Hillary's Big Problem

No Woman Has Ever Won Higher Office in New York State

And when it comes to the crucial tasks of raising money and fielding an effective organization, men have a distinct advantage, if only because of the little-boy's-room atmosphere of politics in New York. "Literally or figuratively, a lot of deals are done around the urinal," Adler explains. "So you can understand why women aren't there."

Leave it to Dick Morris, the working girl's best friend, to tell it like it is. "Our image of the Empire State is as a bastion of liberalism, feminism, and good will to women who seek higher office," Morris wrote recently, in a pointed warning to Hillary Clinton. "In fact, it is one of the most sexist political environments in the nation."

Sexist, nous? Didn't we invent second-wave feminism in the 1970s? Doesn't New York have more female executives than any other state? Yes to both. But for women who seek higher office, that classic slogan "the personal is political" has a grimly ironic ring.

Illustration By Michelle Chang

"Take the way a character trait is described," says Ruth Mandell, director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University. "If a man is strong-willed, a woman is shrill. If two men run against each other, it's a contest, but with two women, it's a catfight. And there are interminable discussions about hair."

When five female candidates for statewide office were asked how gender shaped their fate, four described a very similar experience: what McCaughey calls "a tendency by the media to focus on my appearance and personality rather than on the issues I tried to make part of my campaign." Her career as a policy wonk was largely ignored, McCaughey insists, in favor of derisive comments about her political inexperience— something that (as the Jesse Ventura saga attests) is often regarded as a virtue in a man.

Abate was singed by the accusation that she wasn't tough enough to be state attorney general, even though, as the city's corrections commissioner, she ran "the largest jail system in the country." Then there were the comments about her physical appearance. "There's no question that there's an emphasis on your clothing, your makeup, and your hairstyle," says Abate. "You never hear about a male candidate gaining weight." But Abate's oddest moment came when one reporter described her as aloof. She agonized about how he could have reached that conclusion. "I had looked in his eyes and answered every one of his questions. Maybe I didn't hug him." If she had, he would proably have concluded that she was too tender-hearted to be the state's top cop.

But if a female candidate is too tough— or her hair too short— she runs of the risk of being gay-baited. "That confirms the stereotype," Burstein explains. "Here they are, these tough women; they must be abnormal, which translates as 'dyke.' " Of course, Burstein actually is gay and she didn't try to hide it during her battle with Dennis Vacco, who capitalized on her candor by charging that she supported child pornography. But even if she had been closeted, Burstein would still have had to deal with the curse of the Jewish female politician in New York: bad hair.

"The first time I ever ran for office," Burstein recalls, "someone said to me, 'You were too outspoken and you should have worn your hair differently. I said, 'Look, my hair is curly and besides I'm not interested in gratifying your ego.' " In New York politics, that attitude dooms a woman to be what Burstein is today: a judge.

Holtzman's image of being cold (one neocon wag, John Corry, said he couldn't imagine her in a low-cut dress) not only chilled her Senate campaigns but haunted her tenure as city comptroller. When she failed to recuse herself from a city contract with a bank that had loaned her money, all the terror of her blunt demeanor (not to mention her progressive politics) came pouring out in the form of righteous indignation. As Alisa Solomon noted in these pages, Holtzman has the dubious distinction of being characterized as a witch by liberal Newsday and the conservative Post. This bipartisan consensus demonstrates the powerful currents of demonization that swirl around women who threaten the men's club that is politics in New York State.

As for Ferraro: "Right out of the box, she was treated as a bitch," notes Democratic fundraiser Daedre Levine. "There was constant harping on how her campaign offices were cushy and staffed by people who indulged her. This is something that would be seen as a sign of power in a man." Yet Ferraro herself has no such complaints. "Primaries in New York State are ethnic events," she insists, "and Italian Americans do not vote in the Democratic primary. The vote that did come out was heavily Jewish and I got 15 percent of it, so it was virtually impossible for me to win." (True, the two men who beat Ferraro are Jews, but so are three of the seven women who lost their statewide bids.)

Still, this being New York, Ferraro's tribal spin can't be entirely dismissed. Republican rage at Rudy could help his rival, Long Island congressman Rick Lazio. In the unlikely event that Lazio wins the GOP primary, Giuliani might be forced to run as an independent, and, as Cuomo notes, "If two Italian American conservatives run on different lines, Hillary will win." Can she win otherwise? "I hope so," Cuomo says— a classic New York hedge.

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