A Trailblazing Congresswoman of Firsts
Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, Carolyn B. Maloney visited New York City after finishing college, and has never looked back since. She settled in as a teacher, and then became an administrator for the New York City Board of Education. After 7 years in the city, she migrated from education to politics, landing a job in the New York state legislature – holding senior positions in the state Assembly and the state Senate.
In 1982, Maloney won a city council race, defeating incumbent Robert Rodriguez, to become a member of the New York City Council. She was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, defeating 15-year incumbent Bill Green, who outspent her dramatically (“It was called, at the time, the biggest upset in the nation”). Congresswoman Maloney represented New York’s 14th Congressional District from 1993 to 2013, and has since represented the 12th District after the district lines were redrawn in 2012 based on 2010’s census data (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez currently represents the 14th District). “When I was growing up, I thought my career goals would be a teacher, a nurse, or a librarian, because those were the only jobs I saw women in. Women were not really elected in any noticeable amounts for public office,” the 74-year-old lawmaker says. “I did become a teacher. I was teaching in East Harlem, teaching high-school equivalency and 8th-grade equivalency [classes] to welfare recipients, helping them get jobs. The program lost its funding, and I became a lobbyist and advocate for the program. It was refunded, but through that experience, I could see the power of government to save a program, to improve people’s lives, to change the direction of many. I went to work for two speakers and the minority leader of the state Senate before I ran for office myself, first for the city council, and then for Congress.”
Having represented New York in Congress for nearly three decades, she has led through tumultuous times, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Sandy, 2008 financial crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID is the worst thing I’ve ever lived through, and we were at the epicenter and the city that was the most hard-hit by COVID early on with so many deaths and so many people suffering. A lot of what my life was like was responding to COVID as a congressperson,” Maloney shares. “At first, we did not have enough hospital beds, and worked with the governor to get more hospital beds. During the crisis, I went to work and tried to solve the problems we faced. I introduced and have been working on the Pandemic Risk Insurance bill to create a long-range framework for business interruption insurance that would cover a pandemic, and I hope that bill will pass in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.”
In March and April, Maloney organized Fashion for the Front Lines, a coalition of New York City designers, manufacturers, and leaders, to support the manufacturing of much-needed PPE (“We had people going to work in garbage bags”) – which transformed the Garment District factories that were at risk of shuttering due to the pandemic into local manufacturers of masks and gowns for frontline medical professionals across New York City. “I am proud of New York’s fashion industry for quickly pivoting to virtual shows and for being leaders for our city,” she adds. “New York is best in a crisis. We work together, and we achieve incredible goals, and my favorite part of the whole response to the pandemic is, at 7 o’clock, when everyone in New York hangs out their windows, beats on their pots, and claps for the first responders – the frontline workers that are out there risking their lives every day.”
Throughout her career, Maloney has been a woman of firsts: the first woman to represent New York’s current 12th Congressional District, the first woman to represent New York City’s 7th Council District (and becoming the first woman to give birth while in office), the first woman to chair the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, and first woman to chair the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “I’ve been the first woman to hold many positions, and I’ve seen advances for women tremendously in my lifetime. I was elected in 1992 – the Year of the Woman – when many people voted for women candidates,” she recalls. “It was one of the thrills of my lifetime to walk down the aisle to be sworn into Congress with the largest class of women legislators ever at that time.”
Maloney believes that bipartisanship is the key to lasting legislation: She has been involved in landmark legislation, and one of the first bills she worked on in Congress was the Violence Against Women Act, originally introduced by then-Senator Joe Biden. “Some of the bills that I’ve authored and passed have made a big difference in people’s lives in terms of New York – the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act, and the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act, a bill that saves consumers $10 billion per year by cutting down on unfair and deceptive practices,” she says. “My Debbie Smith bill has been called the most important anti-rape bill ever, providing funds to states to process DNA, and using DNA to both exonerate and convict rapists and put them behind bars if they are guilty. Just this year, I passed for the first time paid parental leave for all 2.2 million federal workers, and have legislation in to expand that to the community at large. I worked on a very important bill, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which helped New York rebuild after 9/11.”
One of her goals when she entered Congress was to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, something she is still working on to this day. “We’ve never passed the Equal Rights Amendment, and I still have that goal out there to achieve,” affirms Maloney, whose work has been featured in Karney Hatch’s Overdrawn! and the PBS documentary, FRONTLINE, as well as in a Lifetime movie on the Debbie Smith Act, A Life Interrupted. Moreover, her book, Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Why Women’s Lives Aren’t Getting Any Easier--And How We Can Make Real Progress For Ourselves and Our Daughters, has been used as a textbook in the field of women’s studies. Oh, also, she is a black-belt holder. “That’s another first, I don’t think another woman member of Congress has a black belt in taekwondo,” she notes.
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer: Ron Contarsy (for Highmark Studios)
Photographer Assistant: Brandon Young
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)