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Girl Scouts Hochul

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul greets a group of Girl Scouts at the inaugural Girl Scout Convention on Women's Rights in Seneca Falls Friday. 

Melina Carnicelli recalls a comment she heard often while campaigning for Auburn mayor in 1999. When her volunteers knocked on doors in the city, voters, mostly men, would ask why she wasn't watching her children or at home cooking dinner. 

The sexism didn't derail Carnicelli's historic bid. She was the first woman elected mayor of Auburn. 

"It didn't deter me from running because I knew I could do the job," she said in a phone interview. 

New York is commemorating the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. Women could vote in the state three years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It was a major achievement that was decades, if not centuries, in the making. 

But as the state celebrates the women's suffrage centennial, there are conversations about what the future holds for women, especially those serving or wishing to serve in government. 

When Carnicelli ran for mayor nearly 20 years ago, she was already serving in city government. Four years before, she was the second woman ever elected to the city council. 

The "Why isn't she at home"-type comments weren't foreign to her then and she knows similar sentiments are expressed in the present. 

"That kind of prejudice against women in leadership existed at that time and still exists today," she said. 

It's a reason why she and other women leaders, including Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, are focused on the future. 

Hochul is leading the state's women's suffrage centennial commission. The panel is tasked with developing ideas for educational programs and events commemorating the anniversary. 

"What happened in 1848 (at the Seneca Falls Convention) and winning the right to vote 70 years later in 1917 are wonderful parts of our history and our story, but 100 years later we have a moral responsibility to not just hold the torch and pass it on but to make sure that torch is nurtured and the flames grow even brighter," Hochul said. 

Carnicelli and Hochul highlighted the challenges women face, whether it's a lack of confidence or not wanting to wade into a messy political climate. 

Outside government, there are cultural issues. The rash of sexual assault and harassment allegations levied against powerful men, such as Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein, shed light on the conditions women are subjected to in society. Whether it's in Congress or corporate America, sexism is an epidemic. 

"There are inequalities that are so prevalent in our culture that it's discouraging for women," Hochul said. 

A cultural shift is needed, according to Hochul. But she also believes that internal shifts will help bring more women to the table. 

She remembered the constant attacks and barrage of criticism she faced while running for Congress in 2011. Her husband would clip negative letters to the editor from the newspaper so she wouldn't see them. 

"Women see this and say, 'I don't want to sign up for that' and I tell them 'But you need to,'" she said. "We're at a point where we need to stand up for ourselves." 

A challenge mentioned by Carnicelli and Hochul is the number of women elected officials. Hochul noted that when she served in Congress, 21 percent of the House and Senate membership was women. Now it's 19.6 percent. 

There has been a slight increase at the state level. Women now hold 27.7 percent of the seats in the state Legislature. 

State Sen. Pam Helming, whose district includes Seneca Falls, is one of the newest members of the state Legislature. She was elected in 2016 to succeed state Sen. Michael Nozzolio. Helming, R-Canandaigua, is one of 14 women in the state Senate. 

Carnicelli is involved with two initiatives that aim for gender parity in elected office. One program is WomenElect, a leadership class for a limited number of participants that educates women on how to run for political office. Another is First Amendment-First Vote, which is an educational program for high school girls. 

Nationally, the number of women serving in elected office is 20 percent, according to Carnicelli. Yet women make up more than 50 percent of the population. 

"There are plenty of qualified, dedicated and effective women who could be and should be leaders in our governance areas," Carnicelli said. 

For now, Hochul urged women and all citizens to vote. But she is also asking them to consider the future and the state of women's rights in 2017 and beyond. 

"How will we be judged 100 years from now? And I want people to feel the weight of that responsibility," she said. "We should be as courageous and as audacious as the women and women who stood with them a century ago were."