When Commissioner Fior D’Aliza Frias organized the first International Women’s Day gathering in West New York a year ago, she simply thought it was the right thing to do at the right time. It was the 100th anniversary of a trend that had started in pre-World War I Russia as a peace movement, but had evolved into something that symbolized women’s struggles for equality.
Even though the 2013 kickoff was deemed a success, there were some West New York officials who wanted improvements for the coming year. Mayor Felix Roque cited the dark interior of the venue at Hudson Hall.
“We knew we could do better,” said City Manager Joe DeMarco, citing the fact that only about 25 people showed up for what was largely a symposium on women’s rights.
This year’s event held at the Son of Cubano was entirely different. While still focused on the disparities women face on nearly every level of society, the event was more of a celebration of women and what they have managed to accomplish despite the obstacles society has placed before them. It was also an education for local female National Honor Society students, who got to rub shoulders with some of the most successful women in the community.
“When women get together they have a tendency to bash men,” said Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, who was among the women honored at this year’s event. “Even I do it. But it should be about empowering women.”
Education, she said, is one of way of empowerment.
Local women with widespread influence
This year’s International Women’s Day celebration honored women who had some local connection, but whose influence went beyond the borders of West New York.
“It is a day that we recognize the achievement of women across our great nation,” said Roque.
Moving it from the dark Hudson Hall to bright and cheery Son Cubano restaurant helped improve the atmosphere. But so did the change of focus, designed more as a networking event that allowed high school National Honor Society women to sit side by side with successful professionals in a luncheon format.
While several successful women from Hudson County and beyond talked about their role in society and the need for women to strive for success, female students sat with equally successful women with whom they shared stories.
This year the event focused on Assemblywoman Jimenez, Julia Somers, and Megan McDowell, three women who have successfully left their mark on society.
Also recognized was former Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, one of the first women to break through the glass ceiling of politics in Hudson County.
The event also paid tribute to Maria Malavasi-Quartello, a local real estate agent who was named West New York Woman of the Year for her role in running the program Coats 4 Kids. This program helps get clothing for needy kids, a program that her father started and she continues.
“One of the things about being a woman in the United States is that I think every single day about how blessed I am.” – Megan McDowell
DeMarco served as master of ceremonies for this year’s event. “The reason we are here is to celebrate women,” he said. But the event was also held to recognize some of the challenges women face both in America and elsewhere, such as pay discrimination and other significant obstacles they must overcome.
Women make up the vast majority of refugees when populations are displaced, he said. They are very often victims of genocide and violence.
Roque said that American women tend to earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in the United States and they earn significantly less when they are women of Latino heritage, who earn about 56 cents.
Education is power
Jimenez said all too often women complain about men, but in truth, it is important empower women.
“That’s what I’ve always tried to focus on, empowering women in my community,” said Jimenez.
She said education is one way of empowering women, and pointed out that the culture she was raised in often had women taking a back seat to men. “This is something we should not do.”
She said she met a woman in New Mexico who told Jimenez that she always stood behind her husband in everything he does.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Stand behind him? No, no, no, you should stand beside him, never behind him.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re right.’”
But she said in this society it is tough because women have so many responsibilities.
A Democrat, Jimenez recalled something Barbara Bush, wife of former President George Bush said, about the country being ready for a woman president.
“I hope we see a woman in the White House soon,” she said.
Roque said educating women is a form of empowerment: “Education gives women the necessary tools to succeed in a world that is filled with discrimination and malice. Knowledge, as we all know, is power.”
Roque said the most influential woman in his life was his mother, who was a nurse in Cuba before the family came to the United States. She was not allowed to practice here, but she worked to help her husband get his medical license, and helped her kids get their education.
“I remember my mother going with my father through winter storms to visit patients,” he said. “She was a nurse in Cuba, but here she worked in a factory to help raise us to become doctors and teachers.”
He also remembered serving in the army with women who were breaking ground at that time and had to struggle to be accepted.
A movement born out of a tragedy
Megan McDowell founded the all-women support group Heartworks in western New Jersey in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Her sister’s husband went to work that day and never came back. But she remembered how the community for a time came together to help her sister, with people trying to help in any way possible.
“There was a period of time after 9/11 when everyone seemed to know each other,” she said. “It didn’t matter what shoes you were wearing. It didn’t matter what parties you were invited to. Nothing mattered except being grateful and being with your family and helping out the families that had lost someone. “
Born out of tragedy, her organization sought to maintain the support network and the sense of community that rose up during the days that followed. What started out as a small group has evolved into an effective organization that helps people who need it.
Her organization distributed $700,000 in 2013 to people who had suffered some tragedy, from cancer to a death in the family. They went from eight women in her living room to an organization with four staff members and 400 volunteers.
“One of the things about being a woman in the United States is that I think every single day about how blessed I am,” she said, “and just because of my gender how different my life would be living in another country. So I say to women, ‘Let’s stop wasting our time; let’s stop taking things for granted.’”
A vast watershed
Julia Somers is the executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, which helps protect the state’s drinking water. Twenty five percent of West New York drinking water comes from the Highlands region of the state, and more than 64 percent of the towns in the state get some of their water from that region.
She said she started as a volunteer trying to protect The Great Swamp.
A woman, who eventually became her mentor, was driving around recruiting volunteers to help protect the area.
“She was truly a woman who broke glass ceilings and a mentor,” Somers said.
This eventually led to Somers being invited into the fight to protect the Highlands watershed.
She encouraged the students in the room to get involved in local politics.
“It will take you places where you never expected to go,” she said. “Keep yourself open to new experiences. Make sure you volunteer. Make sure you get involved in your community. You will meet people you never would have thought you would meet, from completely different walks of life, from completely different parts of the world. And being part of the community is one of the most rewarding things you can ever do.”
Quigley, who is seen as groundbreaker for women in politics in Hudson County, once helped guide a delegation of Ukrainian women who were studying women’s issues in America and came to understand from them that everything is a woman’s issue, from feeding a family to where people live.
Many of the students who sat side by side with successful women in the community called the event as education.
“It was very exciting,” said Gwenn Roman. “It felt good meeting powerful women.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.