Hillary's Big Problem

No Woman Has Ever Won Higher Office in New York State

Still, Ferraro's biggest impediment may not have been her heritage but the fact that she hailed from every upstater's image of Moloch: New York City. In fact, six of the seven women who failed to break the male-only mold came from the five boroughs. "I think the city is associated with things that frighten people," Burstein says, "flash and European habits and accents"— not to mention attitude. "When you compound that with being a woman," notes fundraiser Daedre Levine, "it's almost impossible to win."

So perhaps the most auspicious thing about Hillary Clinton's likely candidacy is that no one associates her with the city. Like Robert Kennedy (who enjoyed insisting that he came from the Bronx because he'd spent part of his childhood in Riverdale), she is the sort of carpetbagger New Yorkers might prefer to the stereotype of a pushy woman from the teeming streets. Rudy, on the other hand, is a walking punch line from an anti­New York joke: How many mayors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Nunna-ya-fuckin'-bizness.

Clinton has another advantage over the other women who have run for higher office in New York State: access to big bucks. Her celebrity negates what might be called the no-cash loop. "It's almost like a fait accompli," Catherine Abate explains. "If the leadership thinks you can't raise money, they don't understand that this can be overcome with organizational support. I raised over $1 million, but that was peanuts compared to what Elliot [Spitzer] could bring to the table. So while I had the environmentalists and women's groups, he had the Brooklyn organization."

Illustration By Michelle Chang

No doubt Hillary Clinton will have all of the above. She also has a shot at mobilizing the women's vote (which usually constitutes the majority of the state electorate), and the minority vote (blacks support her over Rudy by a whopping 88 to 3 percent, according to a recent poll).

What she won't have is immunity from the usual impediments for female candidates in New York State: coverage dripping with calumny indirectly related to her gender (consider the numerous cartoons of Hillary as a harridan or dominatrix); subtle accusations that she's an unnatural woman in a fake marriage (why don't these charges ever stick to Donna-less Rudy?); and a righteous rage betraying deep-seated and unacknowledged fear. She will be accused of being too tough, too cold, too corrupt, and just plain oogly. These may or may not be traits that apply to Hillary Clinton, but isn't it interesting that they have also been applied to every other woman who dared to storm the state's political gates?

There's another thing about HRC that bodes ill: she's seen by many as a closet radical hounding her more "flexible" husband. Indeed, her campaign has been viewed by a number of pundits as an attempt to get back at Bill. (A version of this scenario also haunted Krupsak and McCaughey when they ran against male governors who had chosen them to be lieutenants.) The rule is that conservative women do better in politics because they're more traditional— and respectful of men. No one has drawn Elizabeth Dole as a witch; it's an image reserved for progressive women, and especially for avowed feminists. So don't be surprised to open the paper and see a drawing of Hillary in a pointy black hat, possibly wielding a whip.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the struggle she faces is the absence of powerful older women to campaign beside her. With Abzug dead and Susan B. Anthony on a silver dollar, there's no dynastic figure, "no sage, no wise old woman, no Abe Lincoln," Burstein notes. "All our motherly types stay home." Hillary Clinton could become that missing female sage who passes the torch to a new generation of New York strivers. But first she has to get past the good old boys.

Research: Steph Watts

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