Interview by Michael Mundy
Throughout her career, as an attorney, as a U.S. congressional representative, and now as New York’s 77th lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul has championed women’s rights. Her motivations have always been personal: Growing up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, she saw her own mother defer her college education and aspirations. She now wants to ensure that all women have access to equal rights and opportunities. Here, she talks to Michael Mundy about the fight for reproductive rights, fair pay, and the next wave of women activists who are changing the political future.
Michael Mundy: Lieutenant Governor, we’re so pleased to have you. This is our Women’s issue, and I was really happy to see that women’s issues for you have been a top priority since the beginning of your career. It seems like you’ve been pushing it for years. I want to know what your motivation was and where that started for you?
Kathy Hochul: It starts in the home, like many issues that come to light. I was raised in a household with a strong mother who had to endure a lot of suffering. She saw domestic violence in her own home. She lost her mother. She was a single mom at the age of 16 who had to raise children when she was in high school. I’ve always looked to her as a strong role model, but I also realized that my mother never finished college until the kids were older. So she never had aspirations for herself. I was really the next generation where women had come into their own. My mother was an activist in many causes, despite the fact that she was raised in a big Irish Catholic family — and my father supported her. Every social cause of our day was embraced as a family. My parents weren’t politically active, but they were very socially conscious.
MM: When did you become politically aware?
KH: I came to the realization at a young age that women were not being treated equally. I was a high school intern helping Democrats get elected and was the only young person and the only girl in the room, many times looking for role models and finding very few. Then, in 1974, a woman named Mary Anne Krupsak became the first female lieutenant governor. I worked on her race and thought that that was the breakthrough time, that there would always be a woman on statewide tickets. But this didn’t happen in the early part of my life, so I’ve always thought I had to do something.
MM: Your mother was an early influence. Who else? Who were some of your influences in terms of women in leadership?
KH: There weren’t many. I remember being aware of Shirley Chisholm back when I was a young person — the first African-American woman to run for president. She ended up living in Buffalo, where I’m from. I used to see her on the plane when I was a young congressional staffer. I had knowledge of her life, of challenging the status quo. I always thought it was interesting that when she spoke about being a black woman, she felt more discrimination on account of her gender, as opposed to her race. She was very profound in that. Then, as a young staffer on Capitol Hill, I remember the day when Geraldine Ferraro walked in our door. She was a congresswoman. She was going to be on a national ticket for president. We thought that was the breakthrough year. But how many decades had elapsed before we saw the next woman, Hillary Clinton? So I wouldn’t say there have been scores of women out there because there just aren’t that many in elective office. But I’ve been touched by many of them, and I’ve really benefited from that.
“I came to the realization at a young age that women were not being treated equally.”
MM: Looking out on the Senate floor and seeing all those women now, how do you see the future? Do you think they’re going to meet the same resistance you’ve met in the past, or do you see a change these days in the attitudes of the men involved?
KH: I think there is a change and there’s (in some circles) a grudging acceptance of others. The embrace of the Women’s March for justice and rights throughout history has occurred not by women alone, but because there were men with them. I mean, women could not vote for themselves to have the right to vote. In 1917 they needed men to cast those votes so they could vote. Go back to 1848, the Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, a lot of strong women spoke, but it was Frederick Douglass who helped carry the day and demanded that women have the right to vote. So there have been men who were champions, who have supported women throughout our history. And those men still exist today.
MM: What is your vision for women these days? What are your next steps in terms of what you would like to do to move things forward?
KH: One, I’m championing the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. We need to make sure that women’s rights are enshrined in the constitution, [not just] the federal constitution, but also statewide. I want to do that as a strong statement of our conviction that women should be treated equally as men — that should have been in our constitution way back. But what does that mean in this era now? Gender identity is no longer just a binary approach. We need to look at people’s rights in a broader sense when it comes to gender. And that’s a great opportunity we have right now to imagine the ERA as being more expansive.
KH: Secondly, the workplace for women. They’re still not paid the same. We’re proud that in New York state, we have the smallest wage gap in the nation. It’s 89 cents on the dollar for men. But if you’re a woman of color, it is horrific. I think it is still a paltry 63 cents on the dollar. So we have to make some progress in terms of pay equity, but also the culture in a lot of workplaces. I speak to a lot of employers whose biggest challenge is no longer frustration with taxes or regulation. They want to be in New York, but they can’t find the workers with the skills they need. There are a lot of fields that have been male-dominated. For example, the building trades would love to have more women — carpenters and welders, and at the other level, engineers and architects. These have been such male bastions that a lot of women just don’t want to deal with what they have to deal with in the workplace. I’m talking about overt and more subliminal sexual harassment. So that’s my frustration. One of my challenges is to try and do what we can legally, with our changes in laws, to change that environment. I think the #MeToo movement was a tremendous start, but it’s not just about Hollywood and politicians and people in Wall Street getting called out. It’s who’s still harassing the waitress in a diner in Sullivan County.
MM: So there’s still a lot of work ahead.
KH: Yes, we’re behind. In terms of political empowerment, meaning elected women, we are at the end of the spectrum. I mean, countries like Afghanistan have more women in elected office than we do. Uganda…you look at the list, it is an embarrassment. And we’ve never had a female leader of our country. Whereas other countries like Ireland, they’ve had multiple ones. England, when I went to study a semester in London as a student, that was when Margaret Thatcher first got in. I remember the cab drivers saying, “Oh no, what’s going happen to our country now that the women are taking over?” But you know, that was 1979. So we are long overdue, and it’s exciting this year because there are a lot of women running for office.
“Gender identity is no longer just a binary approach. We need to look at people’s rights in a broader sense when it comes to gender.”
KH: This is a record-setting year, no matter how you look at the number of women who stepped up to throw their hats in the ring to run for president. And that’s exciting, and I think that’s going to have an effect on the little girls that are out there watching television when they see debates and they see a strong woman out there. Something I never had. I never had a chance to see a woman on a stage as a young person interested in politics. It was like, we were always the ones to work behind the scenes. “I’m going to be a staffer.” “I’m going to make Senator Moynihan look good.” “I’m going to write his speeches.” “I’m going to do his policy.” I did that and I loved it, but I was really holding myself back thinking that was as far as I could go, and I broke through. A lot of women still need to.
MM: In my lifetime, I’ve seen the women’s movement raise its head very clearly twice now. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, which had a huge effect on me. And now once again, I feel like a lot of the things we went through in the ’70s, we’re going through again. What can people do to prevent us from slipping back again? How do you take this ground and hold it?
KH: I think the presence of Donald Trump in the White House will always be a motivator for women in this country. You saw it with the marches in January of 2017. Women who would never view themselves as being political, had never gone to a rally their entire lives, are showing up and they’re bringing their kids. The need to fight for change because our rights are being eroded is a strong, compelling, motivating factor. I really don’t see it slipping, particularly with the Supreme Court. We have now rights that we’ve taken for granted, like reproductive health, Roe vs. Wade, and that’s why we’ve made sure we got it — had it codified in New York just a couple of weeks ago. People ask, why do you need to do that? Do you realize that there are states where they are undermining these rights, taking them away and showing that there’s not even a single place to have an abortion legally in a state, and the Supreme Court will support all that? So we have to be careful and stop taking things for granted that we’ve had our entire adult lives. We’ve been trying to say this to the next generation. I think they get it now.
MM: Tell me three things that a young girl can do now.
KH: I would tell them they should make posters and show up at rallies. When I have a rally in your neighborhood, I want to see 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old girls — like I was when I was fighting for Vietnam or fighting for civil rights. You’re not too young to do that. Plus, you have a vehicle (social media) to share your ideas. That was nonexistent when I was your age. Use that as a powerful tool of positive engagement. Believe in yourself as much as the boys believe in themselves, because you have just as much, if not more, to offer.
“I think the presence of Donald Trump in the White House will always be a motivator for women in this country. You saw it with the marches in January of 2017. Women who would never view themselves as being political, had never gone to a rally their entire lives, are showing up and they’re bringing their kids.”
MM: For young women who are going off to college and their careers, what direction would you suggest that they head toward if they wanted to make an impact?
KH: I think that they’d do very well if they interned for offices. This is something that I did every summer during my college years. I was an intern for the New York State Assembly, and I learned how to develop my own voice. I learned how to write letters. I learned what advocacy was all about. I had a chance to go to rallies like we’re seeing out here. So you’re in this environment where it’s all about trying to use the positions we’re in to formulate positive change, regardless of the issue. I think that’s a great place for young people heading off to college. I went to Syracuse University. I teamed during the school year with local elected officials, and I’m mentoring girls who are at Syracuse now. In fact, I’ll see one tomorrow for breakfast at Syracuse University just to connect with her. So I want people like that. If someone wants to intern for me and they pass a background check, they’re a part of my team. I’m surrounded by women in my staff. I try to use the position I’m in to create opportunities and open more doors for women and young people in college. They absolutely can be making a difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.