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What’s Next For Women in Politics? A Post-Election Talk at the Tenement Museum

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At the Tenement Museum Nov. 9: Julie Scelfo, Zinga Fraser, Liz Abzug, Donna Zazzaro.
At the Tenement Museum Nov. 9: Julie Scelfo, Zinga Fraser, Liz Abzug, Donna Zazzaro.

If things had gone differently on election day, a talk at the Tenement Museum the following evening, last Wednesday, would have felt like a joyous celebration. Instead, a panel conversation led by Julie Scelfo (author of The Women Who Made New York) took on the air of a sober post mortem.

Scelfo was joined on stage by women representing three New York trailblazers: Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in the US Congress; Bella Abzug, the second Jewish woman elected to Congress; and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman from a major party to be nominated for vice president. Liz Abzug, Bella’s daughter and founder of the Bela Abzug Leadership Institute, and Donna Zaccaro, Ferraro’s daughter, took part along with Zinga Fraser, director of the Shirley Chisholm Project.

There’s not much doubt how most people on the Lower East Side are feeling about the election. Only about 10% of voters picked Donald Trump for president in our community. In a neighborhood that is synonymous with American immigration, Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals have obviously created a lot of fear and anger. The Tenement Museum event created a safe place to talk about a big setback for both progressive values and for women in politics.

There was, of course, talk about Hillary Clinton’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. Chisholm, Abzug and Ferraro all had an innate ability to connect with voters in a personal way. While Clinton has often been criticized for lacking those kinds of raw political skills, the panelists defended her performance. Zaccaro said Clinton was not running as a woman but as “the most qualified person ever to run for president.” Zaccaro also said she believes there’s a broader issue. “Younger women today don’t see it as a problem,” she explained, that a woman hasn’t been president — that it’s a big deal. “But they should — because I think once you have a woman in that role it will change what girls and boys think is possible for women.”

Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Geraldine Ferraro.

In response to a question from the audience, the panelists said a lack of campaign money often keeps more women from seeking public office (they praised groups that support female candidates such as Emily’s List and Eleanor’s Legacy.) But there was also general agreement that American society hasn’t fully embraced the idea of a woman in the White House. Referring to the strong support Trump received from white women, Fraser said, “That’s very scary… There are some of us who aren’t connected to the ideal of seeing women in (the highest elected offices).”

Scelfo added, “I think Trump actually did quite a bit of good for feminism because he put misogyny right out there for all to see. I think in this country for a long time a lot of those feelings were hidden.” But Scelfo said she’s skeptical that viewpoints will be changing anytime soon. “Will it help in the long run? I’m not so sure. I think there will be some dark days ahead.”

Abzug said it’s important that women learn how to “own our personalities.” She explained, “A leader is someone who is authentic, someone you can relate to, someone you can laugh with, cry with, someone who understands their own soul and their own insides. A lot of women still don’t have that self esteem issue handled and still question their own intelligence and authority and their own ability to be able to lead.”

A woman in the audience, an Asian American, said she had been struggling with a lot of conflicting emotions after the election. Friends had been urging her to empathize with Donald Trump’s supporters, who spoke so clearly at the polls about their feelings of disenfranchisement. She tearfully told the panelists, “Quite frankly I would be scared to live in the middle of the country because I wouldn’t be wanted there… I find it truly difficult to say, ‘I’m ok with you saying these things about me and and other immigrants when you say you don’t want us.’”

Fraser responded, telling the woman, “You’re finding the words right now to articulate it… There’s no way to pacify xenophobia or racism or sexism… I have students at Brooklyn College who are saying, ‘Will my family get deported next week?’”

Fraser concluded, “The only silver lining in this entire horrible moment is that we now understand the life and death situation that is before us. If that doesn’t mobilize us and if it doesn’t force us to gather together (to fight for equal rights in the next election)… than I don’t know what will.”

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