The Curse

Why No Woman Is Running for Mayor

Even in this year of political plenty, when there are more candidates vying for more offices than ever before in the history of New York City, no woman is running for mayor. No woman was ever a serious possibility for this year's race, and by all accounts no woman is poised to take it next time around.

The absence of women at the helm of this city is a 336-year-old story. But in this election, it's remarkable because of the circumstances: Term limits preclude a mayoral incumbent and have fueled the belief that minorities and newcomers will have a better shot than ever in dozens of races around the city. The campaign-finance law has helped even the playing field. New Yorkers just made history by electing their first woman U.S. senator. And among the six or so men running, there's not a prohibitively popular personality.

It's hard to argue that these men have more going for them than any woman in the city. Yet "New York, in so many ways a progressive city, is still a very, very traditional place," observes 1985 mayoral contender Carol Bellamy. No one's arguing that New Yorkers should elect a woman mayor merely for the sake of electing a woman. But it's troubling that, even in the year 2001, being a woman is a guaranteed strike against being mayor. Ugly to admit, but true.

Running in this city is tough enough without having your womanhood flung in your face. Certainly the women who've lost citywide wouldn't deny having made mistakes—Bellamy admits, "Sometimes you lose it yourself." But there's no controlling how many X chromosomes a candidate's born with, and that extra one can cost big.

If Ruth Messinger, who was brutalized by friends and enemies alike in her '97 mayoral bid, can say, "Nothing any of us has been subjected to can be compared to Liz Holtzman's running for Brooklyn D.A.," you know it can be bad. These qualified candidates for major offices were subjected not only to the usual ravages of campaigning but also to scrutiny of their femininity. The memories make current female officeholders shudder.

Messinger—arguably one of the last effective members of the City Council and a progressive, energetic former borough president of Manhattan—was too ugly to run, awkward, silly, possibly too dim to understand the city charter, and not even to be trusted with her own hair let alone an entire city, according to opponent Rudy Giuliani and political reporters.

Sexism ‘is the one thing you want to talk about, but you can’t,’ says Ruth Messinger. ‘You’re perceived to be crying wolf.’

Holtzman has been a congresswoman, district attorney, and city comptroller. But even before the campaign-loan scandal that cost her a 1993 bid to remain comptroller, doubts were raised in major newspapers about her physical attributes. Moreover, she was a real witch, according to numerous cartoon caricatures—monikers like "Ice Lady" and "Virgin Liz" have made it into a book of political quotations—although critics confoundingly suggested she'd be too soft to handle criminals as Brooklyn's D.A.

But it's not just the warhorses from the city's legendary battles of the sexes who've got stories. In fact, more striking than the occasional virulence of sexism in New York City politics is its pervasiveness.

Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, one of the closest things to a woman mayoral hopeful there is, despite rumors that she prefers the U.S. Congress, says gender can determine how much donors will "invest" in candidates and limits "where you get to speak and what you get to be a part of"—restrictions "you're constantly fighting." The black community gives her support, she says, yet tends to limit women's leadership in important arenas such as the church.

Three-term councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge would have liked to run for mayor. Yet she claims the overwhelmingly male council leadership, by which she largely means longtime speaker Peter Vallone, stymied her. She's "at least as smart if not smarter" than her male colleagues, she declares, but "women always have to be gracious and nice, otherwise you're considered a nuisance." It's an imbalance that keeps her "always angry."

Councilwoman Una Clarke was savaged in her recent race against Major Owens for Congress, "one, because I was a woman, and two, because I was an immigrant." Owens's side of the story—that his own protégé had turned against him—got plenty of play in the press, and Clarke believes that portrayal smacks of sexist condescension. Plus, she's still angry about his ultimately unfounded attack on her citizenship—"He almost tried to get me deported!"

Political newcomer Liz Krueger, who last year barely lost a race for state senate against East Side incumbent Roy Goodman, quickly learned to laugh off criticism of her appearance. "I already know I'm short and fat," she says with a smile.

"People criticize me for being in-your-face, for being loud!" exclaims Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, always loathe to be demure. "What are they accusing me of? Of imitating tactics I have seen in the political arena used by men!" When women pols defy the traditional norms of femininity, she finds, they are "weird women, women we should condemn and criticize."

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