“I just wanted us to remember that this was a women’s college,” President Elizabeth Bradley acknowledged, a recognition that was met with the whoops and claps of those in attendance. Befitting the mission of a historically women’s college, Vassar served as the locus for Bradley, Lieutenant Governor of New York Kathy Hochul and other representatives of the Council on Women and Girls to unveil New York State’s 2019 Women’s Justice Agenda.
Bradley opened the forum by situating Vassar College’s position in the larger struggle for women’s rights. “When you think about beginning a place that was accessible to people who otherwise could not [receive] this kind of education—women—we carry that forward to how feminists approach all kinds of ways our college works,” she explained. After observing the ways in which women continue to be underrepresented in American society, such as the small percentage of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, Bradley introduced Hochul.
Throughout her address, Hochul expressed the importance of young adults in initiating change in the United States: “I think it’s important because this is where [all revolutions] start, and I’m enlisting all of you to do something that is critically important at this time where I believe the rights of women are under tremendous assault by what’s going on at Washington D.C.,” Hochul proclaimed. She added that one in five people have participated in at least one march since the 2016 election. “There’s an energy and a sense of responsibility among our citizens that we need to step up now,” Hochul observed.
For years, state Democrats have attempted to enact laws to strengthen protections on women’s health rights. However, with the recent Democratic majority in the NY State Senate, a series of historic legislation was passed within the first month of the 2019 legislative session, including the Reproductive Health Act, Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act and the Boss Bill. “We ran [the recent state elections] to unleash pent up issues that have been waiting a long time to emerge,” Hochul affirmed.
Governor’s Director of Women’s Affairs Kelli Owens gave an overview of the Women’s Justice Agenda, which is comprised of three main tenants: Reproductive Justice, Social Justice and Economic Justice.
Some of the main components of the agenda’s Reproductive Justice section are to enshrine Roe v. Wade in the New York State Constitution, reduce maternal mortality and morbidity and racial disparities, protect the educational rights of pregnant and parenting students and launch Healthy Relationships Education in Middle and High Schools.
Owens introduced the healthy relationships component with a room survey. “How many of you went to high school in New York? How many of you got comprehensive Sex Ed? None of you. [That’s] because New York doesn’t have it,” she finally noted. According to Owens, legislators have fought for comprehensive sexual education for a long time. “We’ve been trying years and years and years to get Sex Ed talked about in the state of New York, and it hasn’t happened.” She added that the current political climate surrounding relationships and the impact of social media has complicated the implementation process.
“How many of you got comprehensive Sex Ed? None of you.”
The agenda’s Social Justice component includes passing The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, outlawing revenge porn, extending human rights law protections to all public schools students statewide and increasing protections against harassment in the workplace. Further, the legislature wants to lower the bar set for employees accountable under the New York Human Rights Law for sexual harassment by amending the requirement that conduct be “severe or pervasive” to re-
The forum concluded with a question and answer session. Vassar students’ questions ranged from the then-federal proposal for Title IX changes to what the state of New York considers sexual assault. Afterward, the Council on Women and Girls thanked those in attendance for listening and asking thoughtful questions.
Implementing the changes the Women’s Justice Agenda calls for will act as a step toward New York State legislation promoting the protection of women’s rights; an advancement paramount to promoting equality between the sexes.