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Op-ed: What Christine Quinn's Loss Means for Women in 2014

Op-ed: What Christine Quinn's Loss Means for Women in 2014

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The 2014 elections are closer than you think. Anyone with political affiliations is getting at least 10 emails a day looking for money and support. I’ve been hearing from Obama’s Organizing for America, DNC, DSCC, BoldProgressives, LPAC, Get EQUAL, Emily’s List and other political organizations with an interest in maintaining the Senate for Democrats, winning back the House and getting more women and gays elected.

About that last part, though...

Over the weekend I talked with many of my lesbian friends in New York, where I lived and worked for a while. They were all devastated by Christine Quinn losing the Democratic primary for mayor. A couple of friends had worked on her campaign, others knew her personally. All had voted for her. These are women from their 20s to their 50s. White, black and Asian. Well-off and barely making it. A true demographic mix.

There has been a lot of very facile deconstruction of Quinn’s loss in the New York press and some LGBT media–most of it by men, most of it by supporters of one of her opponents. There’s been a lot of "post-feminist" and "post-identity politics" talk.

But the reality of the Quinn loss is that it was, in many respects, a localized version of the 2008 presidential election: sexist to the core, with a hefty dose of homophobia tossed in because Quinn is an open lesbian.

Quinn, head of New York City Council, was the favored candidate from the start. Quinn got the overwhelming support of newspaper endorsements, including theNew York Times. Barney Frank wrote that her election would be not just historic, but a political game-changer. New York women’s groups were behind her.

But when disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner of sexting scandal fame entered the race at the beginning of the summer, Quinn’s poll numbers, which had been hovering at 50% in a field of five candidates dropped by 15% as Weiner dove in.

Think about that: The out lesbian head of City Council–the second most powerful position in city government–was suddenly being checked by a guy who was forced to resign from Congress for tweeting his semi-naked torso with obvious erection to random women, including some hovering at adulthood. How was that not sexism? It was as if the city would prefer anyone but a woman, especially a lesbian.

When Weiner was caught in yet another sexting scandal, he refused to drop out, even as his poll numbers plummeted. Yet while he came in last in the primary, he still got five percent of the vote. Quinn came in third with 15%. The winner, Bill de Blasio, got just the requisite amount to avoid a run-off: 40%.

What happened?

Over the months that Weiner’s Carlos Danger sexts were revealed, a steady barrage of invective and innuendo was pummeling Quinn below the radar. She was threatened, she got homophobic attacks. There were columns referring to her anger issues with the implication that she was an hysterical woman who had issues once a month.

Liberal New Yorkers decided Quinn wasn’t liberal enough. When Weiner's numbers crashed they dove toward de Blasio who had exactly Quinn’s politics, but no pesky voting record on unpopular issues to get in his way. Plus he had a trump card: an African-American wife who was a self-declared former lesbian.

New Yorkers could breathe a sigh of relief—the de Blasios, as a couple, fit their liberal needs.

Undoubtedly, there will be New Yorkers who object to this characterization and will note that de Blasio was against a main issue in the race: stop-and-frisk, which had been created by Mayor Bloomberg.

Except...de Blasio has already stated he wants to bring in a new police commissioner, former L.A. police commissioner Bill Bratton, who is a huge proponent of stop-and-frisk.

In the end it wasn’t stop-and-frisk that foiled Quinn, it was a long, strong, sexist undermining of her as a candidate. She was called strident, shrill and sullen. One posting referred to her as a harridan, many called her a bitch.

It was gender that foiled her, not stop-and-frisk.

Despite all the "post" talk, it’s actually not a good thing when people refuse to vote for candidates who represent their particular demographic. And it’s especially bad for women when women don’t vote for women candidates.

Some women have argued with me that there are men who are more feminist than women. That’s a great liberal fallacy, but it’s almost never true unless one is comparing Republican women to Democratic men.

Women told me in 2008 that Barack Obama was more of a feminist than Hillary Clinton who had spent her life working for women’s issues. Today President Obama has an almost entirely male, very white Cabinet. He proposed Larry Summers–with a history of overt sexism–for the Federal Reserve post over Janet Yellen, who was equally accomplished, but without Summers’ cozy Wall Street baggage. Now Summers’ has withdrawn due to outrage–but Obama never asked him to do so.

Not a feminist.

On September 18 there was a furor on social media as Channel 4 News ran a story on the German Chancellor and head of the EU, with the headline, "Angela Merkel: More Minx than Matron."

Minx? The German Chancellor? This was a headline? In 2013?

The headlie may have eventually been changed, but it's still the purest grade of sexism.

Sexism is so insidious in our culture, it is still such a blatant aspect of politics, that it’s absurd to argue that we're "post" anything with regard to Quinn or any other female candidate, regardless of party. When a woman candidate–and in Quinn’s case, a gay candidate–is the only one on the stage with a plethora of men, their gender difference stands out. They are the apple compared to the oranges.

Women candidates are asked different questions from men, they are considered suspect in ways men never are. Women themselves take pleasure in excoriating female candidates, as if it makes them seem above or beyond feminism by doing so, and thus somehow more evolved.
Yet no one ever questions why African Americans vote for African-American candidates, or Hispanics for Hispanic candidates, and so forth. Racial identity politics is accepted because of America’s long history of racism. Most candidates of color know they can typically count on voters of color.

So what of our long history of sexism? It isn’t even a century since women got the vote. Women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, except that’s a skewed median number–it’s really far less in many instances. A lesbian couple has half the discretionary income of a heterosexual couple of comparable education. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of discrimination.

So why would women not support women candidates?

We all know about internalized phobias and -isms. But are we prepared to accept that we might have that problem ourselves? Do women believe women can do as good a job as a man, or do women think a "feminist" man would be better?

Statistically, when women vote for women, women win. But more than half the time women vote against female candidates. Not enough open lesbians have run for office for there to be statistics on how voters respond, but if Quinn is any indicator, she had a double stigma to overcome with voters.

If you doubt that Quinn is symptomatic of a larger picture and think her loss was just about her, consider that there are only five women governors among the United States's 50 states, and territories, all of whom are Republicans except Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

Twenty women serve the U.S. Senate, the most in U.S. history. Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, there are 78 women. So: one in five senators is female, one in 17 reps is female. Only one of the 10 largest cities in the country has a female mayor–Houston.

Yet, as of the most recent U.S. Census, 52 % of the population is female.

So where are the women? Why is it so difficult for voters to stand behind female candidates? Why is the media allowed to use the kind of sexist argot that Channel 4 piece used? Why did the New York press use the kind of sexist language it used with Quinn but not with Weiner, inarguably the candidate who was continually having public meltdowns, which Quinn was not.

If there’s an analysis to be taken–and extrapolated–from Quinn’s loss, it’s that women candidates still have far greater obstacles to overcome than men and that the glass ceiling for higher office is still firmly in place.

As 2014 looms, the House and Senate are both up for grabs. Several governorships including Pennsylvania’s, have women running to unseat a male incumbent. Women voters — lesbian voters — need to remind themselves that voting against women is both counter-intuitive and counterproductive.

Women know what women need. Women remember that women exist, whereas male candidates have no true personal investment–beyond the initial voting bloc–in women voters or their concerns.

For LGBT voters, this is doubly true. Ignoring LGBT candidates in favor of alleged straight allies doesn’t further LGBT rights. The LGBT constituency may be small, but mighty as a bloc. Quinn herself could not have risen to her position as speaker of City Council without the support of a large LGBT voting bloc.

Identity politics is far from over in America. If anything, it is more imperative than ever, as government is increasingly controlled by a powerful conservative Republican and centrist Democrat contingency with limited concern for LGBT voters.

So that temptation to vote against one’s demographic may seem post-whatever, but it’s actually self-defeating. The opportunity to have secured a lesbian mayor of the largest city in America was lost on whim as much as anything. And just as many Democrats have had buyer’s remorse throughout the Obama Administration, so too are they likely to have it in New York.

But whether or not that is the case, looking to the future and moving LGBT people and women into the halls of power in 2014 and beyond has to be a goal we are willing to entertain because representation of our needs is imperative. Without our own people in power, how will we ever get those things that we need, including that most basic yet still elusive equality.

VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer and The Nation, among others. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. [email protected] 

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Victoria A. Brownworth