Melissa DeRosa: Now is the moment for a societal course correction
Melissa DeRosa, Secretary to the Governor, today delivered the keynote address at Berkeley College’s Women in Media: The Courage to Own Your Story panel discussion in Manhattan.
“The victims of Harvey Weinstein, and all of the Harvey Weinstein’s before him will be for naught if we don’t use this moment as a societal course correction. We must acknowledge and address that this behavior is not limited to one man, or one profession, or one political party. That’s why it’s so important that women speak up and speak out.”
My name is Melissa DeRosa, and I am the Secretary to Governor Andrew Cuomo. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the job, as misleading as the title is, no, I am not a typist. Secretary to the Governor is the senior most role in New York State government.
As the first woman to serve in this role, I have been honored to speak at events like this one, in which we rightly celebrate women in the workplace, in the media, and in any given field in which we chose to thrive, and I am humbled to share my story.
While I still think of myself as young, I have seen and experienced a tremendous amount.
I began my career in high school, interning for the Political Director of the AFL-CIO. At 19, I interned for then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s Political Action Committee. I graduated from Cornell University — twice. By 26 I was the New York State Director of President Obama’s political organization. At 28 I was the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Attorney General; and at, at 34, I was one of the youngest to ever be appointed to the role of Secretary to the Governor.
While working for the Attorney General, I led negotiations on the nation’s strongest prescription drug control law, and at the Governor’s direction, I spearheaded our administration’s campaigns to pass the $15 minimum wage, the nation’s strongest paid family leave policy, and the first-ever four-year free public tuition program.
I have gone toe to toe with elected officials, union leaders, reporters, CEO’s, and advocates.
I haven’t done everything perfectly — not even close but I am proud of the work that has gotten me here.
But despite my accomplishments, I have been surprised that as I have moved up the rungs of the professional ladder, I have often been defined by the men in my life instead of on my own merits.
In 2013, when I was promoted to serve as Acting Chief of Staff to the Attorney General, the New York Times summarized my resume in two sentences, the second being: Her father, Giorgio DeRosa, is the chief Albany lobbyist at Bolton-St. Johns.
Four years later, after serving in several key positions, it happened again. When my appointment as Secretary to the Governor was announced back in April, I was “the daughter of” or the “wife of” (never mind the fact that when I did work with my husband, I was his boss).
This time, in 2017, the New York Times diminished my career when they defined me in their print headline: “Cuomo’s Chief of Staff, daughter of a powerful lobbyist, is promoted to Secretary.” My entire professional life defined by my father’s chosen profession. To them, perhaps, these words were a distinction without a difference. But for many women, we all too often find ourselves being labeled on the basis of our gender, not our accomplishments.
We are living in a very specific moment for women in the work place and for women’s rights more broadly, making the theme of this year’s conference, “the courage to own your story,” more pertinent than ever.
It is not enough to talk about the hard work that got us to where we are. It is vital that visible women in positions of power and leadership speak up about the challenges we faced and continue to face every day- it’s the only way that those who come after us won’t have to fight the same things we do.
So let’s start with the truth. Sexism and misogyny is alive and well.
And let’s be clear: despite recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, it isn’t new. Sexism and misogyny exist in obvious and latent forms.
And it isn’t something women read or talk about in the abstract. We live it and we know it when it happens, and all too often we don’t say anything.
I say ‘we’ because for too long, I fit into that category. But something has changed.
Maybe it is because I am more secure now personally and professionally, or maybe it is the fact that this country was on the precipice of breaking the final glass ceiling before we fell so far so fast back into the stone age.
But whatever it is, women owe it to ourselves, and to the collective to tell our stories, and not to minimize their effect.
No matter how large or small, taken together, they are what has stalled progress for professional women for far too long.
I’ll give you a few examples
Earlier this year I was going back and forth with a male state senator in a debate on Twitter. When things got heated he shot back with, “your father taught you better.” I tortured myself for hours on whether or not to answer — I knew it could be a news story and a distraction, but I could not let it go.
His comments ate at me all day.
And so, I responded, calling out what was in my view ‘condescending sexism’, and challenging whether or not a middle aged man in my position would have received the same lesson in manners.
My response made waves. But let’s take a moment on that — no one blinked when a male state senator lectured the governor’s female chief of staff saying that ‘my father taught me better’, but my shot back wasn’t to be tolerated. The spokeswoman for the New York State Republican party went on the record to the New York Post saying “You don’t talk to a duly-elected Senator like that”. How dare I? Well guess what, in my view, elected officials don’t get held do a lower standard just because they are in power — they get held to a higher one, and that includes the President of the United States. And the idea that they are beyond reproach is exactly the problem.
This was not the first time I encountered the feeling of misogyny in my career, of course. To this day, people reference my looks and not my title or authority when meeting me. And just this past weekend, when asked to return a phone call on behalf of the Governor to a democratic member of the assembly, the legislator told me he really needed to talk to the Governor you know “man to man.” For the record, I hung up on him; I may not be a member of the assembly, but I won’t be talked to that way.
And while these incidents were off putting, the one that sticks out in my mind the most is something that happened early on in my career — perhaps the first time I encountered overt sexism, but far from the last.
I was listening in on a conference call but the other participants did not know I was on the line. When my boss said “Melissa DeRosa in my office will be taking the lead on the press for the project”, a man on the other end of the phone said, “She can take the lead right up to my hotel room.” The man who said that is now a national leader in progressive politics, and at the time I was 25 years old.
This kind of behavior has been normalized for decades, with the anomaly being those who call it out.
These instances have stuck with me, but I’m not kidding myself and neither should you — many women have and still do experience far worse every day, and it’s not just actresses you’re reading about in the news this week. Before it was Hollywood, it was Albany, and before it was Albany it was Madison Avenue and Washington DC before that. It’s doctors, lawyers, athletes, investment bankers, political staffers and reporters.
And too often they don’t speak out because they are afraid of what happens if they do — just ask Anita Hill.
To be honest, I’m not sure which I find more offensive — the fact that this kind of behavior has been allowed to continue to go on as long as it has, or the idea that everyone is acting as if they are just now finding out about it.
But the victims of Harvey Weinstein, and all of the Harvey Weinsteins before him will be for naught if we don’t use this moment as a societal course correction. We must acknowledge and address that this behavior is not limited to one man, or one profession, or one political party.
That’s why it’s so important that women speak up and speak out. The power of influence and media that is being projected through the #MeToo campaign on Twitter is exposing how widespread this phenomenon is, and makes clear that it won’t be swept under the rug anymore.
Because it will only be when women’s voices are truly equal to those of men that it will end. And if you look at what is happening in Washington, we have a lot to speak out against.
Under the Trump administration, we have seen ultraconservatives in Washington attack our reproductive rights, attempt to defund Planned Parenthood and claim that maternity care is not an essential health benefit. We have seen the Department of Education roll back Title IX protections for women on college campuses who have been sexually assaulted.
I am grateful to work in an administration that so highly values its female’s employees. And as a female in the most senior role in the administration, I am not alone. New York State’s Lieutenant Governor is a female, so is the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. Our Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, and Senior Executive Deputy Secretary are all female, and on and on.
Governor Cuomo has taken action to secure the reproductive rights of women in this state no matter what happens at the federal level, and worked to eliminate the pay gap in New York — which, at 89 cents on the dollar, is the smallest in the country, but is still too high.
We have issued regulations making sure that all women, no matter their sexual orientation or marital status, can qualify for insurance coverage of infertility treatments, and fought to make New York’s laws against sexual assault on college campuses the strongest in the nation.
In short, this Governor and this administration have made protecting and furthering women’s rights a keystone of his administration — with actions, not just words.
Yet we know there is still more to be done.
And we all have to do our part.
Earlier this year, we launched the New York State Council on Women and Girls with the mandate that every state agency take into account the experiences of women and girls when forming policy, and strives to further advance equality in our state.
Because that’s what it takes.
For my part, as Chairwoman of the Council, I’m using my position to prioritize the rights of women and girls.
Why New York? Because New York is the perfect place — where women are CEO’s, play wrights, actresses, advocates. We run banks and Fortune 500 companies. We decide what news is published and which topics are topical… and when we feel we are being told to sit down and shut up we stand taller and speak louder.
So thank you to all of you for being here.
In this moment women can make a real impact through the use of media — sharing our stories, working together to find solutions, and raising awareness simply by saying #MeToo. I’m not going to shut up anytime soon, and you shouldn’t either.
Together, I know we can make sure progress moves in the right direction — forward.