U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D) stood before a modest crowd on Monday morning at the Union City Day Care around the corner from where he grew up on Hudson Avenue. He was flanked by some of the most powerful women both in Hudson County and the state, including State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and State Sen. Barbara Buono, and their speeches were made over the sounds of children playing (and crying) in the background.
Menendez is currently running for reelection against State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (D-13), and was incited to hold the press conference when he heard Kyrillos make an appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show to speak about women’s equality issues.
The choice of venue was appropriate because, as Menendez said, his children went there. But more so, he added, because of the issues he came to address.
“How many times do we have to hear that women earn $0.77 for each dollar that a man earns?” – Sheila Oliver
Among other politicians in the audience were West New York Commissioner of Public Safety and former assistant to State Rep. Albio Sires (D-13) Caridad Rodriquez, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D), State Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D-32), Weehawken Councilwoman Rosemary Lavagnino, Union City Commissioner Maryury Martinetti, Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D-33), and Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-36).
Equal Rights Amendment
“We’ve made a lot of progress toward achieving equality for all Americans,” Buono said, “But unfortunately, today, there are some people, including State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who if they had their way would turn back the clock so that we would look like an episode of ‘Madmen.’”
She went on to call the battle in Washington over women’s health care issues – for instance, the recent congressional drama over Planned Parenthood that made headlines for months – an “attack” on women’s health and deemed the Republican rhetoric of “returning” or “restoring” American family values hypocritical.
“There is a serious war being waged against women and it is a battle that we cannot afford to lose,” she said. “The ERA would ensure that once and for all a law would clearly and explicitly state that discrimination against women has no place in the framework of our nation.”
Buono spoke of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which is an amendment to the Constitution that was proposed in 1923 and would guarantee equal rights between men and women. While it has been ratified by 35 states, it has three more states to go before becoming the 28th Amendment.
Menendez became the lead sponsor of the ratification bill in June 2011. Because many don’t believe in the need for such a bill or the existence of unequal gender rights, it has met with considerable resistance.
“How many times do we have to hear that women earn $0.77 for each dollar that a man earns?” Oliver asked the crowd. “Those of us who are working class people, we are not part of the one percent. We are the 99 percent, and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez will speak and represent the 99 percent.”
Beyond the Senate election
The challenges to women Menendez referred to beyond unequal wages were, amongst many, the difficulty of raising a family while trying to balance work and caring for other family members. This, he said, makes women the core of families everywhere, which is why ensuring their equal rights is crucial.
Equality in health care is also an issue, he said, including the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies (regarding contraception and abortion – Menendez referred to himself as “demonstrably pro-choice”). He went on to mention the affordable health care act he supported which outlawed insurance companies’ practice of considering pregnancy a preexisting condition and subsequently deny coverage.
“I think being a woman or being pregnant is a pretty good preexisting condition,” Menendez joked, “But in any event, insurance companies in our nation did this. Or that a woman would have to pay twice as much as her male counterpart for the same geography and the same age group to get insurance. The law eliminated that.”
Menendez also emphasized the gravity of the election beyond the Senate, reminding those in attendance that they ultimately choose Supreme Court Justices, who make the laws that govern the issues he mentioned.
“Who goes to the senate, determines the vote on who sits on the Supreme Court of the U.S., the entity that is the final voice of what is the law of the land?” Menendez asked. “This election is much, much bigger than the reelection of one person to the United States Senate. It is about whether women will continue to move forward with the progress we have made in our country, or slip backwards because of Republicans’ extremist agenda.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org