Beth Matusoff Merfish wants to help make a better Houston for her two young daughters, much like her own mother did for her.
Heights resident Sherry Merfish, 69, is a longtime women’s rights advocate who worked as a development director for EMILY’s List, a political action committee that helps elect Democratic female candidates who are in favor of abortion rights.
She was an inspiration for the younger Merfish, an associate professor who is the chair of the liberal arts department at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Beth Merfish recently took on another role in which she can have an even bigger impact on fellow women in the city – and for generations to come.
The Woodland Heights resident is the chair of the new Houston Women’s Commission, which was created last week by the Houston City Council and held its first meeting Monday at City Hall.
Merfish said she wants to advocate for gender equality and equity on behalf of her two daughters, 5-year-old Etta and 3-year-old Flora.
“My mom’s goal was to make the world better for me,” Merfish said. “I’m now trying to make the world better for them. So with each generation, we make progress.”
The Houston Women’s Commission is the brainchild of council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Greater Heights as part of District C. Merfish said Kamin first told her about the idea while she was running for city council in 2019, and the vision began to take shape after Kamin was elected.
Kamin and Merfish secured the support of Mayor Sylvester Turner, who along with the council created the 25-member women’s commission through city ordinance, meaning it will continue to operate after the current elected officials’ terms have expired.
The purpose of the volunteer commission, made up entirely of women, is to “advance equality and equity for women in the City of Houston by identifying and addressing disparities in healthcare, employment, safety and security across communities and industries, both in Houston’s public and private sector,” according to a news release from Kamin’s office.
The local council member is not serving on the commission but will be active in its work, Merfish said.
“After over a year of planning, to see this effort come to fruition is very special,” Kamin said.
Turner congratulated Kamin for proposing the women’s commission and said she “brings a unique perspective to public service” as an attorney, wife and mother. Kamin gave birth to a son earlier this year, and among the first items on the commission’s agenda is to push for a parental leave policy for city employees.
Merfish said Turner expressed support for the idea while addressing the commission at its first meeting.
“Women play a vital role in my administration and are leaders who are making significant contributions in all aspects of our diverse community,” Turner said in a news release. “I look forward to seeing the commission’s recommendations and working to enhance the quality of life for all women.”
Merfish said the commission will meet at least quarterly, with sub-committees meeting at least monthly. She said another priority is addressing wage disparities in the Houston region between men and women, particularly women of color.
Citing a study by the University of Houston’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality, Merfish said white women in Harris County earned 69.4 cents for every dollar earned by a white man in the same role with the same experience between 2015 and 2017, whereas the national average was 74.8 cents for every dollar earned by a white man.
The gap was even wider for Black women and Hispanic women, who earned 47.1 cents and 33.5 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by a white man. Those figures were even further below the national averages, Merfish said.
“Even though we think of ourselves as a city of the future and we celebrate Houston’s diversity, we are really far behind in issues of equality,” Merfish said.
The Houston Women’s Commission consists of a diverse group of women, Merfish said, with members coming from varying ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientations and parts of the city. She said they are professionally diverse as well, with the education, energy, medical, communications, financial, legal and nonprofit sectors represented.
Along with Merfish, the women’s commission includes Carmen Pena Abrego, Kristy Bridges, Elizabeth Gonzalez Brock, Barbara Burger, Elsa Caballero, Rogene Calvert, Haley Crain Carter, Lori Choi, Carvana Cloud, Phyllis Frye, Juliana Garaizar, Eureka Gilkey, Elizabeth Gregory, Glenda Joe, Sima Ladjevardian, Nancy MacGregor, Janalia Moreno, Chau Nguyen, Tanuke Smith, Tammi C. Wallace, Codi Wiener, Angie Wiens-Talbert, Christine S. Willie and Alison Young.
Ladjevardian ran for U.S. Congress as a Democrat last year, losing to incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican, for the District 2 seat that includes the Timbergrove and Lazybrook neighborhoods as well as part of Oak Forest.