St. Patrick’s Day won’t be such a great day for the Scranton Irish. We haven’t had a great day in Pennsylvania hard coal country in the 113 years powerful Lackawanna County Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have convened their all-male annual dinner to celebrate their sexist heritage.
For more than 25 years as a daily newspaper columnist and broadcaster, I unsuccessfully battled these men, trying to persuade members of my own Irish-American tribe to throw open the doors to their public event and include women in the ranks of powerful men, including local, state and national elected officials, affluent businessmen, media leaders and other lace-curtain community achievers.
Democratic political icon Bobby Kennedy spoke at the dinner.
So did former Vice President Joe Biden – three times.
But, other than female servers who deliver beers, ham and cabbage to these very important males, not a single woman guest ever set foot in the banquet hall where several current federal judges have served as the organization’s president. The current president is a deputy state attorney general, brother of Scranton’s male ex-mayor. The attorney general himself is expected to give opening remarks.
This week I went looking for help to end the time-honored discrimination that bans all women political candidates while their male opponents are always welcome at the dinner to raise money, make friends and advance their standing in the political arena.
U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley from New York is this year’s featured dinner speaker. Would this civic leader with aspirations to one day serve as Speaker of the House help me persuade these privileged tuxedo-clad lads that women need to join them in making important decisions about how we all live our lives?
In my first email to Crowley’s press secretary Lauren French, I suggested the Congressman cancel his speaking engagement or ask his wife to accompany him. Crowley earlier this month issued a press release proclaiming “Women’s History Month” and seemed adamant about helping right gender wrongs when he said, “…we must also recognize the need to build on their efforts by committing to tearing down the barriers that still work against women’s full and equal participation in our economy and society.”
I emailed French that Crowley and I stood together on sacred ground.
“I, too, am the son of a cop,” I wrote. “I, too, am an Irish-American Democrat. I, too, fight injustice and prejudice in the public arena.”
Sensing I might be asking too much of the Crowley family, I asked Stephanie Bressler, Ph.D. political scientist, veteran university professor and women’s rights activist to whom I am married, if she would offer to accompany Crowley to the dinner.
Dr. Bressler agreed to make history.
“I’m even willing to attend this normally bigoted affair and will, of course, pay for our tickets and buy Joe a drink,” I wrote to French. “Will Joe arrange for us to attend the March 17 event? Will Joe be part of this historic moment when a woman finally has access to equal opportunity in a region where Irish immigrants planted deep roots in pursuit of the American Dream? Will Joe exemplify the promise of equality as he continues his leadership quest in the hallowed halls of the House of Representatives?”
French wrote back, “I will raise these issues with Joe. As you know, his support of women’s equality is unimpeachable.”
“Uncorrupted principle always lights the way,” I responded, “and this should be the year women finally toss off the shackles of injustice and participate in this traditional gathering of more than 1,000 powerful men of politics, law, business and scholarship.
“Please advise as soon as possible how we will arrange details for the dinner and how we will make this a great day for the Irish and everybody else concerned with civil rights. As Hillary Rodham Clinton said, ‘Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.’ Even in Scranton.”
French wrote back with words as cold as leftover dinner spuds.
“There isn’t an opportunity for you to connect with the congressman but I have briefed him on your concerns.”
I needed back-up.
Two years earlier, when I hosted a contentious daily Northeastern Pennsylvania call-in radio show, I met privately with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in his office and argued for equal opportunity for women at the Friendly Sons dinner Casey regularly attends. Just the year before I picketed his Scranton office carrying on my shoulder a huge green wooden shamrock emblazoned with Casey’s own words professing equal opportunity for women. Leery of me even though we’re neighbors in Scranton’s Hill Section, Casey agreed the dinner would one day likely admit women. But he didn’t say he would do anything to help fairness blossom.
Last week I filled out a request form on the Senator’s website asking that Casey meet with my wife and me to offer his endorsement of her right to attend the dinner. I also filled out a similar online request form asking my congressman Matt Cartwright, who represents the 17th District and also attends the Friendly Sons dinner, to meet with us to form an equality alliance.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Cartwright and Casey both appeared as regular guests on my radio show. I even called a public truce with them and other Democrats as we all endorsed the first woman ever nominated by a major political party to run for president. Crowley appeared on my show as well.
We were all on the same side.
Where are these principled leaders now?
Less than a week remains until the Friendly Sons’ grand event. The Scranton St. Patrick’s Day parade has come and gone. Neither Crowley, Casey nor Cartwright has responded with offers to help.
Men paying lip service to tearing down barriers while fortifying a wall cheapens the ongoing civil rights struggle women face not only on Paddy’s Day but each day they confront controlling men who cling to power.
Irish and American history teaches how dominance crumbles.
Rebellion breeds perseverance.
So, while men in Scranton raise glasses and swear fealty to their kind, women might offer a different kind of fair warning toast. Pronounced “chucky-ar-la” in Gaelic, “Tiocfaidh ar la” is an Irish battle cry — fighting words to be taken seriously, a vow that carries one meaning and one meaning only.
“Our day will come.”
Steve Corbett is a longtime journalist. He previously wrote a column the Times Leader and hosted a radio show in Northeastern Pennsylvania.