‘My Passion, My Philanthropy’: Marcy Syms Pushes for Equal Rights Amendment

syms-marcy-symsThe story of my giving combines two distinctively American traditions: our nation’s great immigrant experience and institutional philanthropy extending way beyond home and family to communities and society at large.

All four of my grandparents came to the United States with nothing. They sailed past the Statue of Liberty and set about making a new life. As it was for most, starting over in the United States was hard. But they were faithful to their vision, and they were strong.

My maternal grandmother gave me some advice early in my life, advice I’ll never forget. “Marcy,” she said, “don’t ever need something from a man. Get it yourself.” This counsel took root in me. And it helped that I was the oldest of my siblings. Being firstborn has been closely correlated to leadership.

But it was a man—my father—who was my greatest influence, both in terms of business and philanthropy. Long before discount stores became a fixture in American retailing, Sy Syms pioneered the concept in New York City. The first store, in 1959, was immediately successful, selling only a few clothing items for men. I joined Syms in 1978, when we expanded into women’s apparel. Eventually we added other product categories so that our store, like many present-day counterparts, looked like a department store where every item was always on sale.

Soon my dad asked me to be the voice of a radio commercial he was planning to run. I did that, but I wanted a larger role. I’d gained knowledge about marketing, so I offered to do a media plan for the radio commercial. I had a great time and knew I wanted to work for the company full time. I became a sponge for new ideas, and I quickly became a close and valued business partner to my father. I knew from the start that I had his respect, his trust. My confidence grew apace.

Public Offering

By the early 1980s it was clear that Wall Street was enamored with companies in our burgeoning category. At that point our business spanned four states with 11 stores. Eventually, 25 years on, we were in 16 states with 52 stores.

On the day of our public offering, I stood right next to Dad to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. It was a very gratifying moment.

Now the Syms family could practice generosity in a more formal way, scaled up to have impact in the wider world. Dad was especially proud of being able to establish a business school at New York’s Yeshiva University.

I became an officer of our foundation and began to engage my own philanthropic interests. Even as I explored areas of smart philanthropic investment—and I do see philanthropy as a form of investment—I began to see that gender was often forgotten in important areas of American society.

Especially alarming was what I learned about heart disease. It ran in our family, and I wanted to make a difference in eradicating it. So, as I learned more about research, I was dismayed to discover that heart disease—which kills more women that does cancer—was not even being studied in women. This was yet another sector in which women and their well-being had been left out.

Meanwhile, my years of experience as a woman in business—where women’s leadership was, and still is, lagging behind that of men—fueled my feminism and my philanthropy. I was involved in the start of the New York Women’s Foundation, whose grants to underserved women and girls are helping to address longstanding inequities. I embraced the Ms. Foundation, which works nationwide. I served as an early chair of its Take Our Daughters to Work Day and was an early supporter of the Women’s Campaign Fund, the NOW Legal Defense Fund and other advocacy organizations. Through the years, I came to see that, as important as changing various sectors of our society is—whether business, medicine, education or the law—something more was needed, something that would institutionalize change and make our nation permanently just for women and girls.

Equal Rights Amendment

So when I first met Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney I was very receptive to an imperative she put in front of me. She had set in motion the re-introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in Congress in 1923 by suffragette Alice Paul and introduced every year since then. Decades later the ERA finally was passed by Congress and then went to the states, where the legislatures would vote on ratification. But by 1982, the timing established according to the Constitution, we were three states short of the requisite two-thirds needed.

I eagerly supported the 2014 publication of Jessica Neuwirth’s book “Equal Means Equal,” which lays out a compelling case for the ERA and sets forth a call to action.

Soon afterward I joined the more formal effort that was taking shape. I took a place on the board of the Fund for Women’s Equality, whose research arm found that 80 percent of Americans assumed the Constitution already included full status for women. That same research found that fully 94 percent of Americans support the ERA. In addition to this nonprofit group, I also serve on the Equal Rights Coalition’s political arm, which is mobilizing a campaign to create political will around the ERA.

Today this is my paramount philanthropic passion, to which I am contributing not only dollars but my time, energy and enthusiasm. At a time when our nation has its first female presidential candidate of a major party, it seems only obvious that gender justice is an idea whose time has come. If our Constitution were amended to include the ERA, half the population and those who love them would live in a nation where a girl could grow up knowing that she has full legal status in a nation pledged to liberty and justice for all. That cause is worth all I can bring to it, and it commands all of us, no matter what our rank or means, to support it.

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