The Curse

Why No Woman Is Running for Mayor

What about the girls' club?

"We don't work together as women. There's no feeling of sisterhood. Once we're in office, we don't really support each other," says Eldridge, echoing the observations of many of her peers.

Partly, the reason is self-preservation. For women electeds struggling to look like winners themselves, endorsing the disadvantaged candidate in a race (often the woman) can be damaging. One congresswoman, who of course asked not to be identified, says of this year's public advocate race: "I probably should go out and support one of the two women running, but there's little chance either of them will win."

Anyone who was waiting for Senator Clinton to put her winning ways to work for the downstate sisters can keep waiting. Not only did her office fail to say how or whether she'd promote women's leadership here, but her tricks—national celebrity and national donors—can hardly be generalized. Powerhouses from the city's past—Messinger, Holtzman, Bellamy—have been bludgeoned back to private life.

Having a woman at the head of the state Democratic Party should help. But Judith Hope claims, "I deal with the same difficulties that all of the women candidates deal with." She gets "very little help with fundraising" and, despite what she calls a "remarkable record of success"—financially resurrecting the party's Albany offices, getting Democrats elected statewide at both the highest and lowest levels—"once a month, there'll be a rumor that I'm being thrown out of my office. It's still a man's world."

What's missing, say women pols, is any drive that politicizes women, that makes sexism in elections a "women's issue" along with concerns like abortion and child care. The majority of registered voters in the city are women, yet groups like NOW-NYC and NARAL "basically didn't help us" win them, says Holtzman. Since city candidates tend to lean liberal regardless of gender, women's groups have less incentive to promote women candidates in particular.

History suggests the presence of women in government does make a difference; it's affected attitudes and legislation around health care for women and children, domestic violence, sex crimes. Perhaps more significant than their presence is their absence. Women constitute less than a quarter of the state legislature and make up a third of the city council; 72 of 535 members of Congress are women. When it comes to policy, some legislators argue, those numbers may explain such problems as substandard public education and the uncertainty around gender bias and reproductive issues.

If the testimony of a dozen women politicians is any indication, the dearth of women mayoral candidates is deeply important. It means women haven't been able to raise the money, position themselves in the right offices, or build the positive word-of-mouth necessary to take the plunge. It means the mere circumstance of being a woman can still be the ultimate disqualifier.

But there is hope. "Sexism is what kept them out, but it's not going to keep them out," predicts consultant Adler. Two women, Freed and New-York Historical Society head Betsy Gotbaum, are running for public advocate, a constitutionally impotent position that nevertheless can be a citywide soapbox. Women are vying for the borough presidencies in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and possibly the Bronx; perhaps something can be made of these increasingly obscure positions. But by and large, for ambitious women this year, it's the City Council or bust. As term limits eject an authoritarian speaker, it may be easier for a woman to emerge from the 51-person fray as a citywide candidate.

Yet because there is incomparable power at stake in the mayoralty, it's an exponentially more difficult post to win. Take the truism that power is never given but must be seized, and cube it. Bringing down the barrier of sexism from around City Hall may require a ruckus. Perhaps, as outgoing councilmember Eldridge says, "We need another movement."

Research assistance: Claire Mitchell

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