New Jersey’s Women Lawmakers Speak With Rutgers-Newark Students About Leadership, Reproductive Health

From left, NJ Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, U.S. Congressswoman Mikie Sherrill, Student Government President Halyn Xheraj, NJ State Senator Teresa Ruiz and NJ Assemblywoman Shanique Speight

The challenges for women in New Jersey politics are great. But their insights, drawn from real-life experience as mothers and daughters, can create laws that improve lives, said four female government leaders during a conversation with Rutgers-Newark students.

The elected officials were on campus for a Women’s History Month Conversation on Leadership, Mentorship, and Reproductive Health. They spoke to students about their experiences in elected office and what they have achieved.

The group included U.S. Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11), NJ State Senator Teresa Ruiz, who is the Senate Majority Leader, Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, who is Deputy Speaker, and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, who is Assembly Budget Chair.

All broke barriers as women or women of color in a political arena still dominated by white men.

“The idea behind the convening was to join one of only two New Jersey congresswomen with the three state legislators who represent Rutgers-Newark in District 29,’’ said Shantè Palmer, Vice Chancellor of External and Governmental Affairs at Rutgers-Newark. “All are powerful female legislative leaders.”

The elected officials spoke with students from the Student Government Association, BOLD Women’s Leadership Network at Rutgers-Newark, and students from Professor James Jones' class on Black Americans in Congress. Jones is co-director of the Sheila Y. Oliver Center for Politics and Race in America at Rutgers-Newark, who co-hosted the convening.

Student Government President Halyn Xheraj, who moderated the conversation, opened the event by asking the officials why they chose to enter politics, how being a woman had affected their policymaking, and whether they encountered discrimination based on their gender.

Most said they initially hesitated to run for office, either because they feared they didn’t have enough experience or because they worried the demands of family and political life would be too difficult. All of the representatives are mothers.

But they decided that it was crucial for their voices to be heard and for women and girls in New Jersey to see themselves reflected in office. They embraced the opportunity to run, sometimes with encouragement from family members.

“It’s very tough as females to get into this space,’’ said Pintor-Marin. “My husband said, ‘If you say no, that door will probably never open for you again.’’’

“There are not too many of us who can go to Trenton and make laws for women who look like us,’’ said Speight. “I’m able to make a real impact.’’

Some of the leaders described instances in which they were subjected to a double standard as women. Ruiz said it was common for her to speak out and get no response. But when a male senator says the same thing, he’s greeted with approval. 

“A male validates by repeating exactly what you said and suddenly it’s a brilliant idea,’’ said Ruiz.

Speight said that when she was elected to the assembly, she was worried about looking the part, wondering whether her box braids would be inappropriate and if she needed to change her style. “Men don’t get judged that way,’’ she said.

All of the officials said their experiences as women and working moms informed their decisions as lawmakers, especially when it comes to women’s health. Viewing issues from a different perspective than their male colleagues helps make them effective leaders, they said.

“We don’t have one-dimensional answers,’’ said Ruiz, who in 2007 became the first Puerto Rican elected to the state senate and was also the first woman in the senate to give birth during her time in office.

After she came home from the hospital with her first child, Ruiz was visited by a lactation consultant, who was able to confirm that her baby was thriving and her efforts to nurse her child were successful, which was a tremendous relief, she said.

Because Ruiz understood that many women don’t have healthcare that would cover the cost of a similar post-partum visit, she drafted legislation that allows the state to fund at least one at-home visit after a woman gives birth to help ensure the health of mother and child.

Speight has introduced and sponsored several successful pieces of “menstrual equity” legislation to make sanitary products more accessible to low-income girls and women, including provisions that require the state to fund the products in all schools and women’s prisons.

Sherrill reminded students to pay close attention to nationwide attacks against reproductive health in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling against Roe vs. Wade. She described cases in Texas where women who weren’t seeking abortions were prevented from having a D&C, a medical procedure typically performed after a miscarriage to prevent infection.

Also in Texas, mothers have been forced to carry to term babies who are likely to be stillborn or die shortly after birth, even when the mother’s health and fertility could be compromised.

“They’re being given c-sections to deliver dead fetuses,’’ said Sherrill.

She added, “We are here to make sure that access to care is easier and not harder.’’

Although New Jersey has a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion, the lawmakers are pushing for a broader amendment that guarantees the right to bodily autonomy in New Jersey, said Ruiz.

All of the women urged students to be politically active, not only as voters and advocates but as potential government leaders.

“You are the voice we need,’’ said Sherrill.

She repeated a popular saying in political circles. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.’’

BOLD scholar Angelina Vertiz, who hopes to run for office someday, said the conversation was motivation for her to pursue her goal. “It’s inspiring to see someone who looks like me. It pushes me to want to give back to my community.’’