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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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Politics: When The Game Was For Boys Only

Near the end of January, a Newsday column described Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray as “the first woman supervisor in the 369-year history of Hempstead.” This is not the first time this error has appeared in print. Murray is the first woman to be elected in a general election to that position, but fair is fair, and Edna McConnell served nearly eight months as a Hempstead supervisor starting in October 1958.

John McConnell of North Bellmore was one of Hempstead’s two representatives on the old Board of Supervisors (the county’s six-member legislature prior to 1996). After serving for 25 years on the Town Board, he died of cancer in the middle of a heated campaign season. Republican leaders asked his widow to step in and serve until a thoughtful replacement could be arranged. Mrs. McConnell had never been directly involved in partisan politics. She was sworn in and quietly served until the 1959 nominations were settled. She took her place at all county and town board meetings, toured facilities and educated herself admirably about the responsibilities of her position. Today, she is perhaps best remembered as the mother of Harold McConnell, who was elected County Clerk eight times before resigning in late 1992.

Only a few months before Mrs. McConnell’s elevation, another Nassau County Supervisor, James Segriff, Democrat of Long Beach, suddenly died of a heart attack in what is now the Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building. Because Segriff had been a city official, Governor Harriman had the choice of a successor, and he picked Segriff’s widow, Marion, to serve as Long Beach’s county representative for the remaining half of 1958.

Supervisor Segriff was one of only two Democrats on the board, which used a weighted voting system in which Republicans held 28 of 30 votes. Unobtrusive and maybe even passive, she kept voting with the majority, even helping to defeat important legislation introduced by her Democratic colleague, Joseph Suozzi of Glen Cove. She voted against creation of a community college, against creating a county youth bureau and against a countywide system of garbage disposal.

It wasn’t that these women weren’t capable of facing down the boys. They weren’t allowed to be aggressive or overly inquisitive. It would have been socially and politically unacceptable for them to appear “pushy” or “unfeminine.” This was a time when major newspapers, including Newsday and the Long Island Daily Press, sometimes referred to women as the “weaker sex” or “the fairer sex,” even in political contexts.

There was virtually no talk of either women being nominated to run for the offices they held. After McConnell resigned, it would be 15 years until another woman served on the Board of Supervisors (Hannah Komanoff of Long Beach, 1974) and 35 years until a woman served as a supervisor from one of the towns (May Newburger, North Hempstead, 1994). It wasn’t until 1965 that any woman on Long Island was nominated by a major party for town supervisor (Riverhead). In 1970, a year I can personally remember, only one woman was nominated by the Democrats or Republicans for a nonjudicial position in Nassau County.

In 1958, there was a woman serving in an elected office, Member of Assembly Genesta Strong, representing a district whose borders were contiguous with the borders of North Hempstead, and she was tied for longest serving state legislator on Long Island. In 1959, after nearly 15 years in the Assembly, she was promoted to the State Senate, and it’s one of those twisty, turny, forgotten sequences that produced echos and vibrations all the way to the present day.

The first part of this story was about March, which is Women’s History Month. The second part is about April, the month when income and property taxes come due.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net