Kathy Hochul speaks about her childhood, feminism, and ending cycles of disenfranchisement
As part of Women’s History Month, WBFO’s Women Wednesday series highlights women from Western New York who are changemakers in the community. WBFO spoke with Gov. Kathy Hochul about being the first woman ever elected to New York State’s highest office and who inspired her growing up in the Queen city. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
Angelea Preston: So, there have been 57 people that have been governor of New York State and you are the first woman to be elected. Talk to me about the importance and significance of that.
Kathy Hochul: Well, as I said when I was first elected and also during my inauguration, I said ‘I didn’t come here to make history, I came to make a difference’ and that has been sort of my guiding star to realize that people will look back and realize and say ‘yes we made history being the first woman’ but my job is to make sure I am not the last. That I can prove that a woman has what it takes. The toughness, the stamina, all the traits that we’re looking for in tough leaders, but also has the heart and compassion to really look out for New York and its families and take us to a better place. So, that’s how I view the history, but I’m also very cognisant of the women who came before me who paved the way and whether they’re historical figures of family members I’m always reflecting on the contribution of others who allow me to be in this fascinating and unique position to govern the state of New York at this time.
Preston: You’re in such a powerful position and many young women and young girls look up to you. They see themselves in you. What advice would you give them on navigating the challenges that we sometimes face in the workplace and in life in general?
Hochul: What I have seen throughout my own life is starting out there were very few role models. There weren’t a lot of women I could emulate. I could read books about famous women from history, learn about Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins and Shirley Chisolm and other historical characters but to me I’m really proud of the fact that in real time we have women who could look at someone who looks like them or their mothers or grandmothers. I’m reminded about the time when I literally just became governor for a few days back in August of 2021. I was walking around the Erie County Fair which is what I always do in the summertime and a mother came up with her little daughter about 5 or 6 years old and said ‘Look, look honey. This woman is a girl governor. That means you can be a governor too someday.' She didn’t quite know what that meant other than she wanted to give me a hug which is quite cute but I realized at that moment exactly as you said there are women and others looking to me and want me to be successful so they know once and for all the glass ceiling is shattered, the doors are swung wide open, but advice I have for them is to visualize yourself in these roles. You have to imagine and even if you don’t have a role model in a certain profession you have, you don’t see a lot of women, there are women that will help you. I have reached out to women all my life. Starting out with the YWCA I took a training class on how to work on campaigns and get involved and women really do support each other. Not just in politics and government but in other careers where you don’t see a lot of women. For example, the buildings and development and construction, technology and all the opportunities that are out there where a lot of women don’t see others there will be enough women to reach out to. Learn their stories, they’ll be mentors to you. Find someone who can help you navigate the challenges because women want nothing more than to make it easier for the next generation.
Preston: Talk to me, you just mentioned some of the professions that are typically held by men, construction for example, talk to me about diversity in professions that are typically held by men. How do we as women overcome those challenges and obstacles? You certainly did being the first woman to be elected to the highest office in our state.
Hochul: I realized in this position that I had a responsibility to create jobs, putting women in positions where they had not been in positions before so my own administration from the very beginning is the most diverse in New York State’s history. People from all walks of life, all religions, all ethnic backgrounds, racial identity, everyone has a voice in my administration and I have predominantly women who are running the state. The woman who is the head of our Homeland Security and Emergency Services who helps me battle the blizzards, the person who runs our state transportation system, the person who is the top voice for the government [after] the governor is the secretary to the governor. It’s a very powerful position. The person who runs statewide operations. I have women running communications literally everything every area I have women. So what I've done is created the farm team, I use my position and I know other women in positions of leadership really do try to do the same to women, we never forget the struggles we had overcome when those doors were closed to us. But now what I've done is created an opportunity in state government, where there are so many more women who have positions, all the way from young interns up to the most senior positions. And someday they could run for office. And they then can extend the same opportunities to the next generation. That's how broadly I'm looking at this. So there are women who have overcome this, they've had a battle, discrimination, and the fact that they're the only woman in the room countless times as I have, or, as I talked to women in construction and other tech, other careers where there just aren't a lot of women, but they are tough. They know the value of what they've achieved. And they want to make sure that that is available for other women. And so they should take advantage of that.
Preston: You mentioned that there were few women that were role models when you were growing up that you looked up to, but who were some of the women that you looked up to, growing up?
Hochul: Oh, historically, I used to read this series called Childhood of famous Americans. I was about eight years old, I used to go to the public library in Hamburg and get away from my large family. The only time I could find quiet time from all my siblings. So I'd sit in the corner and read books. And the one I pulled out the most often was the story of Harriet Tubman, and what she had overcome as a very young woman, and her courage, and what she endured, trying to really create the Underground Railroad and lead people to freedom, and how she dedicated her remaining 50 years of her life, living in upstate New York not far from Western New York, and trying to create a home for people who are displaced after the Civil War. And she became one of the leaders of the suffragette movement, trying to get the right to vote for women. So I loved her story. But at a personal level, I really have to give my mother the credit for inspiring me and showing me that there's no limit to what I could do. My mother had a horrific childhood, her father walked out on her mother's used to live above a garage, at a gas station, her mom worked two jobs, she was home alone all the time as a child, and really didn't have a support system whatsoever as a very young person. And so she dedicated her life to making sure that no one else had to endure what she did. She became very much a social justice activist. She had me and my father were marching in civil rights demonstrations. We protested the Vietnam War at the time when my uncles were serving because we wanted to bring them home. We work to make housing opportunities available to everyone in every race. So my parents were so involved in this, I looked at my mother's life, how it could have been so different. She could have taken those, those traumas and the trials and tribulations and really just kept to herself and just lived a very ordinary life. But instead, she channeled that energy and that passion to help others into an example that led me to want to become involved in government as my opportunity to contribute and do exactly what my mother did in a different capacity. But my mother used to have on our refrigerator the saying, ‘Go into the world and do well but more importantly go into the world and do good.' And when my mother died from ALS a few years ago, we made sure that that was inscribed on her headstone. So all the grandkids who visit grandma, like her children would still live by the words that my mother taught me to live by, and so that she definitely had the most profound impact on my life when I saw what she had overcome and was such a strong, fearless woman.
Preston: Let’s talk about how life was for you growing up for you in Buffalo. How was it growing up here in the Queen City?
Hochul: You know, I just lived a very ordinary life. My parents started married life living in a trailer park in Lackawanna not far from the steel plant where my dad worked. My mom used to take a bus to her job down in Larkin district. And my brother was born in the trailer I came along about a year later they lived in Woodlawn, a little apartment there second story, and it was very, very modest life but as my father was able to get an education at Canisius College, he can move on from working making steel to an office job and eventually became involved in starting what was it then a very small company. And it was a risky move. But he helped found a Computer Task Group, which grew into a very significant Buffalo company. So my life evolved as my parents success did. But when we were young, you know, we used to get our clothes from a used clothing store, I lived in the attic with two brothers without any heat in the wintertime with this little space heater. So we live modestly, but we didn't know we did. And even under those circumstances, my mother had us going into the city of Buffalo and going to the city, the Perry Street projects at the time, and starting a neighborhood center on the East Side of Buffalo called the Neighborhood Information Center, where we took care of people who were really just dealing with the harsher side of life, and helping them so my mom was, even when we lived modestly, she always knew there were others who had less than us. And she wanted us to have our eyes open to that. We often brought children in from the city of Buffalo to live with us in the summertime and take them to the fair out in Hamburg. And let them, you know, we had a lot of kids, we were always bringing more kids into our house. And there was a place called the West Seneca Developmental Center, where there were young people who were going to be transitioned out of basically what was an institution into society. And my parents also brought in some of those children to live with us and learn how to live a normal life outside an institution. So my life is probably not typical, and that my parents were always bringing people into our home who needed something, needed help, needed, you know, love and caring from a family. So I thought that was just normal that every family had other children living with them and spending Christmas with them and spending summers with them. But I went to a great school in Hamburg. I went to Hamburg High School and because I was always having to work, I worked at a pizzeria and made chicken wings, I wasn't able to get involved in after school activities. So I didn't run for student government. I didn't do sports. Because I left school every day and went to work until about 11 o'clock at night, to help bring in some money for the family and set aside money for my college education and I'm really glad I had a chance to do that. So not an exceptional childhood, other than I was surrounded by influences that I realized today really helped shape the person that I became.
Preston: Tell me about your achievements. Everyone faces struggles to achieve their goals, do you think you faced more struggles because of you being a woman?
Hochul: I think the bar is always higher for women, not just for me. But every woman I was the first woman elected to my town board. At the time, I was the only woman on the board. And so you deal with being the only woman in the room there. And I knew that the next thing I had to do next time we had a vacancy, I really promoted another woman to get the next job. So I did overcome a lot. But part of it is I was held to higher standards. But that never deterred me. I just said, Well, I'll meet those standards, and I'll exceed them. Even now as governor, I'm sure that people are looking at me and saying, ‘Well, let's see whether women can actually do this.' And you know, the bar is very high. But I have to be successful, I have to show that women can do this to make sure that other women will step up and run for this position, which is viewed as you know, historically has always been, you know, held by a man. So I've been in that situation my entire life when I was a young associate in a law firm, whether it was I was volunteering in democratic politics in downtown Buffalo and the building that is now the Hyatt building that was our headquarters. I was the only young woman in the room at the time and that as well, but it never bothered me. But I always felt better when other women started joining, you know, and that took time over my lifetime. There were more women in law firms are more women in politics. So progress is being made. I'm really proud of what I've seen. But you look at, for example, the Buffalo City Council. There were more women on the Buffalo City Council when I was an intern back in the late 70s than there are now so I'm focused on creating opportunities in a pipeline for women to get involved in politics. Know the joy of what public service is all about how impactful you can be even at a young age, and either run for office or help other people and even if you have a completely different career, there's still a way to get involved in politics, because that's the vehicle for really making change for society and taking us to a better place, which is what I'm focused on in New York.
Preston: Would you consider yourself a modern feminist?
Hochul: Oh, very much so. I know what it's like to struggle. I know what it's like to not have, you know, easy time of it because of being a woman no doubt about it. And as I mentioned, we had overcome more hurdles, perhaps and men do I believe we did, but also the channel Because of childcare, when I started out my career, I really loved working for Senator Moynihan, as an attorney on his staff in Washington. But when my child came along many years ago, he now has his own baby I didn't have any childcare options. So to me a feminist means that you're keenly aware of the challenges that women face, and you try to improve their lot and try to make it easier for them. Force equal pay, why would women be paid the same as men for doing the same job? Why is it even in question? Why can't women have access to reproductive health care? Why is that even in question, so I believe that a feminist simply is a voice for women who are not getting the rights that should be inherent in being a citizen of this country, and a lot of them are denied. So that's something I'm focusing on intensely, in my role now, but also as a leader of the state of New York.
Preston: What do you think women need to know to end cycles of disenfranchisement?
Hochul: They need to know their rights, they need to know their power, they need to know that so many rights flow from the right to vote, which is why even here in New York, I'm working hard to ensure that we have more availability of early voting sites and places people can exercise the right to vote and not have barriers thrown up at them. And it is very disturbing to me as the birthplace in New York of the women's suffrage movement, where it all started right here in 1848 that there's other states, where are the governors and legislatures are really working hard to make sure it's harder for women to exercise the right to vote. That's appalling. Those rights are protected here under our administration. But I also know that, you know, anything can change with an election, you know, different leadership, a different party, someone else could not respect the rights the way that we do. So women will need to know their rights. They need to know that they have every right to be paid equally as their co-workers. That's why we support salary disclosure. We want companies to be able to tell people salary ranges for an individual before they apply for jobs. So someone who's not held back because they didn't earn enough earlier in their career, every job has its value. And that should not change depending on whether a man or woman applies for it. So the way we end the disenfranchisement overall is to get more women in elective office. We're making progress, as I said, but there are still outliers and levels of government in places of government where women are not represented equally, or even at all. And that's what I want to work to change.
Preston: Navigating the teenage years can be rough, we go through times of doubt and insecurities. I know my teenage years were kind of rough, looking at the person you are now, what advice would you say to your teenage self?
Hochul: I had no confidence as a teenager, I just had no confidence. And that despite my mother's best efforts, you hit an age where you just feel awkward and gawky and not sure you know, your place in society, what the future is going to bring. It's an incredible time of stress, and I'm aware of that as I have my own children who are older, but I have nieces who are teenagers, and I know what they're going through. So what I would say to them is, you will be fine, you're going to get through this, this is a temporary time in your life, and push yourself. Know try to travel a little bit, you know, go see other communities, read books, listen to podcasts, you know, improve yourself and try to find out that one area or many, many areas that create that spark of passion in you, what excites you, what do you care about? And what kind of legacy do you want to leave, you're only a teenager, but I was a teenager, helping elect people to office. You can be very involved. And the voices of young people can be very powerful, whether it's in making sure we have gun safety legislation as the young children or the teenagers, who were the survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida a few years ago, or standing up to fight environmental injustice and fight to protect the climate. I mean, teenage voices can be powerful. I didn't know that at the time. And if I had known that, at the time, I think I could have even been more impactful as a teenager. So young women need to know a couple of things. One is confidence is something you can create in yourself instantaneously. You can walk into a room, walk into a classroom, walk into a party, and just have that internal confidence that I've got this I can handle anything. And all of a sudden, even if you're just having to imagine it temporarily, at some point, it becomes your own. You become that confident person. And if you can have confidence as a teenager, that you can handle any circumstance that you can speak publicly speak up in a classroom, let your voice be heard. There is no stopping you. So I want women to know young women to know that start training yourself mentally to visualize yourself as a leader, and then there's no stopping you.