During a June 19 panel discussion organized by the Raritan Valley chapter of Hadassah and held at the Highland Park Community Center, three local Jewish women who have long fought sexism to achieve positions of power spoke of their struggles and achievements.
The panelists talked about being stymied, both in jobs and in politics, by “an old boys’ network” and about their fights to secure reproductive rights for women, to support childcare workers, and to meet the needs of families and others on the fringes of society.
The panelists included Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler; Meryl Frank, former town mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women; and Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Center for Women & Work at Rutgers University and former program officer for New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.
Following the discussion, Highland Park native Eetta Prince-Gibson, an author and former editor of The Jerusalem Report, who was visiting from Israel, spoke about the challenges to and triumphs of women in Israel.
In Israel, Prince-Gibson said, the challenges take a slightly different form. As an example, she cited efforts by the ultra-Orthodox to segregate public gatherings by gender and to marginalize women, even as women have been at the forefront of other positive societal efforts, including bringing Arabs and Jews together.
Prince-Gibson said there is a notable decrease in women holding leadership roles, including a decline of women serving in the Knesset; similar situations often occur in the legislatures of other countries where security is an issue and where government leaders often launch their careers on the battlefield. Men in such places, she said, often demean women’s demands for parity by saying, “We’re talking about security — and you’re talking about equal pay?”
Prince-Gibson said the “illiberal democracy” she sees on the rise around the world, including in the United States and Israel, has led to less inclusion, a waning of democratic values, and decreased tolerance in society.
The three panelists had their own tales of navigating a sometimes hostile political and employment environment.
Lancaster “woke up to the gender division in labor” while working summer jobs in college at a major corporation. She said it was clear that the men were generally assigned the better situations — although she herself was first put in the largely male staff in the mailroom, where there was a low-stress environment and a sense of camaraderie.
Another year, however, her work as an information operator exposed her to an all-female environment where workers “had to raise their hand to go to the bathroom,” had to deal with unpleasant customers, and were forced to work split shifts.
Lancaster wrote her thesis on the “tragedy” of poorly paid childcare workers — almost exclusively women — and later became a union organizer aiming to unify those workers. She served in state government under both Democratic and Republican administrations, focusing on the plight of children in the foster system.
Frank served as mayor of Highland Park for 10 years, starting in 2000. She moved up the ranks of local politics, and when she decided to run for mayor, she and a group of activist professional women — including Brill Mittler — organized a campaign that sent shockwaves through local male-dominated Democratic politics.
“We were the ‘mommies’ that took on the Democratic Party in New Jersey,” said Frank.
The phenomenon of her unseating a longtime male mayor who had been endorsed by the party and winning the election was so eyebrow-raising, it drew a half-page of coverage in The New York Times. New Jersey Monthly, however, referred to Frank’s campaign team dismissively as “the soccer moms,” despite the fact, said Brill Mittler, that “we ran against the old boys’ network and won.”
Two things stand out for Frank from her time on the UN commission. One was a resolution condemning Israel for human rights violations that only the United States and Britain voted down; “as a Jew, it felt really good to vote against the resolution,” she said.
The other was when she voted to remove the “global gag rule,” which bans U.S.-funded groups around the world from discussing abortion, making them accept the restrictions or lose funding.
“Every Republican administration has put the gag rule in place, and every Democratic one has removed it,” said Frank, who was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama. “It felt so good to press that button — and I got a standing ovation.”
Frank is now president of Makeda Global Network, an international firm that consults on women’s leadership, and has traveled the world promoting efforts to empower women. In 2012, The Jerusalem Post named her one of the 50 most important Jews in the world.
Brill Mittler had her own run-ins with sexism. She graduated from college in 1974 with a degree in journalism and with experience as a newscaster for a cable TV station in Kingston, N.Y. She then landed a job interview with CBS in New York.
But, said Brill Mittler, when she walked in with a reel containing footage of her demonstrating her professional broadcasting skills, “they said, ‘How fast can you type?’”
She reset her career path, becoming an advertising copy writer, but found that many of the campaigns she was assigned to promulgated sexist ideas. Frustrated, she tried a career in corporate America, rising to become director of fashion marketing for a major firm. Then she hit the glass ceiling.
She started her own marketing business, now run by her son, which has allowed her to devote her full attention to being mayor, a position she has held for five years. As Highland Park leaders, both she and Frank can be credited with making strides in spearheading environmental initiatives, increasing inclusiveness, and helping the underserved in the community.
Brill Mittler said she sees changes among today’s young men that may signify advancement for women striving to achieve leadership roles.
“When I was working and my kids were little, I was the main caregiver,” she said. “Today the men my generation raised have changed. My son is 32, and he is a hands-on dad.
“It is wonderful to see.”