The Curse


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.”

The double standards permeate city politics even beyond elected office. According to fundraiser and lobbyist Suri Kasirer, “As a woman consultant, there is tremendous pressure to deliver in very specific ways that isn’t there with men.” Men get more slack, she complains, while “with women, it’s like, we’ve been paying you, what have you produced?” She adds, “One of my pet peeves is being referred to in the media as the wife of Giuliani aide Bruce Teitelbaum,” not because of the implied conflict of interest, but because it makes marriage seem her best asset.

One of the city’s most visible labor leaders, Randi Weingarten of the teachers’ union, finds “people don’t listen as they should,” because she’s a woman. During contract negotiations with the city, she says, “I found I was underestimated a lot.”

It’s no stretch to say every woman in New York City politics has run up against sexism. No matter how experienced or high in rank, these women say it is impossible to shake the curse. Their campaign coffers, political networks, “winnability” in the eyes of voters, and, ultimately, access to higher office have suffered as a result. Not that they could complain.

The worst thing about sexism is not the emphasis on appearance, although that’s bad. It’s not the suggestion of inherent incompetence, although that’s worse. The kicker is that the victim can’t talk about it, at least not with any hope of winning. Silence is in the nature of the beast; it’s what sexism thrives on.

Sexism “is the one thing you want to talk about, but you can’t,” says Messinger. “You’re perceived to be crying wolf, to be taking an unfair advantage.” As councilwoman and public advocate candidate Kathryn Freed puts it, “I’m a woman candidate, but I’m not asking for anything special”—like for voters and reporters to be wary of gender bias—”because I know the only thing special I’m going to get is a hard time.” Whiny and weak are part of the sexist lexicon. Why risk being called them?

The conventional wisdom among seasoned women pols: Just grin and bear it. (It worked for Hillary, several of them point out. Her stoic refusal to address blatantly sexist coverage in the press and her silent suffering of bullying by Rick Lazio and NBC political personality Tim Russert during a televised debate, it is widely believed, helped her win the race.)

Or be punished, especially by the press. In a male-dominated “media meat market” where politics are “totally controlled by media access and polls,” according to Messinger, and where tabloid culture prefers the personal to public policy, complaining can be risky. She should know.

Her efforts to counter sexism head-on in her mayoral campaign, venturing the S-word in public condemnations of Giuliani, got her labeled as “confused” by at least one journalist. Her calling the mayor sexist was couched as aggression, even viciousness, by some reporters, rather than as self-defense. She once approached a reporter in private about what she felt was his biased coverage. “All I did was further damage my relationship with him.”

But politicians, no matter their gender, are not really supposed to speak for themselves. Certainly not when it comes to sensitive issues where they could come off sounding defensive. Yet the colleagues, party leaders, and political insiders who normally rant and rave to reporters and donors on behalf of embattled candidates are less available for women. Most of them are men.

Even the city’s veteran women politicians say they are still outsiders to the “boys’ club.” In a town where party politics, traditionally a man’s world, is as entrenched as it gets—less party-driven states like Washington and Utah have better records on women in office—not being included can seriously limit a career. Benefits of membership: access to boardrooms, bank accounts, and the invaluable stamp of legitimacy.

“Look at how many times Mark Green has run for things and lost, for God’s sake! Peter Vallone’s another guy who lost and can run again!” exclaims Barnard College political scientist Ester Fuchs, who says she’ll advise media billionaire Michael Bloomberg should he officially run. “And they can all raise money to run again! Imagine Ruth Messinger trying to raise money to run again. Everyone would laugh in her face!” In fact, many of her brethren did the first time around.

In the party that is New York politics, women are still pouring the coffee. They’re discreetly raising money for candidates, but are not out front as media reps. As staff members to elected officials, they’re more likely to handle constituent complaints than do the kind of legislative or governmental work that can set up a future run for office. Women with a penchant for public service find it easier to operate in the lower-profile world of nonprofits than to run for office. And those who want to run will find it easier to win legislative positions than executive ones.

Then there’s “sexism in other areas that falls over into politics,” according to consultant Norman Adler. Women still lag in business stature and income, which means both candidates and donors have less to work with. More women are headed for law, a major route into politics, according to recent reports, but traditionally they’ve been underrepresented.

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