When the Working Families Party first approached Zephyr Teachout about throwing her hat in the ring to challenge New York’s formidable Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary last year, her immediate reaction was, “How dare I?”
This emotional response is the typical reaction many women have to overcome as they summon the courage necessary to fight their way into the boys’ club that is New York government—where women make up only 11 percent of the State Senate and just 20 percent of the Assembly, and where no woman has ever held the position of governor, attorney general or comptroller. Locally, the Nassau County Legislature boasts nine women among its 19 members and is led by Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), but just five of 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature are women.
This lack of parity in politics is astounding, considering that New York women have long demonstrated they can succeed at the top level of leadership in corporations, law, real estate and beyond. The challenges—both internal and external—that keep women from running for office does a disservice to the their natural constituency, as issues that range from choice to childcare to education fall by the wayside. Women’s voices are sorely needed in the highest echelons of New York politics. But first, they must “dare” to run.
To find out more about this discrepancy, the Press spoke with a handful of prominent women in New York politics. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), state Assemb. Michele Schimel (D-Great Neck), former gubernatorial primary challenger Zephyr Teachout, former Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, outgoing Republican Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, and Nassau County District Attorney-elect Madeleine Singas, a Democrat, discuss their experiences, from coping with the emotional toll campaigning might have on their families to overcoming feelings of inadequacy to contending with the challenges of unequal fundraising.
When Hempstead Town Councilwoman Lee Seaman (D-Great Neck Estates) first asked Schimel to run for the Assembly, she remembers she became physically ill.
“I felt the heat on my face,” Schimel told the Press. “She said, ‘People know you. You’re an activist.’ I had young children. I went home. I actually threw up.”
Schimel got over it. She’s served in public office for 22 years.
“I had to be asked to run,” she said. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Her reluctance isn’t unique. On average, women need to be asked 14 times to run for elected office, according to a story that ran last year on NPR, because it takes that long to break through their objections before they will seriously consider running, whether it be for the school board or a seat in Congress.
McCarthy wants more women to take the initiative—on many fronts.
“They shouldn’t be waiting to ask for a pay raise if they know that they deserve it,” said the former Congresswoman. “They shouldn’t wait to advance themselves in whatever area they’re in. You’re not going to be asked. It’s still a man’s world. When I went to Congress, it was the first time in my life that I got equal pay because we all get the same paycheck. That doesn’t happen in the real world here.”
Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, says too many women rule themselves out for the wrong reasons.
“I met a woman in Auburn (in upstate Cayuga County) the other day, covered in tattoos,” Teachout said. “‘People like me don’t run for public office,’ she said. ‘I’ve been divorced three times.’ We’re sort of stuck in a 1950s model of a politician, when we aren’t living in a 1950s world.”
Teachout held center stage this June at a public discussion held in Hauppauge called “Why Educators Should Run,” sponsored by the New York State United Teachers union and the Working Families Party. The room was packed with teachers eager to hear how they could channel their activism, born out of a protest against the governor’s punitive Common Core evaluation system, into a change in public policy.
“This is not a state in which women are not accomplished in every other area,” Teachout said, “so there’s something clearly systemically wrong in the way we’re selecting and supporting our candidates.”
While on the campaign trail last year in Southampton, Teachout said that more women should be in New York politics, particularly so they could influence education policy.
“Luckily we have women who are representing us federally, but not in Albany,” she told the Press, “and it’s affecting priorities.”
“You know it’s a broken system when there are no women,” she added, “because it’s not that people don’t support female leaders, it’s that it’s a closed club.”
Recently she was asked what ultimately gave her the courage to run against Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
“I’ve wondered that myself!” she responded in a text message. “Even went and looked back over emails. But the key was, so much good could come out of it, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
She wanted to make it clear to women that running against someone is not being disrespectful.
“It’s a sign of respect for the other people in your district or region that you think that they are adult enough to make these difficult decisions,” she explained. “Not that you are disrespecting this other person.”
Rice believes women’s voices are crucial at all levels of government.
“Women tend to be more pragmatic and collaborative,” she told the Press. “We absolutely bring a unique perspective to the table. And it’s not just about ‘women’s issues,’ but issues that affect all of us, from homeland security and veteran affairs to emergency preparedness.”
“When I first announced that I was going to run for District Attorney, people thought I was crazy,” Rice added. “People said, ‘But no woman has ever held that position [in Nassau County] before. You’ll lose.’”
Not only did Rice beat her opponent, 31-year incumbent DA Denis Dillon, she’s now in Congress, replacing Carolyn McCarthy in the seat she held for 18 years as the first female member of the House of Representatives elected from Long Island.
“Just say, ‘Yes,’” Rice offered. “Say ‘yes’ to everything. Men do. Don’t let anyone else decide your potential.”
McCarthy, retired last year after first being elected in 1997, told the Press that she’d had doubts about her own capabilities when she was first approached to run by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“I was speaking to a group of young women who were thinking about running, and I think they all came to the same conclusion: ‘Who am I that I think I can run for public office?’ I certainly had those thoughts myself,” McCarthy admitted. “I didn’t know anything about politics. I certainly didn’t know about fundraising and all the things you have to do to win an election. It’s difficult, and it depends how passionate you are about trying to make change.”
McCarthy’s passion was fueled by her desire to make meaningful change in New York’s gun laws after the tragic 1993 LIRR massacre in which Colin Ferguson killed her husband, Dennis, and severely wounded her son, Kevin, as they were taking the train home together from Manhattan. She credits Kevin with persuading her to enter politics.
“If my son hadn’t said to me, ‘Mom, you should run,’” McCarthy told the Press, then she probably wouldn’t have.
“He said, ‘You’re already doing all the things it takes to be someone that wants to change legislation to try to save people’s lives,’” she continued. “So it was really [Kevin] that pushed me. It’s a difficult decision. Particularly because I was taking care of Kevin, and at that point of his recovery, he really couldn’t do a lot of things on his own, but he made a promise to me that if I run, that he will learn to do all the things he needs to do so that I could go out and campaign. So I had his support very strongly.”
Family support is one of the biggest considerations that female candidates face. Often tasked with the primary responsibilities of taking care of children, women have to reconcile what affect their candidacy and elected office responsibilities would have on their family’s lives.
“Women tend to be a lot more self-reflective and probably more self-doubting,” said Singas, who had replaced Rice as acting Nassau County District Attorney and won the job herself in Tuesday’s election.
“For me, the decision to run was really about that I’d been doing this job for my entire professional career, and I never doubted my qualifications to do the job,” Singas said. “It was just about what effect it would ultimately have on my family and on my children. Did I want to put myself out there and my family out there for the kind of scrutiny and the unfairness that comes with campaigning? That was my only hesitation.”
Singas hinted at the impact campaigning has on family time during her victory speech Tuesday.
“They can finally have their mom back,” she said of her two children.
Few of the women who spoke to the Press said that a career in government was their primary goal. What thrust them into the political arena was their personal experience as an activist on an array of issues.
Both McCarthy and Schimel came into office via their passion to make lasting change in the state’s gun laws.
“I was involved with Governor Cuomo in passing the assault weapons ban,” said Schimel. “I used to go to Albany every two years. They all knew me because I would yell at them.”
But after a long time spent in the legislative process, Schimel says that other concerns arise for idealistic women like her.
“You come in with a bunch of ideals, and by the end of the decade you have to look at all of the influences and make sure you are still true to your belief system,” Schimel said. “It’s difficult. I represent over 130,000 constituents who have so many different views. How do you represent them all and still stay true to the ideals that you came into the office with?”
The Press spoke with McCarthy the day after a self-identified white supremacist gunman had opened fire in a South Carolina church, killing nine people on June 18. McCarthy was shaken by yet another American mass shooting, but her resolve to inspire lasting change has not wavered.
“When I heard that there was a girl younger than nine or 10, who played dead, my heart just stopped,” McCarthy said. “That will never go away for all of these families that go through these kinds of tragedies. It’s heartbreaking, and I think that we do need more women that will be fighting for this because this is a family issue. It shouldn’t be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It should definitely just be an issue of protecting our people.”
Thinking of others led Murray, the Hempstead Town Supervisor, to enter politics.
“I always think of the vulnerable and people who need to be protected,” Murray told the Press at the Broadway Diner in Hicksville.
“Actually, the three offices that I’ve held–I was the first women in each of those,” Murray said. “So, I like to think three fewer glass ceilings to shatter, I’m proud of that.”
Before becoming town supervisor, she was town clerk and a state Assemblywoman.
The transition from advocating for issues to launching a campaign for public office is rife with difficult choices for anyone, but for women, certain campaign responsibilities, particularly fundraising, appear to be more difficult. The playing field is not level.
Women’s PACs, such as Emily’s List and Women’s Campaign Fund, have tried to help equalize women’s political fundraising capabilities, but women candidates remain at a disadvantage because funds tend to flow more readily toward the incumbents. Since men hold a vast majority of political offices, their war chests are exponentially more substantial.
“It took me a lot of years to figure out when I was trying to raise money that the men—same issues, same ranking as I had—it was easier for them to get money,” McCarthy revealed. “I finally said to one group, ‘What’s the issue here? Because I’m a woman, I don’t deserve to raise the same amount of money as a man?’ And you know what? That changed. I was getting equal support. You have to ask for it.”
Schimel observes that women often seem more comfortable giving money than asking for it, making fundraising particularly difficult.
“It’s very frightening to ask for money to campaign,” she said. “It’s the hardest part. I daresay it’s harder for women.”
But that’s the price women have to pay if they want to make a difference in public life, and women overcome tougher challenges than that every day, says McCarthy.
“Give yourself more credit,” she said. “You’ve got more strength in you than you realize. And you can do the job. Because if you look at your daily life, you’re making executive decisions constantly.”
In her best-selling business book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, coined the term “Impostor Syndrome,” a condition she says can limit a woman’s ambition and her sense of what she could accomplish.
“Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments,” Sandberg writes. “Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are: impostors with limited skills or abilities.”
For these Long Island women in public life, they’ve faced themselves in private and found they had the ability all along.