From being denied opportunities because of their race and gender to becoming successful businesswomen and community activists during a global pandemic, the seven women honored at the Rockville Centre Democratic Club’s Women of Distinction panel on March 24 have proven their resolve in overcoming obstacles.
“It’s such an impressive group of women,” State Assemblywoman Judy Griffin said before presenting each of the honorees with citations from her and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach — to be sent to them following the virtual ceremony — adding that she was “so impressed by all the work they have done and continue to do for the community.”
The honorees included Keisha Coads, a physician assistant at the Rikers Island Prison Complex who has provided inmates with behavioral health services for more than a decade; Dr. Gayle Insler, a professor emeritus and former president and provost at Adelphi University known for successfully removing the university’s president due to his financial mismanagement of the college; Jaime Jordan, the founder of Indivisible Nassau County; Diane Masciale, a three-time Emmy Award winner who is now the president and general manager of WLIW; Ginny O’Sullivan, a Rockville Centre teacher for 36 years; and Rena Riback, founder of the Anti-Racism Project. Former Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen received the club’s inaugural Public Official Woman of Distinction Award for becoming the first Democrat in 100 years to be elected to the position.
The honorees were initially scheduled to be recognized at a public ceremony last spring, but the event was postponed due to the pandemic, and instead took the form of a panel discussion on Zoom.
“These past 12 months … have been filled with pain, isolation and angst, but they’ve also taught us new ways to be together and to look for and appreciate sources of light in the darkness that has enveloped us,” Louise Skolnik, co-president of the Democratic Club, said at the start of the ceremony, calling the honorees women “whose accomplishments have … brought light into our world” and “enhanced our quality of life” while raising families of their own.
But that hasn’t always been easy, the women said as they shared their stories. Gillen, for example, told the group of more than 60 participants about the difficulties she faced as a young, pregnant attorney at a large Manhattan law firm. At the time, she said, it was almost unheard of for a woman to go back to work after having a child, and one of her colleagues even told her to have a nanny take a lot of photos of the baby so she “will always remember his childhood.”
“We were taught as young women it was an open field — you could do it all, you could achieve it all,” Gillen recounted, but at the firm, Cahill, Gordon & Reindel, she said, “There were days when I was like, ‘You can’t have it all.’”
It was then, she said, that she decided to work closer to home, and in 2017 she was elected town supervisor, while also trying to raise her two children. At one point, she said, her son told her he wished she were never elected because she was on call 24/7. He changed his mind, though, after she took him to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s news conference at which he announced that the New York Islanders would return to Long Island with a new arena at Belmont Park. “Then he decided I had a great job,” Gillen recalled, and both her children are now interested in politics.
“It’s a constantly changing landscape when you’re trying to balance these things,” Gillen said, which Masciale said she also had to face when she worked as a producer for NBC news shows. Fortunately, she said, her boss spoke to the executives, and they agreed to let her work part-time so she could also take care of her two children.
“Family, for me, has always been critical, and a real part of what made me successful,” Masciale said.
That wasn’t the only time she faced sexism, she said, describing how, as a junior in high school, she was told she could not take physics as a girl. “There was no good reason for that,” Masciale said, so she decided to attend night school instead and graduate early.
And Masciale wasn’t the only honoree that recalled facing sexism in school. Insler said that when she was in college, majoring in biology and focusing on parasitology, and wanted to take part in a study of tapeworms, her professor asked her what would prevent her from having a child and never finishing her studies, something Insler said she would never do.
Five years later, she said, that professor admitted that she was one of the best students he had ever worked with. “I’m grateful not everyone has to go through those hurdles,” Insler said, and Jordan noted that she has learned over the past four years, since Indivisible Nassau County was founded, that “bravery takes discomfort.”
These stories continue to resonate with the women who attended the gathering, Skolnik said, and Rockville Centre Mayor Fran Murray added that he hoped each of the honorees would continue with “all the great things you do for this community.”