From the Archives: Influential Women in Long Island’s History

12 women who have made a lasting impact on Long Island -- and beyond -- in a range of disciplines.

They touched the arts, politics, sports, civil rights and science.

These are the fields of just some of the women who made it into a December 1999 Newsday special section called “Long Island Influentials.” The section highlighted a group of Long Islanders who left a footprint on the Island and largely paved a national legacy. Today, we call these individuals influencers, change-makers, and game changers.

Looking back at Long Island’s history, here are some highlights of several women from “Long Island Influentials” whose actions remain relevant today. We’ve updated entries for some of the women but most of what follows is reprinted from the original publication.

Hazel Dukes: Civil Rights Leader

When she was just a skinny Alabama schoolgirl, she refused to let a shopkeeper’s racial slight go unnoticed. When she was just a maid from Roslyn, she refused to allow black children to be railroaded into classes for children with developmental disabilities. When she was a Carter supporter during the 1980 presidential campaign, she refused to allow his backers to be heckled. That is Hazel Dukes for you. Committed, determined, unconventional, controversial.

Dukes has long been at the forefront of the push for equal rights in New York State. After moving to Roslyn in the mid-1950s and joining the local branch of the NAACP, Dukes began making her voice heard on issues ranging from public housing to minority appointments in government.

In 1977, she was elected statewide NAACP president, a position she has held since. In 1990, she was elected president of the national NAACP.

Her activism in Democratic politics put her on a first-name basis with mayors, governors, senators and presidents.

Dukes, who once filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the New York City OTB, eventually was named its chief. And in 1990, Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed her as a trustee of the state university.

But scandal would eventually envelop the fiery Dukes.

In 1997, the former OTB president pleaded guilty to stealing more than $13,000 from a leukemia-stricken employee who had entrusted Dukes, then at OTB, to cash her paychecks and pay her bills. Dukes was kicked off the NAACP’s national board and she resigned from the SUNY board.

And when she won re-election as state NAACP president in 1999, opponents appealed to the organization’s national headquarters, saying Dukes rigged the election and had broken a promise not to run again. Her victory was upheld, and she has been re-elected to the position every two years since.

Dukes, now 86 and living in Manhattan, also serves on the organization’s national board of directors. -Martin C. Evans

Alicia Patterson: Publisher, Founder of Newsday

Inexplicably, after World War II, the major New York newspapers failed to comprehend the explosive population growth that was about to transform Long Island. So they didn’t expand vigorously eastward. That left an opening for a shaky new daily, run by a novice who’d lost her first real journalism job when her own father fired her. Given that opportunity, Alicia Patterson (1906-1963) did not fail.

Her aggressiveness and journalistic instincts transformed Newsday from a ragged upstart into the most successful new daily paper in the postwar years — a feisty, go-for-the-knees newspaper that outlasted three daily competitors to become a monopoly.

She had newspapering in her genes, back to her great-great-grandfather, who established an Ohio weekly. Her father was Joseph Medill Patterson, who founded the New York Daily News. She worked briefly for him as a reporter, but he fired her when she made a mistake on a divorce story and caused a libel suit. Still, he hoped eventually to give her a major role at the News.

To prepare her for that, her third husband, Harry Frank Guggenheim, felt she should run a newspaper of her own. Though she was initially reluctant, he persisted, and they launched Newsday on Sept. 3, 1940.

Guggenheim provided the money and financial acumen. Patterson offered the newspapering sense and the strength of will. Her father told her a tabloid would never work here, but she made Newsday a tabloid anyway. Her husband constantly tried to rein her in financially, and they often fought about politics. But she ran the newsroom, hired tough, no-nonsense journalists and let them work.

In the process, she helped shape Long Island in such diverse ways as nurturing the birth of Levittown and making the former air base, Mitchel Field, available for a broad variety of uses, including sports, education, retail shopping and industry.

And after she died at age 56, Jack Mann, one of her editors, said, “She was the greatest newspaperman I’ve ever known.” -Bob Keeler

Joan Whitney Payson: Mets Owner

Like many heirs to great fortunes, Joan Whitney Payson (1903-1975) lived a life of fine schools, Gilded Era parties, summers at the Saratoga racetrack, society benefits and checkbook philanthropy.

What set her apart is that Joan Whitney Payson gave us the New York Mets.

Payson inherited a passion for baseball from her mother, Helen Hay Whitney, who brought young Joan to games at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, where they cheered on the New York Giants. From her father, Payne Whitney, who was the third richest man in the United States when he died in 1927, Payson inherited the means to indulge her obsession with the game.

Payson, whose main home was in Manhasset, eventually became a minority owner in the Giants baseball team and was heartbroken when Horace Stoneham decided to take the team to San Francisco following the 1957 season.

She offered to buy the Giants to keep them in New York, but Stoneham wouldn’t sell.

When the National League expanded to 10 teams in 1962, Payson jumped at a chance to be an owner. She put in about $4 million for 85 percent of the team, and established its personality early on when she made sure that the team hired some of the old New York baseball faces, including the first manager, Casey Stengel, and, in the waning years of his career, Willie Mays.

Payson, who often appeared at her box at Shea Stadium chewing hot dogs and munching popcorn, didn’t get everything she wanted. Before the team’s first season, she suggested that the fledgling team be called the Meadowlarks, a reference to their eventual home in Flushing Meadows.

The suggestion was turned down. -Phil Mintz

Carolyn McCarthy: Long Island’s First Congresswoman

The Dec. 7, 1993, Long Island Rail Road commuter run to Mineola changed the national gun control debate and introduced America to Carolyn McCarthy, an unsuspecting and unprepared, but gifted champion of gun control.

The life of the Brooklyn-born nurse, wife and mother changed that day after her husband and five others were fatally shot and her son wounded as the 5:33 p.m. train pulled into Garden City’s Merillon Avenue station. She was zealous in her pursuit of stronger gun control legislation, and traveled to Washington urging her congressman, Rep. Dan Frisa, to oppose efforts to repeal a ban on assault weapons. When he voted for the repeal, McCarthy, a registered Republican, considered challenging him in a primary. Instead, she decided to take Democratic backing and oppose him in the general election. She won the election easily.

McCarthy was emotional, but fearless in her attacks on the National Rifle Association and the powerful gun lobby. She became an effective standard-bearer and an evermore effective advocate at many gun control rallies-at the White House where President Bill Clinton praised her courage and conviction, on Capitol Hill and across the country. Her bittersweet rise from homemaker to powerbroker even inspired a prime-time, made-for- TV movie.

In her successful 1998 re-election campaign, she was criticized as being too liberal for her district and a “media star.” Her reply was characteristically direct. She called the criticism “mean-spirited.” Though McCarthy learned the backroom ways of the Capitol, securing funds for local education and water-supply projects for her district, it is the emotional and contentious issue of gun control to which she always returns. She called for childproof locks on handguns, fines for parents if a child carries a gun and jail terms if the child uses a gun to commit a crime. She also blocked the effort by Democratic veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to allow imports of World War II-era firearms.

McCarthy, now 74 and living in Old Bethpage, sponsored the last gun control bill enacted by Congress: a 2007 law to coax states to improve reporting of people with mental illness to the federal background check system to screen out ineligible gun buyers.

She also passed measures on education, health and financial regulation, as well as laws to preserve civil rights oral histories and to create a day of service on Sept. 11, to mark the 2001 terror attacks.

In 2014, as she was undergoing successful treatment for lung cancer, McCarthy announced that she would not seek re-election. -James Toedtman with Tom Brune

Elinor Smith Sullivan: Aviation Trailblazer

When in 1930 the American Society for the Promotion of Aviation asked the nation’s licensed fliers to name the best male and female pilots in the United States, the surprising female winner was not the well-known Amelia Earhart. It was the 19-year-old wunderkind from Freeport, Elinor Patricia Smith (1911-2010).

Perhaps it should not have been a surprise. It is said that Elinor Smith Sullivan, as she was known after her marriage a year later, flew longer, faster and higher than any woman before her. “I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” the modest Sullivan said when interviewed from her home in Santa Cruz, Calif., at age 88. “The right place was Curtiss Field, in Mineola. It was the center of aviation at that time.” Sullivan longed to be a pilot from the day her father buckled her into the passenger seat of a contraption known as a flying machine. Operated by a barnstorming pilot who was offering $5 rides, it was parked in a potato field outside of Hicksville. “It was almost like a viral thing,” Smith said of flying that first time as a 6-year-old. “It got into your bloodstream. You wanted to do it every day.” The firsts rolled in. At age 15 she became the youngest woman in the world to fly solo; a year later she became the youngest woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license.

In 1929 Smith set the women’s solo endurance record, at 13-plus hours, then lost it, and won it back again by staying aloft over Nassau County for more than 26 hours. She quit flying to raise a family, but in 1956 she found herself at the controls once more when the Air Force invited her to help out with training exercises at Mitchel Field.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful time,” Sullivan told Newsday in 1997. “I just loved every part of it.” -George DeWan

Judith Hope: Long Island’s First Female Town Supervisor

Judith Hope, 78, of East Hampton, who served as New York State’s Democratic leader for seven years, made a career out of ousting entrenched Republicans from power.

Hope started out at age 34 by not only becoming Long Island’s first female town supervisor, in East Hampton, but upsetting the long-standing Republican duchy, then presided over by Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea. So upset were Republicans when she took power, that they stripped the supervisor’s office of its files.

She served three two-year terms.

As the State Democratic chairwoman, Hope was able to keep the Democratic field from self-destructing as it had in the early 90s. The morning after the 1998 primary, Hope orchestrated a unity breakfast.

“My role,” said Hope later, “was to make sure we could come out of the primary and all pull together.” The peaceful primary outcome led to the eventual win of Sen. Chuck Schumer, who toppled a Long Island Republican institution, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, after an 18-year run as “Senator Pothole.”

Daughter of the former Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, Hope was reared on politics from a young age. She also served her own apprenticeship in statewide politics, working three years as appointments secretary to former Gov. Hugh Carey, a vice chairwoman of the state party and in 1994 serving as deputy campaign manager for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1995, she became the first woman to head a major party in New York State.

In 2001, three days after Democrats lost what they had expected to be a stunning victory in the New York City mayor’s race, Hope resigned from the post. She has also served as a member of the Democratic National Committee.-Rick Brand

Elaine Benson: Gallery Owner

After Elaine Benson (1924-1998) died, author and friend Kurt Vonnegut called the gallery owner and philanthropist “central to the spirit of the Hamptons.” No one, he said, could take her place.

By the time of her death at age 74, the silver-haired doyenne of the local arts and cultural scene had witnessed – and in many senses guided – the mushrooming of the East End art scene.

Her Bridgehampton gallery nurtured young talent in a community that was home to the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. For more than two decades, the Elaine Benson Gallery hosted what is considered the kickoff of the Hamptons summer social season: the annual Meet the Writers Book Fair & Exhibition.

Benson’s influence spread not only through the art shows she staged in the barn, courtyard and converted outbuildings adjacent to her home, or the weekly column she wrote for the local Dan’s Papers for 35 years. Her gallery became Fund-Raising Central for the benefits-crazed East End. And her heart outpaced the hype: Always respectful of the local farmers and “ordinary” folk in the celeb-saturated Hamptons, she raised funds tirelessly on behalf of the local hospital and charities.

Typically self-effacing, Benson kept her struggle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma a secret from all but her closest friends. Keenly aware that she needed someone to carry on her legacy, she left the gallery to her handpicked successor and daughter Kimberly Goff. -Beth Whitehouse

Barbara McClintock: Nobel Prize-Winning Geneticist

Because many scientists considered her work too radical, the reclusive Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) had to wait until 1983 to receive the Nobel Prize.

She was 81 years old.

McClintock, the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, was one of Long Island’s stars of science. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, she received a bachelor of science, a master’s degree and a PhD from Cornell University. At Cornell, the scientist began her lifelong work on the genetics of corn and transposition – the idea that genes could move around on plant chromosomes and cause changes in heredity.

With a Guggenheim fellowship, McClintock traveled to Germany to study in 1933, but the rise of Nazism brought her back. She found she could not be hired at Cornell University as a professor because she was a woman.

In 1941, McClintock began working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, tending maize plants and examining the colors of corn kernels to unlock the secrets of genetic inheritance. Her findings were so unexpected that when McClintock presented them at a 1951 conference, fellow scientists largely dismissed them.

She received her Nobel after modern molecular techniques upheld the validity of her earlier work.

“They called me crazy, absolutely mad at times,” McClintock once said when asked about her long wait for recognition. But “if you know you’re right, you don’t care,” she added. “You know that sooner or later it will come out in the wash.” -Kathleen Kerr

Elizabeth Guanill: Community Leader

When Elizabeth Sosa’s family moved to Bay Shore from Brooklyn in 1942, they were among the first wave of Hispanic families to settle in the Brentwood-Bay Shore area. And it wasn’t too long before Sosa, who married and became Elizabeth Guanill, was paving the way for others to follow the same path. Guanill’s family-owned bodega soon became a central gathering place, a link between the Hispanics, primarily Puerto Ricans, who had made the move to Suffolk County, and those in New York City and Puerto Rico who sought out the still-rural character of the area.

While raising a family of her own, Guanill (1924-1994) helped would-be newcomers find real estate agents who would help them buy property, and she helped them get jobs at large employers such as Grumman and the Pilgrim Psychiatric Hospital.

“She was a godmother to the many Hispanics trying to find a place to settle,” said Carlos Vidal, an associate professor at Stony Brook University who has studied the postwar migration of Hispanics to Long Island.

Guanill, who made an unsuccessful run as a Democrat for Islip Town supervisor in 1977, was involved in causes ranging from local Hispanic groups to Camp Molloy, which served meals to migrant workers on the East End. She joined the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission in 1971, and served as chairwoman from 1974-1981, speaking out in cases of alleged police brutality and calling for an independent investigation.

“She was the first Hispanic to serve in that kind of a capacity,” Vidal said.

“She was now somebody at the table, and human rights was the issue. She became a spokesperson for people of color.” -Phil Mintz

Ellen McCormack: Anti-Abortion Activist, Presidential Candidate

In 1976, a housewife from Merrick ran for president. In so doing, she helped put the anti-abortion movement on the political map.

Ellen McCormack, mother of four and wife of a veteran New York City police officer, was an early leader in the grassroots groups that sprouted during the debate leading up to New York State’s legalization of abortion in 1970. In 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling legalized the procedure nationally.

Frustrated in her efforts to get her message out, McCormack, a registered Democrat, decided to enter the party’s presidential primaries in 1976.

“It was an effort to educate the people,” she reflected, 20 years afterward.

McCormack (1924-2011) won about 20 delegates and got her name put into nomination on the floor of the Democratic convention at Madison Square Garden. Soon-to-be President Jimmy Carter got the party’s nod. But along the way, McCormack was covered by Walter Cronkite on the evening news and raised enough money to broadcast television commercials with her anti-abortion theme.

“She brought some of that publicity to us that we hadn’t had before,” said Lena Hartnett of Greenlawn, who succeeded McCormack as chairwoman of the state Right-to-Life Party in 1986.

McCormack helped found the state party and then ran for president again in 1980, getting on the ballot in New York, New Jersey and Kentucky on the Right to Life line. -Ken Moritsugu

Christine Jorgensen: Transgender Pioneer

On Feb. 12, 1953, Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) stepped off a plane from Denmark at what was then Idlewild Airport and was besieged by a frenzy of reporters and photographers. They were there to chronicle the most audacious celebrity postwar America had ever seen, and they couldn’t get enough of her-what she drank (a Bloody Mary, two shots of vodka, please), where she’d sleep (Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel), what she wore (down to her size 9, AA shoes).

What had lured them was the 26-year-old’s slender body, her smoky voice, her sleek blond hair-and the fact that, until just two months before, it had all belonged to a 98-pound ex-GI named George. It was America’s age of innocence, when issues of sexuality, much less transgender issues, were strictly taboo. Everyone liked Ike, loved Lucy and aimed to be just as bland, and so it didn’t take much to propel George Jorgensen Jr.’s two-year odyssey from man to woman into the subject of international debate, and ridicule.

“I could never understand why I was receiving so much attention,” Jorgensen said in a 1986 interview. “Now, looking back, I realize it was the beginning of the Sexual Revolution, and I just happened to be one of the trigger mechanisms.” Though she dreamed of living a quiet life in Massapequa, every move she made became front-page news. And so, in 1967, after 14 years on Long Island, the Bronx-born Jorgensen swept off to Los Angeles and the talk-show, lecture and cabaret circuit.

Still, she always understood that the political was personal. Perhaps she said it most poignantly in a letter to her parents written in 1952, on the eve of her second operation. “Nature made a mistake, which I have now corrected,” Jorgensen wrote, “and I am now your daughter.” -Michele Ingrassia

Christine Frederick: Household Engineer

Her byline said it all: By Mrs. Christine Frederick, The Distinguished Authority on Household Efficiency.

If there was a Martha Stewart of the early 20th century, it might very well have been this maverick Greenlawn homemaker. Like that magazine-publishing, IPO-unveiling doyenne of domesticity, Frederick (1883- 1970) offered plenty of mundane advice to the readers of her syndicated newspaper column, from making homemade marzipan to arranging nasturtiums. Starting in 1912 at her Applecroft Home Experiment Station, situated in a North Shore fruit orchard, she tested newfangled appliances, refined efficiency principles and revisited the concept of kitchen design.

In this respect, Frederick was more than an expert; she was a liberator of sorts, seeking to replace the labor-intensiveness and time constraints of traditional Victorian domesticity with a newer approach that acknowledged – and accommodated – the notion that a woman wanted more out of life than a just well-stocked pantry. And the title of her popular 1929 book, “Selling Mrs. Consumer,” signaled to marketers and advertisers that women were a discriminating segment of the market who couldn’t – and shouldn’t – be taken for granted.

Though she maintained a happy facade for readers, Frederick hardly had an idyllic home life: Her husband kept his own Manhattan apartment – and mistresses – and her career left their children with the housekeeper as primary caretaker. Pretty wild for a woman who joked that her epitaph would read: “She Raised the Kitchen Sink.” – Denise Flaim


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