Hillary's Big Problem

No Woman Has Ever Won Higher Office in New York State

A prediction: the Adirondack black-fly gaffe will be tired by the time Hillary Clinton makes it official. The carpetbagger issue will be old news when the election is held 16 months from now. Even the scandals that haunt her may play as the usual politics-by-sleaze. But there's one thing about Hillary Clinton that could sink her senate campaign, though it won't be mentioned except in code. She's a woman— and no woman has ever won higher office in New York State.

Consider the casualties:

Geraldine Ferraro: ran for senator twice, but never got past the primaries.

Illustration By Michelle Chang

Elizabeth Holtzman: another two-time Senate loser.

Betsy McCaughey: couldn't top George Pataki, her former boss from hell.

Karen Burstein: ran for attorney general and lost to Dennis Vacco, a virtual unknown.

Catherine Abate: creamed by Elliot Spitzer, the current a.g.

Mary Anne Krupsak: ran for governor but lost to Hugh Carey, hennaed hair and all.

Bella Abzug: took on Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1976. Fuggedaboutit!

New York has had a transvestite governor— Lord Cornbury, who ran the colony from 1702 to 1708 and liked to pose in a gown— but never a woman in the statehouse (unless you count the largely ceremonial lieutenant governor). Nor has any woman ever held court in City Hall. Carol Bellamy was too cold to unseat the huggy-bearish Ed Koch; Ruth Messinger was too liberal to beat Rudy Giuliani (and unable to control her hair).

Of course, if you believe the media, gender had nothing to do with why all these campaigns came to naught. Ferraro was sunk by her husband's reputed mob ties (not to mention her abrasive style). Holtzman got mired in a banking scandal (not to mention her icy style). Krupsak wasn't well-enough known (not to mention disloyal to Carey, her former boss). McCaughey wasn't qualified (not to mention the fact that she stood up during Pataki's state-of-the-state address). Burstein was gay ('nuff said). Abzug was . . . well, Bella.

Do these losses add up to a pattern of bias? No way. Nor does the fact that women constitute only a fifth of the state legislature, and none of the legislative leadership, mean that men rule. Hey, cream rises!

Never mind that women have done much better in the other northeastern states. New Jersey and New Hampshire have female governors, following the lead of Connecticut and Vermont. Maine had a woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith, in the 1950s. And elsewhere in America, the stats are even more dramatic. Four of the 10 statewide positions in California (including both U.S. Senate seats) are held by women. In Arizona, women occupy all five top state-government posts. The legislatures in Washington and New Hampshire have nearly reached gender equity. Yet, New York, the birthplace of American feminism and the home of Susan B. Anthony, ranks 29th among states in the number of women who hold office. We're a stretch behind Utah (which elected its first female state senator back in 1896).

Why this sorry record? Mario Cuomo says it's because the state's reputation has more to do with its glory days than its current dotage. "We're not progressive anymore," Cuomo notes. "We're regressive." This is no news to feminists who have struggled against the glass ticket. "We have an entrenched political system here," says Galen Sherwood, president of New York NOW. "It's very much an old-boys network. And what we've seen over and over again is a failure of the state's officials to stand with women candidates when it counts."

Sherwood is referring to the common belief that party organizations dominate politics in the Empire State. For women to rise, they must penetrate the interlocking networks of business and patronage that decide who carries the electoral ball. When it comes to gendersharing skills, the Democrats are better than the Republicans, but even in the party of Eleanor Roosevelt, girls get the scraps from the boys' table. Among the party's 58 county leaders, for example, women rule only in the patronage-lean rural areas.

Most women who fight their way through this marginalizing system are independent types with their own constituencies. "They tend to come from the left wing of the Democratic party, which is a hard place to run from," says Ester Fuchs, professor of political science at Barnard College. "And when they run as outsiders, very aggressively, they're bait for the media and the attack ads."

The current head of the state Democratic party, Judith Hope, can be expected to make inroads into this system, but it won't be easy. As veteran political consultant Norman Adler notes, "the history of politics in New York is that men have been the leaders and women the workers." The same holds true in the media, where, with some notable exceptions, men are the hunters and women the gatherers of news. With few women writing political columns— and none drawing editorial cartoons— male biases can easily be confused with truth. The press's cherished image as a Great Leveler goes out the window when it comes to female politicians, though they usually are the underdogs. "Anecdotally, I'd say the New York press is harder on women candidates than on men," Adler maintains.

Next Page »