In the 20th century, a woman had to prove she was man enough to hold elective office. In the 21st century, we are still in an era of firsts. Bonnie Watson Coleman is the first African-American Woman in the New Jersey congressional delegation. Sheila Oliver was the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly Speaker. She’s practically patented the practice of using political power to create change. That makes her a Jersey Girl. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams spoke with her about being a Jersey Girl and about the barriers women face in entering politics.
Williams: You were the first female African-American woman to be the New Jersey Assembly Speaker. Does that milestone mean a lot to you?
Oliver: It absolutely does. Particularly because I was the second in the country, followed by Karen Bass of California who is now a U.S. Congresswoman.
Williams: Are there unique barriers to women of color in holding those positions?
Oliver: I think there are unique barriers to women in general and then a woman of color puts a different slant on it, but there’s no doubt that in the environment of a legislative house in a leadership role in government, that is something that men in politics are unaccustomed to.
Williams: We are in the 21st century in an era of firsts. The first African-American president, perhaps the first women president, we have Bonnie Watson Coleman who is the first African-American female in the New Jersey Congressional delegation after having had no women for more than a decade. How do we move towards having our representatives actually reflect the people they represent?
Oliver: I think that we are in a good place because people who are in historical “minority” groups are becoming very vocal and assertive about the diversity that is required in policy making, decision making, at all levels in every sector. So, I think that we are in a good place. There’s a long way to go, but I think that women, I think that people who have physical challenges, everyone is realizing that the best society is a diverse society.
Williams: What are the unique obstacles facing women in politics? Is it tough for a woman to run?
Oliver: I don’t think it’s tough for a woman to run, but I do believe once a woman is elected, a woman has to kind of maneuver a thin line between being overly aggressive and assertive, but at the same time having the ability to be viewed as an effective leader.
Williams: How do women lead differently than men?
Oliver: Women are inclusive. There is no doubt that myself, as well as all of the women that I have customarily worked with around the state, we much more facilitate inclusion of everyone. Everyone has a seat at the table and everyone participates. We are more consensus builders than men are. I think that women seek to find the sweet spot of win-win.
Williams: Who was your role model when you were a kid?
Oliver: Certainly I can’t leave out parents who really cultivated me to be an independent thinker, but my role model in terms of politics was the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm I was raptured with, as a 17-, 18-year-old when she told Strom Thurmond that there were no farms in Brooklyn so could she be taken off of that committee and put on the education committee. The fact that she announced a candidacy for the presidency, won delegates and had a wit and a tongue that was quick. She and her era, Bella Abzug and others, I was very influenced by the women of that era.
Williams: What got you interested in actually going into politics?
Oliver: Not liking inequality and injustice. In eighth grade I read “Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens which everyone knows is a story of the French Revolution and the people were starving, there was no bread, and Marie Antoinette said let them eat cake. So at a very early age I developed a need to just respond to inequality and injustice wherever I saw it.
Williams: Christine Todd Whitman told us that she thought men run for politics for the power. Women run because they want to fix one particular thing.
Oliver: I agree with Gov. Whitman wholeheartedly. Absolutely. You see that at work in the Legislature. I often said that we create too many laws, but it’s because there are so many special interests involved in politics. You will find the men in the Legislature wanting to be more responsive to those special interests, where you will find women trying to seek answers to a problem that exists in the state.
Williams: What was the one thing that made you run?
Oliver: I think knowing that my voice in the room could make a difference. I tell young people who have an interest in public service that it does depend on who’s in the room, and whose voice is in the room could make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.
Williams: Women legislators face different challenges than men in terms of getting committee assignments and being heard in those rooms.
Oliver: Absolutely they do. I think the one barrier we know that is talked about all the time is women not being able to raise the competitive amounts of money that are needed to launch certain campaigns.
Williams: Why do you think that is?
Oliver: I think it has to do with historically the professions women have been in, historically, versus the professions that men have been in.
Williams: But that was a long time ago.
Oliver: True, but it’s changing. It is now changing, but I think historically that is why you saw women. I once heard a state senator tell a group of women if you can go get your hair done, and your nails and your pedicure every two weeks, you can donate to a female candidate.
Williams: There’s a line. In the Legislature what was your biggest accomplishment?
Oliver: I think raising the minimum wage in New Jersey was something that was extremely important to me. I was able to get a compromise with the Senate President to incorporate the minimum wage being tied to the consumer price index, but I thought that was very important to do in New Jersey after we were coming off of a record 10.5 percent unemployment rate. I would go in places like Lowes and Home Depot and meet people who had had careers where they were making middle income wages and now they’re relegated to working in a $7.50 an hour job. That is something I will remember. That and paid family leave was important to me.
Williams: What’s the one that got away?
Oliver: I think the ability to effectuate the costs of higher education in New Jersey. We know that having a college education is essential today and the affordability of college is getting out of the reach of many working class families in New Jersey.
Williams: What do you see as the single most pressing issue facing our state, and are we equipped to handle it?
Oliver: I think the pressing issue is growing and expanding our economy. The revenue streams that we historically have relied upon is changing dramatically. I think that if we do not begin to grow and begin to expand business in the state, find new revenue streams, we are going to be in worse financial conditions than we are today. I think we have to begin as politicians, which I don’t like that word, but as elected officials we have to begin to communicate honestly and directly with all of the various interest groups in our state. We cannot be everything to everybody. And everyone that knocks on our door, that is seeking some type of financial support from the state, we have to learn to say the word “no.” That doesn’t have to be an unpleasant situation, but I think that we possibly don’t have the capability to fund everything that’s on the table right now in the Legislature. We’re looking at the constitutional amendment for guaranteed payment to the pension fund, every quarter guaranteed payment. We’re looking at changing the way redistricting works. We’re having a number of initiatives and they all have a price tag associated with them. We know that our budget is not good, our economy is not growing as fast as it should. We are in a very competitive region in this state and we have to be smarter with where we invest our resources.
Williams: What do you tell a young woman who comes knocking on your door and says, “Should I do this? Why should I do this?”
Oliver: I tell her absolutely yes you should do this. I like to quote a line from that book, “The Help.” There’s a line Viola Davis uses and says, “You is pretty, you is smart and you is loved.” And I think that’s a good message for all young women in New Jersey.
Jersey Girls is an ongoing initiative that features some of the powerful women who call New Jersey home.