Melissa Mark-Viverito’s (D) 2006 election to the New York City Council to represent the neighborhoods of northern Manhattan and the South Bronx was historic: She was the first Puerto Rican woman and Latina to represent her district, and she was elected to the 51-member council along with 17 other women across the city, who constituted what was — until Tuesday — the highest-ever number of women in the legislative body, according to a 2017 New York Times editorial.
But by the time Mark-Viverito left the council 2017, there were only 13 women left, according to a report published that year by the council’s Women’s Caucus. That put New York City among the top three cities in the country, along with Houston and Los Angeles, with the least representation of women in its council.
Mark-Viverito, fellow former council member Elizabeth Crowley (D), and current council member Margaret Chin (D) knew something needed to change. So they co-founded 21 in ‘21, a nonpartisan organization whose goal was to help elect at least 21 women to the council by 2021. Ahead of this year’s primaries, the organization endorsed 74 candidates, all but one of whom were Democrats, reflecting the party’s dominance in the city’s politics, according to executive director Jessica Haller.
On Tuesday, the 21 in ‘21 team got even more than they hoped for: Thirty-one women were elected to the New York City Council, 25 of whom the group endorsed. The 31 women will form the council’s first-ever women majority when they are sworn in January. Only five of the newly elected women were incumbents, and two of the women elected were Republicans. Currently, only 14 women are in the council.
Latinas as a group saw the largest growth in their representation in the council, according to The Lily’s review of the results: Their ranks will increase from three to 10 members. Black women in the council will grow from a group of eight to a dozen. The presence of Asian women on the council will grow from one to four. Five White women will replace the two currently in office. Since 2017, the council has not had any openly gay women members, according to Gotham Gazette; four of the 31 newly elected women are openly LGBTQ.
To Mark-Viverito, the numbers in New York City are “really unbelievable,” pointing to “that level of diversity and what it brings to the table.” She added that the women’s strengthened presence on the Council “creates a pipeline” to equip them to run for other open seats in the future.
But Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University and the co-host of “FAQ NYC,” a podcast about New York news and politics, cautioned that in the rush to make meaning out of the historic number of women elected, it’s important to distinguish women’s descriptive representation, or the presence of women in government, from their substantive representation, or representation that actually serves women’s interests.
In other words, time will tell the extent to which their lived experiences as women influence their policymaking, Greer said: “I think it really does boil down to whether or not these women represent substantive issues across the board.”
The Lily spoke to three of New York’s newly elected women about the issues they want to prioritize in office and the paths they took to get there.
When 34-year-old Kristin Richardson Jordan (D) saw members of what has become known as “the Squad” — women of color running on liberal platforms — elected to Congress in 2018, she felt “a calling to serve” in public office, she said.
But those around her weren’t so sure about her decision to run to represent the 9th District of Harlem: “A lot of people told me that my campaign wasn’t viable, and I think those comments were gendered,” said Richardson Jordan, who calls herself a democratic socialist.
Richardson Jordan ignored her naysayers and “really just ran as a Harlem upstart and revolutionary,” she said, running on a platform that advocates for working toward police abolition and a universal basic income.
Doing so got her attention: After locking in an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), among others, Richardson Jordan won by a landslide. In doing so, she became one of the two first openly gay Black women elected to the body (the other, according to the New York Times, is Crystal Hudson (D), whose district is in Brooklyn).
Now that the hard-fought campaign is behind her, she is planning to use her background as a teacher and literacy specialist at the Harlem Boys and Girls Club to advocate increasing the city’s education budget and removing police officers from schools. She also wants to bring free child care and a year’s paid maternity leave to the city (New York state mandates up to 12 weeks paid leave).
After she assumes office, she will turn her attention toward another race — the one for council speaker — as a spectator rather than a candidate. Council members will vote for the speaker in January, after they’re sworn in. Richardson Jordan wants a woman in the role. Five of the eight candidates are women.
“With so many positions in our city being filled by men, I think it does say something if we could have a female speaker,” she said.
In 2017, 26-year-old Amanda Farías (D) campaigned to represent District 18, the South Bronx, in the council. She lost the general election by more than 2,000 votes.
In the aftermath, others urged her to take a break or pursue a different career path before throwing her hat back in the ring, she said.
“Everyone was like, ‘You have so much time to get this done,’ and I was like, ‘Or I could just do it now,’” said Farías, who is now 32.
Less than two years later, her urge became stronger when reports claimed that the man she lost to — Rubén Díaz Sr. (D) — interrupted a council sensitivity training session to say he wouldn’t “rat” someone out for sexual harassment, the New York Post reported at the time. With more than four years working for Crowley (D) — one of the co-founders of 21 in ‘21 — under her belt, Farías felt qualified to try to replace Díaz Sr. again.
This year, she won more than 11,100 votes, beating back her Republican challenger by more than 9,400 votes, according to unofficial results.
When she reentered this year’s race, she focused on “making local government more tangible and more real for voters,” in part by advocating to bring participatory budgeting to her district so voters can weigh in on how money allocated to the district gets spent.
She also wants to expand local transportation options and improve job training and local infrastructure in her district. And given that the Bronx was the city’s borough with the highest rate of domestic violence homicides from 2010 to 2018, according to a 2019 city report, Farías wants to institute a Domestic Violence Action Plan that would, in part, add more of the city’s Family Justice Centers throughout the borough, which provide resources to survivors.
“In Black and Brown communities, in immigrant communities, [domestic violence] is taboo to talk about, but it’s consistently happening, and there are not enough outwardly vocal people” tackling it, she said.
Brooklyn’s 39th District, which 30-year-old Shahana Hanif (D) calls home, is where Mayor Bill de Blasio got his start in politics as a council member in 2002.
But unlike de Blasio, Hanif is, in her own words, “a young woman of color, of Muslim faith, and with Bangladeshi heritage.”
As a result, “I knew this was not going to be a piece of cake for me, and that I would have to work thrice as hard as my opponents in a district where the perception is, ‘another white man from Park Slope will lead us,’” Hanif told The Lily, referring to one of the neighborhoods in her district.
Two years after launching her campaign, she won voters over: On Tuesday, Hanif was the first Muslim woman and first woman of South Asian descent elected to the council, winning more than 28,290 votes to her Republican challenger’s 2,500, according to unofficial results from the city’s Board of Elections. Hanif is also the first woman to represent her district, she said.
Hanif said she pulled off her win by relying on more than 1,100 volunteers, 90 percent of whom were women.
“The mobilization of women was critical — our campaign ran through and through on feminist values,” she said.
The platform included aiming to create more support for survivors of domestic violence, in part through a citywide Survivor Security Fund, which would facilitate access to housing, medical care and mental health resources, she said. (The city offered similar grants to domestic violence survivors in a pilot program last year, funded by its donation-based covid-19 emergency relief fund.)
Longer term, “the city could be able to cover the cost of rent and build child care to ensure that our survivors are able to quickly move into housing that is not another shelter,” Hanif said.
Among her other campaign priorities: expanding accessible transportation, which was inspired by her own experience of struggling to travel through the city after having both her hips and her shoulder replaced following a lupus diagnosis at 17, she said.
Now that she will soon fill the shoes of her male predecessors, she hopes her tenure will inspire the next wave of women running for office to aim even higher, with the additional resources offered by 21 in ‘21, she said: “We have an opportunity to see the next mayor, the next comptroller, all the borough-wide positions be filled with women.”