It’s been over 27 years since Colin Ferguson stepped onto a Long Island Rail Road train in Mineola and started indiscriminately firing a 9mm pistol at passengers. Six were killed, including Dennis McCarthy, of Mineola, and 19 were wounded. Dennis’s son, Kevin, then 26 and a broker with Prudential Securities in New York City, took a bullet to the head, but survived. His left arm remains partially paralyzed.
That attack propelled Carolyn McCarthy, Dennis’s wife and Kevin’s mother, to run for Congress. McCarthy, then a nurse, was assailed as a political neophyte and a single-issue candidate, with her laser focus on gun control. Despite the odds against her, she won, and served in the House of Representatives from 1997 to 2015, retiring because of a cancer diagnosis.
Throughout her time in Congress, McCarthy ably represented her district, becoming a respected member of the House and a strong-willed politician. She was frustrated often by the lack of movement on common-sense gun-control legislation, such as an assault weapons ban, because of big-money special-interest groups like the National Rifle Association.
Still, she endured.
It boggles the mind, but in the 243-year history of this nation, only two women have represented Long Island in the House of Representatives. McCarthy, who was elected in the 4th Congressional District, on Nassau’s South Shore, was the first, according to the Congressional Archives.
The second is her successor, Kathleen Rice, who was previously the Nassau County district attorney, and whom McCarthy strongly endorsed in the 2014 election against Republican Bruce Blakeman, the County Legislature’s former presiding officer and a current Town of Hempstead councilman.
There has never been a woman from Long Island elected to the U.S. Senate. In fact, only two New York women — Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand — have ever served in the Senate since the election of the state’s first two senators, Philip Schuyler and Rufus King, in 1789.
Yes, only two. All other New York senators have been white men. That is a sad statement, given that women comprise more than half of our population, and that New York is a racially diverse state. In March, Women’s History Month, we should take a moment to reflect on these facts — and understand that we really could use more women representing us in Washington, and at all levels of government.
There is no doubt that women often see the world differently than men. They understand, with far greater depth, the travails that they have faced in this country because of their gender — the implicit bias and outright discrimination.
Most often, women are the primary caretakers of our children, so they better understand the lack of government resources available to young mothers with babies and school-age children. They can see how frayed our social safety net is, particularly when compared with Western European nations and Canada.
Women elected leaders more often focus on domestic social issues — education, the environment, social equity — compared with their male counterparts in Congress, many of whom are often more concerned with international monetary policy and U.S. military intervention than funding school lunch programs and drug-treatment centers.
In fact, in the long history of the House of Representatives, only one woman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, and for only two years, from 2011 to 2013, according to the Congressional Archives. The Foreign Affairs Committee is considered among the premier assignments in the House, a center of international power and prestige.
Yes, we need our representatives to keep a watchful eye on global affairs — and a number of women in Congress do. Of the 48 current members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 12 are women — eight Democrats and four Republicans. None are from New York.
At the same time, we need to balance international and domestic affairs, and women elected leaders play a key role in ensuring that we do. A record 144 women now hold seats in the House and Senate — but Congress remains a male-dominated institution, with men holding 73 percent of the seats.
That statistic needs to change, on both of the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. We need greater balance in order to work toward a more perfect union, one in which our daughters, and their daughters, are given the respect they deserve.
This month, though, we can reflect on pioneering women elected leaders like Carolyn McCarthy, Kathleen Rice, Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and now Vice President Kamala Harris.