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Kathy Hochul’s rise in New York spotlights the barriers to women becoming governors

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

by Barbara Rodriguez at the 19th*


"I want by the end of my administration, for every woman to say there are no barriers, there is no longer a ceiling."

When Kathy Hochul is sworn in this week, she will become the first woman to serve as the governor of New York, ascending from her role as lieutenant governor after the resignation of Andrew Cuomo. The Democrat will also be one of only nine women governors in America — and one of four who first reached that position through succession rather than election.

Of the 44 women who served as a governor before Hochul, who is expected to be sworn in Tuesday, 11 got the position through rules in state constitutions that made them next in line as governor when the current officeholder was no longer able to serve. Six later won full terms, including three currently in office: Democratic Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon; Republican Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama; and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa. Separately, three women governors between the 1920s and 1960s replaced their spouses.

There have been at least 1,000 men governors, according to a general estimate from the Eagleton Center on the American Governor.

Despite gains in representation in statehouses, Congress and other statewide offices — women hold positions like lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general at higher rates — their representation at statewide executive leadership remains stubbornly low. After Hochul’s ascension, there will still be 19 states that have never had a woman governor. America has had three governors who were women of color, but voters have never elected a Black or Indigenous woman as governor.

That data highlights persistent barriers for women in leadership. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said voters appear to more easily visualize women as lawmakers or in other statewide offices instead of as governor or president.

“These are positions where you need to work collaboratively. You work in committees, and that lends itself to the notions of where women’s strengths lie,” she said of legislative roles. “Being the final authority? Being the decisive decision maker? … I think it fits into that male image of who leads at that level … That’s some of the gender bias that’s still out there.”

Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, calls it an “imagination barrier.” The foundation has studied the roadblocks women face in being elected governors, such as the likelihood of an incumbent — almost always a man — winning reelection, and even a sense from women governors and candidates themselves that they have to work harder to fundraise and to prove their electability (though research shows they fare just as well as candidates when going head-to-head with men). In a recent survey, the foundation discovered that many voters still imagine men when asked about hypothetical governors.

“If you ask them to picture a governor, they have an imagination barrier when it comes to thinking about women serving in those roles, and so seeing a woman serving as governor, seeing a woman serving as mayor, is powerful because it breaks down those stereotypes,” Hunter said.

Walsh said it’s important not to underestimate the significance of Hochul’s ascension, which will drastically change the dynamics of the next Democratic primary for governor. (Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, is among the potential primary challengers — meaning several women could soon be on the ballot.) Women like Hochul who ascend to power by succession, despite the realities of what put them in the position, can prove their leadership qualities and bypass an “electability gauntlet” that then changes the game for future elections.

“They have an opportunity to prove themselves without going through the political gatekeepers that exist, that make it difficult for women to run for these positions or deal with voters and their own gender biases about who can lead at that level,” Walsh said.

Hochul, 62, will take over for Cuomo, a three-term Democratic governor who was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by several women. Cuomo has challenged a state attorney general’s report that outlined allegations by 11 women, while mostly defending his actions. Women state lawmakers have indicated support for moving forward with impeaching Cuomo. While lawmakers are still reviewing their impeachment investigation, legislative leaders say they do not have the constitutional authority to impeach Cuomo once he leaves office.

Though Hochul said she worked independently from Cuomo’s office, she may still face questions about what she will do to address sexual harassment policies and a culture of misogyny in New York state politics that has included allegations of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments by lawmakers and other state officials. (One of Cuomo’s predecessors, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, resigned as governor in 2008 after he was implicated in a prostitution ring. Before Hochul was elected as lieutenant governor in 2014, she won a special election to Congress after former Rep. Chris Lee resigned for emailing a photo of himself shirtless to a woman he met through Craigslist.)

It’s a double standard for women in positions of power to fix problems, particularly ones that stem from a scandal tied to their ascension, said Lala Wu, co-founder and executive director of Sister District, which helps Democratic candidates run for statehouse seats.

“People are going to expect her to clean house and make sure that there are not any Cuomo-like elements elsewhere in the government. But that may be very challenging to do, and it’s going to take a long time,” she said. “So I certainly expect that she’s going to face quite a bit of pressure from all sides, and her job is not going to be an easy one.” Walsh added: “It’s also important to be realistic that women are held to a different and higher standard in executive office, and we expect to see, unfortunately, Lt. Gov. Hochul held to a higher standard when she assumes that role.”

Hochul, whose staff declined an interview request, has tried to address some of the questions facing her administration. At her first news conference following Cuomo’s announcement that he would step down, she committed to replacing people accused of unethical behavior in the attorney general’s report. She added: “At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic work environment.”

Walsh said when she heard that commitment, she realized how much Hochul — who has served in several elected roles, including within local government and Congress — has an opportunity to shift expectations in Albany. Still, Walsh doesn’t know how quickly someone can completely transform a culture that’s deeply embedded.

“She can in some ways be the anti-Andrew Cuomo. And it seems like she already is,” Walsh said. “I mean just her style, her personality, she seems kind of very antithetical to Andrew Cuomo. But I think the risk of course is that … it’s not going to be a situation where she comes in, and in 18 months, can change a deeply ingrained culture in the state. But she can go a long way in trying to transform it.”

Hunter said Hochul’s early remarks on building trust could help her own electability. (Hochul told NBC’s “Today” show that she expects to run for a full term once she finishes Cuomo’s term in 2022 — she has indicated she will appoint a lieutenant governor shortly after she is sworn in.) Research shows voters think “good” governors get things done.

“She already seems to be bringing a different style that is collaborative, and is very interested in being specific and in using metrics and being accountable to voters which we’ve seen is important to voters, especially during a crisis,” Hunter said.

Hochul has indicated her immediate priority will be addressing the ongoing pandemic. She has also committed to releasing data on nursing home deaths — the state legislature’s impeachment investigation into Cuomo included looking into allegations that he understated COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes, which he has denied.

Still, Hochul has committed to course-correcting the work culture in state government, and her plans to run a full term may impact how she views her timeline for results. During an August 15 episode of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Hochul was asked whether she had spoken with the women who alleged Cuomo harassed them. She said working conditions will change “1,000 percent” for both survivors and other women.

“We need their voices. We need that diversity. We’re getting there. We’re making progress on more elected women. But I want by the end of my administration, for every woman to say there are no barriers, there is no longer a ceiling. We’re looking forward and making sure that my reputation and the reputation of my administration is one that is completely ethical. That is how I’ve conducted my life since I’ve been an elected official, for 27 years, and also just let people know it’s a whole new era now. And I’m excited about this.”

Disclosure: The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has been a financial supporter of The 19th. Share

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