By the end of 2017, the New York City Council’s 51-member body could have fewer than 10 women. That’s a sharp decline from a high point of 18 women in 2009.
What accounts for the falloff? One reason is a coincidental alignment of female members whose term limits are approaching, as well as the resignation of one member and another moving to the state Assembly. But the larger reasons are unclear. “I don’t know how the number got to be so small,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said. “It’s very, very small and it shouldn’t be. That should be 50 percent, particularly at this local level.”
Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Sixth District on the Upper West Side, is taking matters into her own hands to remedy the situation. Rosenthal hosted two fundraisers on Jan. 8 and 10 for three female Democrats in the Bronx who are running for election this year. “A lot of times, women don’t even get to have a platform to engage with the people who are making endorsements, or who are contemplating giving money,” Rosenthal said. “That certainly was what happened to me. And now I’m in office and I can help give these women a platform so they can present their ideas.” Democrats Diana Ayala, Amanda Farias and Marjorie Velazquez benefited from the fundraising, which Rosenthal and Brewer both cited as a particularly challenging endeavor for women. “It’s hard to call people and say ‘Believe in me, this is a political campaign. You’re not going to get a tax deduction, and could you please give me whatever you can,’” Rosenthal said.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who co-hosted Rosenthal’s event, has made a point of speaking out against the male-dominated political climate of the city. “When you’ve got such a disparity in this legislative body in this most progressive city, it should be alarming to everybody,” Mark-Viverito told the New York Daily News last week.
A 1991 report by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, “Gender and Policymaking: Studies of Women in Office,” showed that women’s paths do not get easier once they are elected. Based on the report’s findings, women are equally as successful at passing and signing legislation as men, but their proposed bills tend to receive twice as much “hostile witness testimony” in opposition. “To argue that we need women politicians, or ethnic minorities, often implies more than simple equal opportunity,” the report states. “It implies that public policy would be better served, more sensitive and responsive to differing social needs, if our body of lawmakers were drawn from our many diverse societal groups.”
Brewer pointed out that being a woman in politics can have its advantages, like loyalty and big voter turnout. “The women have always been my base,” she said. “Men, too, are always looking for women’s votes because the women vote in bigger numbers than men.” Brewer emphasized the importance of county leaders in endorsing female candidates. Each of the city’s five counties has a Republican and Democratic county leader — Adele Malpass and Assemblymember Keith Wright in Manhattan — who represent each party’s members and endorse candidates for various offices. “That’s something to look at very, very carefully,” Brewer said. “How many women are the county leaders really supporting?”
Still, the specific case of the City Council and its declining number of female members is difficult to pinpoint. Brette McSweeney, president of Eleanor’s Legacy, an organization that supports Democratic, pro-choice women in politics throughout the state, said it was something she had spent considerable time thinking about. She described state and local politics as a “carousel that never stops,” and stressed that there is always room for more groups to support female candidates. “It’s up to us to provide opportunities to welcome them aboard and to slow the carousel down a little bit,” said McSweeney, who also co-hosted Rosenthal’s fundraiser.
The New York City Council is at a record level of racial diversity, however, with 26 members who are black, Latino or Asian, according to the Daily News. Women of color who hope to achieve political office face a different set of challenges from white women, both during their campaigns and after they are elected. According to Political Parity, a nonpartisan organization that aims to elevate women in government, “The typical politician is a non-Hispanic white male, meaning that women of color are likely to have a higher credibility threshold to surmount with voters compared with other candidates.” Stereotyping, recruitment and even the composition of the districts they run in are other barriers women of color face more acutely than anyone else.
A special election will be held on Feb. 14 to fill former Council Member Inez Dickens’ seat, as she was recently elected to the State Assembly, and McSweeney urged voters to participate. “Women running at state and local [levels] and the impact that state and local government has in our lives, especially in [President-elect Donald] Trump’s America, can’t be overstated,” she said. “All of those calls to action have to go not just down to the Beltway but up to Albany and to our city halls.”
New York City has never had a female mayor and, of course, the highest office in the country remains closed to women. But Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign and just-as-historic loss may well energize women and minorities rather than discouraging them. This November’s City Council elections will begin to reveal whether the uptick in post-election grassroots organizing has paid off.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org