One question raised by New York’s simultaneously boring yet circus-like campaign for mayor is why the hard working women of New York don’t care more about having a female mayor. It is striking that the historical idea of the first female mayor has not, in this liberal city, awoken more enthusiasm, inflamed a little more passion. In a recent campaign video, Gloria Steinem said of Quinn’s possible election, “Imagine how much it will mean to girls and young women.” But given the tepid reaction so far, one has to wonder if it will mean anything at all.
Currently, around 26 percent of democratic women back Quinn, which is not an impressively high number for a woman who would potentially be New York’s first female mayor. She is not, at this time, notably excelling in the women’s vote. (And this is especially important in a New York election as women make up 60 percent of the electorate in the Democratic Party.)
Part of Quinn’s problem here is clearly the specifics of her candidacy, the perception that she is a party hack, a bureaucrat with no inspiration, a brassy or aggressive personality without redeeming brilliance or vision.
But that’s not quite it. The “firsts” involved in her candidacy, the idea of the first woman mayor, the first gay mayor, are not enough to carry her candidacy, or even buoy it. There is, for instance, nowhere near the exhilaration or excitement of Obama being the first black president. In part this may be because in a city like New York, women are too accustomed to female power in general to be hugely excited by the symbolism involved. We are so used to watching women wield power at newspapers, banks, magazines, television shows, publishing houses, law firms, that we are almost bored by it; we have our fair share of Hillary Clintons and Anna Wintours and Jill Abramsons and Tina Feys and rising female ambition is not rare or exotic or precious to us anymore. It’s not something that stops the presses, that in and of itself gets out the vote.
I remember watching the primary debate between Obama and Clinton, with my then 5- year-old. She was a huge Obama supporter, and I felt compelled to say to her, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a woman president?” She said coolly, “There’s already been a woman president.” I tried to explain that there hadn’t ever been a woman president, but she lives in a world where female power is so ubiquitous, so obvious, so much a part of the air she breathes that it felt to her like there had been a female president.
This way of thinking may slightly apply to rational adults as well. The “first” of a woman mayor of New York does not hold the same emotional frisson that it might have 30 years ago. We are not impressed enough, enamored enough, with the mere fact of it to support a female candidate, or even, seemingly, to lean in her direction. There is a sense, certainly, that some of the battles are already won, that we should have the smartest, most competent mayor, and the idea of a female mayor for the sake of equality, or symbolism, or a net increase in female power in the world does not trump that. The Emily’s List–style thinking holds less sway over us than one might think.
There have been a few feminist leaders and organizations, including NOW and Sandra Fluke, who have tried to spark a Quinn revolution among female voters, but they have not, so far, succeeded. Their statements have a rote feeling to them, as if some spark, or authentic warmth is missing. The leadership of NOW tried to cast Anthony Weiner’s troubles as a woman’s issue, calling his behavior “sexist” and “not respectful of women,” but this particular logic has not entirely caught on: Voting against Weiner and for Quinn hasn’t become, broadly, a woman’s issue. Even Gloria Steinem’s charming video, with the clusters of girls in backpacks around Quinn, feels dated.
Another murkier element may be that Quinn is somehow not stylish enough, not cool or personally commanding enough to garner the enthusiasm of many New York women. Case in point is Maureen Dowd’s recent interview with her. It is clear that Dowd is struggling to be fair, to somehow “humanize” Quinn, to drum up some dynamism or originality in her candidacy, but the article is oddly flat. She writes, “she bursts into her lusty laugh with the snort at the end.” She writes about Quinn’s over-eating and bulimia. She quotes Quinn calling herself “a big, pushy broad.” Even the “teal nail polish” of the article’s title comes across as, in Dowd’s eyes, not quite cool. (Contrast this with her rapturous description of Huma Abedin weeks earlier as “classy,” “gorgeous,” “elegant,” Abedin being more of the sort of person that someone like Dowd can respect.)
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton in her first run for president also had trouble with female voters, especially educated, professional women like her. There was perhaps a competitiveness in the electorate, a heightened criticism of her from women like her (working class women supported her more wholly from the beginning.) One would imagine a liberal state like New York would produce beloved female candidates at a far higher rate than the rest of the nation, but we seem to be especially critical of them as well. (See Liz Holtzman’s experience in her Senate runs.)
As we know from life, women are hard on other women and the “woman’s vote” will always prove trickier and more complicated or elusive than it would appear. Women, especially, New York women, will not vote for a woman just because she is a woman, and they may even apply greater scrutiny to her and hold her to higher standards. It may also feel, in the irrational, creative fog of New York’s collective unconscious, like we’ve already had a female mayor.