The Power of Being a Woman in New York

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Julie Scelfo, author of The Women Who Made New York, at the book’s launch in the Rainbow Room. Photo: Dina Litovsky/Redux

Last week at a luncheon celebrating her new book, The Women Who Made New York, author Julie Scelfo toasted the historically overlooked contributions women have made to building New York City.

In the book, Scelfo focuses specifically on women who shaped various facets of the city — politics, fashion, music, comedy, food, parties, and even parks. She profiles women like civil-rights leader and poet Audre Lorde, writers like Fran Lebowitz and artists like Yoko Ono, and historic figures like Emily Warren Roebling, who finished building the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband got sick. “Try for a moment, to envision the city without all of the women who, over four centuries, wielded pencils and rulers, hammers and washboards, frying pans and guitars,” Scelfo writes. “Would New York look and sound and feel the same?”

The Cut asked ten women in attendance at the Rainbow Room how the city has shaped them, what makes New York City women different, and what advice they have for young women who want to be leaders. Read on for their thoughts — photographs from the afternoon are in the slideshow ahead.

Text and interviews by Katie Van Syckle. Photographs by Dina Litovsky.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, investigative reporter covering civil rights for the New York Times

“New York women are very driven and not afraid. I think we are used to running things and taking charge and we are not afraid and worried about what people, including men, think about that. I feel like I was a New Yorker in a past life. Being in New York allowed me to be the person I always was, except I don’t stick out here. I think there are lots of women who, like me, are assertive, who know what we want, who are willing to go after it. In other places that can be frowned upon, but here you are joined by a legion of other women who are just like that, and I think in that way, New York City is a very liberating place to be a woman.”

C. Virginia Fields, former Manhattan borough president

“Do not be deterred by those who will tell you it is not your turn or you should look at making a career, getting married, and having children. You can do it all. I really encourage younger women, especially young black women to look at public service at all levels. There are many ways that we can effect change, and create a difference for populations that we care about, communities. Not just elected office, because many people get stuck there — appointed positions, elected, selected — start your own, but do it.”

Linda Fairstein, author and former assistant district attorney of the county of New York

“I could never have had my career any place else but New York. My business of criminal litigation and prosecution was closed to women when I got here. There were only seven women in the Manhattan D.A.’s office and we weren’t allowed to try felony cases in the courtroom. A few years later that changed. Everything was possible here so much earlier than it became possible around the country.”

Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York tri-state region of the commercial-real-estate company CBRE

“One of the great things about New York is it will find a use for your talent. I know a woman who waxes eyebrows for a living, who owns an apartment on Central Park South and a house in South Hampton. And that is what she does. She is an Eastern European immigrant, because New York said, ‘Oh, you are good at this thing, we know how to put that to use.’ So I think: Figure out what is going to be your area of specialization and opportunity will find you.”

Karen Brooks Hopkins, former president of Brooklyn Academy of Music

“Take your time. Kids today are always going to the next thing. I was at BAM for 36 years — not everyone has to stay at a place for 36 years, but the idea of staying at a place for three to five years so you can really maximize your impact on that institution, I think that is important. Make sure that you haven’t jumped before you have your moment of true success and greatness.”

Amanda Burden, urban planner, consultant

What makes New York City women different? “They get things done. Women are great at achieving tangible results because they make sure all parties are involved. Which means they don’t lose their sense of trajectory and purpose and they have a much better chance of achievement. Men sometimes just think it is a war, a fight, of who they can put down, who will win, and who can be vanquished, and they often fall very short of their ambitions.”

Dr. Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference

What advice do you have for young women who want to be leaders? “Persevere, [be] committed and dedicated, and it is not easy. You have to have the tenacity. You see it now, it is right before your eyes with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You have to be dedicated, and you have to be strong.”

Donna Zaccaro, film producer and daughter of the first female vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro

“In politics, it takes much longer for women to submit their names. Emily’s List said that it takes at least three requests or invitations to run. Women tend to not put themselves forward, but I think that also applies to the corporate world. A woman will often say, ‘I am not qualified, I don’t know if I am qualified, I don’t know if I have the right experience. But men are always just putting themselves forward.’ So I always tell younger people to just put yourself out there, and the more women that are in the pipeline, the more they can end up being on the stage on the national level.”

Nina Zagat, founder of the Zagat Survey

Find people that really inspire you and try to get to know them.”

Christine Sahadi Whelan, proprietor Sahadi Fine Foods

“Where you want to go is really what you have to focus on. There are a lot of ways to get there, but just don’t lose sight in the day-to-day of where you really want to be. In the end if you focus on where you want to be rather than always where you are, I think you will be more likely to achieve your dream. Don’t sleep too much.”

The Power of Being a Woman in New York