Thursday, 03 April 2014 12:52
For 59 years after the creation of Nassau County in 1899, no woman had ever served on the Board of Supervisors. Suddenly, in late 1958, two of the six members of the board were women, both recent widows appointed to temporarily replace their husbands.
The year before, the Oyster Bay Town Board had appointed Marjorie R. Post of Massapequa, another widow and a grandmother, to fill a vacancy, making her the county’s first-ever female Town Board member and only the second ever on Long Island. Post was the only one of these three pioneering women to actually run for a term in her own right, and she was returned to the board by comfortable margins in 1957 and 1961.
Post had been postmaster in Massapequa years before. Her appointment was met with high praise by the press and public, but Newsday was careful in describing Post’s “outstanding community service” to also point out, of course, that “Long Island’s most prominent lady in politics at present is Assemblywoman Genesta Strong.”
By the time her 15-year legislative career ended, Mrs. Strong had set every record for service by a woman in the state legislature, but her career was the exception that proved the rule about how political women were regarded and treated really until the 1970s. In fact, her service in the legislature was originally supposed to be temporary.
A lot of things had to come together for Mrs. Strong to go to Albany. In 1944, several prominent public officials had been called up for military service (the most prominent was Hempstead Presiding Supervisor Holly Paterson), and in each case their place was held for their return by the appointment of a loyal, trustworthy Republican. In 1944, the first redistricting in many years doubled the number of Nassau County’s seats in the legislature.
Previously, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove had formed one Assembly district, and now it was split into two districts. Former Assemblyman Norman Penny of Manhasset was in the Army and the “replacement” Assemblyman was now nominated to represent a new State Senate district. Someone was needed to represent North Hempstead in the Assembly for the duration of the war.
Genesta Strong, nearly 60, seemed perfect. She and her husband, attorney Ernest Strong, were Plandome socialites who both descended from ancient Long Island families and were very active for decades in Republican circles. On June 15, 1944, the party convention granted her what one newspaper called “the highest honor ever accorded a woman here” and designated her for an Assembly seat that could not be lost to a Democrat.
Only two months before, in April, longtime Deputy Clerk of Oyster Bay Helen Francke was appointed as the county’s first female Town Clerk. However, it was made clear that she would not be nominated to complete the term in that November’s special election. In January 1945, Francke returned to the position of Deputy Clerk.
At the time of Strong’s designation, 149 out of the state’s 150 Members of Assembly were males.
The Strong nomination generated so much positive chatter and excitement that Nassau Democrats countered by nominating as her opponent Alicia R. O’Connor, who had become the county’s first female judge when she was elected Westbury Village Justice in 1938. O’Connor later would be elected to the Family Court. In 1944, however, Genesta Strong received 67 percent of the 50,000 votes cast in Nassau County District 3.
In May 1946, Member of Assembly Strong and North Hempstead Republican leader Marcus Christ publicly offered Penny his Assembly seat back. Penny, a legendary fundraiser for Nassau Republicans, no longer wanted to spend time in Albany and, to everyone’s surprise, he turned the offer down.
Genesta Strong stayed put. Fifteen years later, her sudden absence inadvertently messed up this month’s tax bills.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org