The dam is breaking in New York as more people come forward with stories about Governor Andrew Cuomo. Aside from Assembly member Ron Kim, so far it’s mostly been young women—like Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett—with the least political capital taking all the fire. That includes their champions in the Legislature, Senators Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos, and Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou and others, who’ve been doing wall-to-wall media, breaking down the relationship between corruption, Covid, and workplace harassment, while the heavyweights in the state have to be dragged out of hiding.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone who wasn’t elected five minutes ago, and maybe had some sort of, oh, I don’t know, national platform on gender discrimination decided to step “off the sidelines: speak up, be fearless, and change your world”—to quote the title of her book?
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand emerged during the Trump era as a kind of self-styled warrior for women’s rights, cursing her way through interviews and literally flexing her muscle for profile writers. She seemed perfectly timed for the #girlboss backlash that birthed feel good female enterprises like The Wing and T-shirts stamped with slogans advertising “Ambitious” and “Electable.” (Full disclosure: I own a sweatshirt that says “The Future is Female” and it made me feel good for much of 2017.) Commercial feminism is nothing new, but it peaked on the Democratic side as an act of political resistance. And Gillibrand took full advantage, betting that the same productive anger that paid for $2,600-a-year coworking club memberships and brought Nancy Pelosi back to power could propel her to the presidency.
Turns out, feminism as a product is mostly empty calories. The Wing is now defunct, after a staff revolt forced CEO Audrey Gelman to step down for not living up to the ideals splashed across its millennial pink walls. Meena Harris, the US vice president’s niece, has come under increased scrutiny for attempting to turn her aunt’s fame into for-profit feminism. The Women’s March, although not a corporate project, collapsed after its founders seemed to market themselves as the movement, pissing off the many activists who found their work undermined by the opinions of people they’d mostly seen on TV.
Gillibrand herself helped build the cult feminist vehicle she hoped to steer, writing in Time magazine, “The Women’s March was the most inspiring and transformational moment I’ve ever witnessed in politics…. And it happened because four extraordinary women—Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour—had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent, and never gave up.”
When it comes to taking on Cuomo, though, Gillibrand can’t seem to find the courage, claiming “It’s not my job,” and failing to even mention the governor by name except to remind everyone of his due-process rights. No mention of the women either, not even to praise their “bravery,” as politicians who don’t know quite what to say typically do.
Read for yourself.
On February 19, in response to the state’s withholding of data on nursing home deaths: “I know there’s ongoing investigations that I will not comment on, but I can do my part on the federal level to look at the broader issue through the Aging Committee which I am eager to do.… I’m focused on doing my job in the US Senate and that’s what I will do.”
On February 24, in response to Lindsey Boylan’s Medium post alleging sexual harassment and forcible kissing: “Well, obviously these allegations are serious and deeply concerning and anyone has a right to come forward to be heard and to have allegations be investigated. Governor Cuomo also has a right to be heard and he has come forward and has denied these allegations. But ultimately the decision will be up to the state Legislature.”
On February 28, in response to a second set of allegations levied by a 25-year-old ex-staffer who described how the governor groomed her for sex: “There must be an independent, transparent, and swift investigation into these serious and deeply concerning allegations.”
A few hours later, after nearly everyone in state government had already weighed in: “These allegations are serious and deeply concerning. As requested by Attorney General James, the matter should be referred to her office so that she can conduct a transparent, independent and thorough investigation with subpoena power.”
And before anyone claims it’s unfair to so closely scrutinize a woman vis-à-vis a man’s actions, this ain’t that. It’s entirely appropriate to expect a US senator who has positioned herself aggressively on women’s rights to offer more than drivel about her home state’s exploding scandals and the man at the center of it all.
The problem is that Gillibrand’s feminism is mostly a form of self-promotion, which really doesn’t do much for anyone else. Because it would cost Gillibrand something to put skin in the game, just like it’s costing the much more vulnerable female elected officials who’ve been out there swinging solo. Just like it’s costing the women half her age who’ve upended their lives and safety to speak truth to power.
At least she doesn’t use her faux empowerment politics to directly harm other women. Leave that to Melissa DeRosa, who in addition to serving as secretary to the governor is also the chair of the Governor’s Council on Women and Girls. In that capacity, she’s hurled gendered insults at high-profile female critics of the governor, notoriously tweeting, “Are you drunk? Get a grip” in response to Senator Biaggi’s threatening a primary; smearing Cynthia Nixon repeatedly as “unhinged”; and dismissing a panel featuring four accomplished women—Zephyr Teachout, former NYC council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, former mayor of Syracuse Stephanie Miner, and L. Joy Williams, president of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP—as “uninformed.” To name only a few examples.
All the while, the council has served as a platform for DeRosa’s own profile. Rebecca Minkoff—a member of the Steering Committee—put her on a Times Square billboard as part of an advertising campaign for “feminism” and “grlpwr” muscle tees. DeRosa was of course a member of The Wing and, unsurprisingly, its CEO also wound up on the Council Steering committee, as well as a press release supporting the governor’s man-made Women’s Equality Party (RIP). Gillibrand then legitimized the sham party by running on its line in 2018.
Gillibrand took an immediate and strong stand against Al Franken for which she was repeatedly pilloried, both fairly and unfairly. It was a political calculus more than a principled stand, which Gillibrand never seemed to admit despite the fact that it paid off brilliantly in the midterms, thanks to a blue wave of women. That’s because Gillibrand likes to look like she’s taking a stand without actually taking one.
There’s still time to prove me wrong.