Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A smart, experienced woman walks into an important meeting and can sense her male colleagues immediately looking her up and down to form judgments based on her appearance. She then raises a great idea in the meeting, it’s dismissed or ignored, and then a man in the meeting offers a similar proposal that wins praise.
During my 30 years in public service, I found myself in this situation far too often, and I’m certain this would not be the case if my name were Christopher instead of Christine.
I wish my story were unique. That is why every time I hear Andrew Yang say that Kathryn Garcia would make a great first deputy mayor or Eric Adams question the civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley’s knowledge of policing, I want to scream.
What frustrates me about these comments is not the obvious fact that they are demeaning and erase these candidates’ impressive careers; it’s that history keeps repeating itself. As a candidate for New York’s mayor in 2013, I was ready for my record and my ideas to get withering scrutiny. I didn’t think I’d become the latest woman in New York politics whose gender and personal attributes would be in the spotlight. By contrast, Mr. Yang and Mr. Adams have consistently been at the top of the polls and will likely pay no price for their questionable comments about their female opponents. No matter how many experienced and smart women run for mayor, it feels as if far too many voters are looking only for the best man for the job.
I’m sure that there are some who would dismiss New York City’s lack of a female mayor as a strange historical asterisk. After all, we’re the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement, we were among the first states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and this has been the home of trailblazers like Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sonia Sotomayor, Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro and Sylvia Rivera, to name a few. But despite this progress, New York City has elected 109 men in a row to lead City Hall, so the three women running for mayor this year do not have the odds on their side.
Frankly, no one should be surprised. Women have made important progress as legislators, but when it comes to executive leadership at any level, very few women ever reach the executive mansion. Just 44 women have ever served as governor across the country. What does New York City have in common with Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston? None of them have ever elected a woman for mayor — and these five cities went through 378 men until Kim Janey took office in March as Boston’s acting mayor.
The deck is stacked at the start against women who run for office. Women are less likely to be encouraged to run by party leaders, advocacy groups and donors — which, from my experience, stems from skepticism that women can be competitive. Thanks to generations of pay inequity, women and particularly women of color have lower incomes and net worths than their male rivals to spend on elections.
These financial hurdles continue after a woman has decided to start her campaign. Women candidates persistently struggle with fund-raising. In September of 2018, Democratic women running for the U.S. House in 67 of the most competitive districts that year had raised an average of $500,000 less than their male counterparts. According to the most recent filings in New York City’s mayoral race, male candidates are outraising their female counterparts by nearly seven to one. Campaigns need money to survive, so if a woman candidate has to spend the bulk of her time fund-raising to catch up to her rivals, she will have less time to make her case to the public about why she should be elected.
And it’s not just that money doesn’t flow to female-led campaigns; it’s also that many women in my generation were brought up with the idea that being aggressive and hard-charging — inherent in fund-raising — is distasteful or negative in women.
Beyond the recruitment, cultivation and fund-raising difficulties, there is a unique set of hurdles that plagues women candidates. We are subject to intense public scrutiny and biased coverage that shapes voters’ perceptions.
When I ran for mayor, I was warned this could happen. But it still came as a deep disappointment to see the media quickly move from focusing on policy stances to critiquing my appearance, demeanor and even the tone of my voice — as if Ed Koch had been melodious. Every time I wore a new color, smiled or put on nail polish, it was covered with the same vigor as a new policy platform. While men are celebrated for their boldness, women are deemed volatile and too unstable to hold higher office. To be blunt, a woman who displays the qualities that are celebrated in male leaders — strength, ambition, pugnacity — ends up being told, “You’re a bitch.”
Women candidates are also held to an impossibly high, difficult to define and even harder to meet standard of likability. It is quite a burden to make 51 percent of people live their lives trying to guess what others want them to be. In my mayoral campaign, I thought that I had to act a certain way so that voters would like me. I twisted myself in knots trying to be less assertive, less of a lesbian and ultimately less of myself. It is a haunting mistake to lose a race when you were not true to yourself, and a choice that I hope no woman running for office in the future is forced to make.
Look, I know that when you step into the arena of a political campaign, almost everything about you is fair game. But negative attention can take a painful toll. Throughout our lives, women are judged in a way that men aren’t: From an early age, we’re told implicitly and explicitly that we’re not pretty enough, we’re overweight, we’re too brash, we’re too outspoken. When women take the courageous step to run for office — entering a contest that is completely about judgment — that lifetime of personal criticism comes back tenfold.
Thankfully, more and more cracks are being made in the glass ceiling across the country. We finally have a female vice president, and more women are running for elected office than ever before because of the tireless work of organizations like Emily’s List, Run for Something, Eleanor’s Legacy and 21 in ’21 to disrupt the flawed candidate recruitment process.
New Yorkers have three accomplished female mayoral candidates to consider in the June 22 Democratic primary, but we first need to stop letting our forward-thinking attitudes blind us from the fact that misogyny affects every facet of our society, including our decisions at the ballot box. Women candidates are not looking for your approval or for preferential treatment. We simply asked to be judged on our merits and not on the basis of our sex.
Christine C. Quinn served as New York City Council speaker from 2006 to 2013 and ran for mayor of New York in 2013. She is now the president and C.E.O. of Win, the largest provider of shelter, social services and supportive housing for homeless families in New York City.
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