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Attorney General Letitia James talks overcoming challenges and using the power within

Attorney General Letitia James, wearing a black dress, stands at a black podium with the gold seal of the state attorney general on it and flags behind her.
Office of the Attorney General

In 2018 Letitia James became the first woman and woman of color to be elected attorney general of New York State. Prior to her historic win, James was public advocate of New York City, where she was also the first woman of color to hold that position. James says her intention was not to be a history maker, but to do the necessary work to protect New Yorkers and the most vulnerable communities.

She spoke with WBFO about what is important to her as attorney general.

“I didn’t set out to shatter any glass ceilings and the reality is that being the first woman of color elected statewide and the first woman elected as the attorney general is important. For me, it’s nothing more than a footnote because the question that should be posed is what can you do and what will you do with the power that you have and how will you improve the lives of those without a voice and how will you stand up to powerful interests and protect working people and those who are marginalized and alienated in our society? That’s more important to me than being a history maker,” she said.

James, like many people, has had her share of bumps in the road on the way to success.

“I’ve had my challenges, but I wouldn’t allow my challenges to get in the way. If I’m denied access to a table, I usually create my own and I do not ignore the fact that half of the voting public are women," she said, "and so it was reaching out to women at humble tables and at major tables and making my case.”

When the pandemic forced the nation to school children at home, this created an issue for families with little or no access to child care, just one of the issues James reflected on when asked about how the pandemic affected women.

“Equal pay for equal work is a major issue," she said. "As a public advocate of the City of New York, I passed a law in the city, in New York City, where women should not be paid based on their previous salary, but based on the worth of that particular position. We need to talk more and demand access to child care. We need to increase universal child care tax credits. We need to stand up and demand reproductive care for all and health care for all and quality housing, which is a right, and we cannot return to normal after the pandemic. We have to demand a new normal.”

In professions that are typically held by men, James said people in power need to give women the same opportunities as men.

“Individuals in positions of power need to hire more women, they need to promote more women, they need to encourage more women and they need to respect more women and they need to pay women the same as men," she said. "We need more women in C-suites, more women around tables where policy is made and more women attorneys, more women in the construction field and the list goes on and on and on.”

James doesn’t limit herself to just being a voice for women. When asked if she was a modern-day feminist, she had this to say:

“I don’t know what that means. All I know is that I stand up whenever I see injustice. I stand up on behalf of victims. I stand up on behalf of those who are locked out of the sunshine of opportunity. I stand up on behalf of those who are harassed and objectified. I stand up on behalf of victims of domestic violence. I stand up on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable populations. So I don’t know what being a feminist means. I refused to be labeled,” she said.

James has advice for women facing challenges in the workplace and in life.

“Don’t be afraid to use your voice to advocate for yourself and for others. Don’t be discouraged by those who say that you cannot move mountains. Don’t allow the naysayers to get in your way. Move them out of your way and step into your own and assume the mantle of power. It’s certainly within you,” she said.