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A group of women and men from the National Woman’s Party (NWP) can be seen picketing President Woodrow Wilson outside of the International Amphitheater in Chicago, where he was delivering a speech. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Civil rights group spar over county committee seats

NOW opposes progressive bid to end gender balance of party committees

By Nikita Biryukov, April 15 2019 5:51 pm

Two civil rights advocacy groups are in a spat over a state law requiring equal halves of the state’s county committee seats be filled by members of both sexes.

In February, Garden State Equality sent a letter to State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, asking that he issue a formal calling the statute unconstitutional on grounds that it discriminates against transgender and non-binary individuals.

“Apportionment of seats by gender is, in and of itself, gender-based discrimination, and it is likely to have the effect of limiting or at least discouraging transgender and non-binary-identified New Jerseyans from seeking leadership seats in a political party,” Garden State Equality policy director Aaron Potenza said in the letter.

Grewal’s office has yet to issue any formal opinions this year. Garden State Equality asked that he do so on March 14, a couple weeks ahead of filing day on April 1.

New Jersey’s Branch of the National Organization for Women came out against a lawsuit filed by Central Jersey Progressive Democrats that seeks to overturn the law.

The former group contests that the statute ensures equal representation for women seeking county committee seats, while Garden State Equality claims the law is discriminatory because it bans women from half of the county committee leadership posts.

“We have not come as far as we think or have been led to believe by the establishment… a myth that supports the status quo,” said Diane Scarangella, president of the Northern New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women. “If we had, we wouldn’t see a lack of enforcement. Clearly, we still need both men and women to see the need to advocate for gender equity and this type of statute supports that.”

Party organizations started segregating male and female county committee in the early 1920’s, after New Jersey ratified the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.  Camden County Republicans were first to move for the change, just weeks after the legislature voted to ratify.

Currently, women hold a little more than 30% of the seats in the legislature – 10 of the State Senate’s 40 seats and 27 of the Assembly’s 80 seats.

Democrats that filed the suit are seeking to run all-female slates for county committee. Em Phipps, a non-binary candidate is seeking to run without being labelled male or female on the ballot.

In January, New Jersey passed a law allowing residents to select a gender-neutral option on their birth certificates, but no such provision exists for County Committee candidates.

A number of counties no longer enforce the county committee statute.

Burlington County was the first to drop it after now-former Judge Harold Wells III issued an opinion calling the statute unconstitutional. Clerks in Cumberland, Mercer, Essex, Hunterdon and Passaic Counties have since allowed all-female and all-male slates of candidates.

In those most of those counties, NOW said, the result has been an increased share of male-male county committee pairs.

The lone exception appears to be the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee, which is chaired by Arlene Quiñones Perez.

“Having been involved in politics in New Jersey for the last twenty years, the push to abandon a law that has only served to enhance the role of women in the Party is truly frustrating. I serve in a leadership role as one of only a few women, so I speak from a position of knowledge and understanding,” Quiñones Perez said. “The rooms I go into rarely have more than a couple of women at the table. Abandoning this law in the guise of equality is a misguided attempt to fix a problem that will only become even worse.”

Garden State Equality said the statute also lends undue public scrutiny to transgender individuals.

“The unnecessary intrusion on members of the transgender community that is implicated by the gender analysis and classification called for by this statute, such as inquiry on whether they have chosen to undergo gender affirmation surgery or other undertaken medical treatments, is harmful and not supported by a legitimate government purpose,” Potenza said.

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