary as a young, self-identified socialist candidate who upset longtime incumbent Martin Dilan. She won a convincing victory in gentrifying North Brooklyn, despite an onslaught of negative publicity that included serious questions raised about how accurately she has represented herself and her family and religious background (she identifies as Jewish and Colombian). The fracas was so confusing it required an “explainer” on the website Vox. But Salazar’s resounding victory—and focus on issues from abortion to local, thorny tenant-landlord conflicts, to decriminalizing sex work—has meant that the debate swirling around her these days is back in the policy realm. And she’s staying true to her roots, rhetorically speaking: “Don’t forget that International Women’s Day was started by anti-capitalist socialist feminist organizers,” she reminded supporters on Instagram in March.

Linda Rosenthal. Photo by Joan Roth.

Linda Rosenthal. Photo by Joan Roth.

Also standing with Krueger and defending the R.H.A. is Senator Anna Kaplan (n.e Anna Monahemi) a Persian-Jewish-American politician from Great Neck, New York. “It was vital that abortion be taken out of penal code and put into health code because that’s what it is—healthcare,” she told Lilith. Now the New York State Senator for the 7th district, on Long Island, Kaplan was born in Tabriz, Iran. When the Islamic Revolution swept that country, her parents sent her to the United States for safety. Fostered first by a family in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, she eventually settled in Great Neck, a Long Island community with a large Persian Jewish population.

But though her electoral victory was solid, Kaplan told Lilith, her home community didn’t rally around her. The reason, some women in the community told Lilith, was that “she is both a Democrat and a woman.”

“That hurt a lot,” said Kaplan. “That my own community gave so little support.” Nonetheless, she swept to victory in November, and is focusing on education—which is core to her values as a Jew and an immigrant. “To me, in this country, public schools level the playing field,” she told Lilith. “I am a product of a public school, and so are my children.”

Along with Krueger, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, who represents NYC’s Upper West Side, is a strong progressive figure in New York politics. A fixture at city protests and events for years, she is poised to take action on issues big and small—recently working on everything from rent control to animal welfare to raising the statewide smoking and vaping age to 21. She’s been passionate about fair elections as well as menstrual equality—even hosting a tampon-a-thon at her office to collect sanitary supplies for local shelters.

For many years now, conservative men have dominated state legislatures around the country—which explains in part why so many bills that chisel away at Roe, state by state, restriction by restriction, have been passed since 2011. The importance of having strong women at the state level can’t be overstated—from issues like gun violence and abortion to fairer taxation, transit, childcare and housing and, of course, tampons. The women of the New York State legislature are targeting the maternal mortality crisis next.

Women’s lives can be directly and immediately improved when other women are in the halls of power. “It’s nice to come to the office in majority because you can actually get things done,” Kaplan told Lilith.

 Joan Roth is Lilith’s staff photographer. Shira Gorelick is a freelance writer and photographer.