As moving trucks descend on the New York governor’s mansion and Andrew Cuomo finishes his tenure, felled by his utter inability to adapt to a small shift toward gender equality in the workplace, it’s worth reflecting on one of his more laughable experiments in neoliberal identity politics. That would be the Women’s Equality Party, may it rest in peace.
In 2014, faced with a progressive female challenger, the legal scholar Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo and his lieutenant governor, now-governor Cathy Hochul, founded the Women’s Equality Party to attract more female votes to himself and his centrist buddies, many of whom were men.
Some fifty thousand voters were fooled into voting for the Cuomo-Hochul ticket on the Women’s Equality line in 2014, and who can blame them? “Women’s Equality” sounds like something progressives would want to support. But it was a sham.
In 2015, a group of women led by former state senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, a dairy farmer who had represented an upstate district in western Schenectady County, sued to gain control of the party. Tkaczyk said at the time, “I didn’t think women needed to be told what to do by a man,” explaining that she wanted to put control in the hands of the members. That challenge failed.
In 2018, the party was briefly under new leadership: Susan Zimet, who was not otherwise politically worthless. A former New Paltz supervisor who led protests against fracking, she had also been executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State. There was some speculation that under her leadership, the party would develop some independence from Cuomo. But that didn’t happen.
Indeed, it was under Zimet’s leadership that the cynicism of the project became especially obvious, as the Women’s Equality Party endorsed Cuomo over a much more progressive woman, this time democratic socialist Cynthia Nixon, former Sex in the City star and a dedicated education activist.
“Yes, Cynthia is a woman, and yes, she represents a lot of our values, but we have a governor who literally created the party,” Zimet whined to Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times. Equally mortifyingly, the WEP supported incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the famous democratic socialist from Queens, who ended up winning the race. Again, the party supported a man. Notice a pattern?
That same year, Liuba Grechen Shirley ran for Congress on Long Island, and petitioned the Federal Elections Commission to allow her to use campaign funds for childcare. Her opponent, DuWayne Gregory, argued that the FEC should prevent her from doing that, as children were her personal problem. The FEC ruled in Shirley’s favor, a landmark decision for women and other working-class candidates.
By now, you can guess who the Women’s Equality Party endorsed in this race: obviously Shirley’s opponent, Gregory, who had argued against the pioneering feminist decision for which her campaign was responsible.
That year, 2018, the WEP met its ignominious end, failing to get enough votes to keep its ballot access.
As for Zimet, the author of Roses and Radicals: The Epic Story of How American Women Won the Right to Vote, a history of the suffrage struggle for young readers which came out the same year, she seems to have excised all mention of the Women’s Equality Party from her personal website. But if you happen to run into her going about her business at the health food store, you should definitely point and laugh, as she is richly deserving of mockery for being part of the sham feminism that characterized the Cuomo administration.
Besides Zimet, the other person who deserves to be forever haunted by her role in the Women’s Equality Party is, of course, Cathy Hochul, who was then lieutenant governor and is now preparing to take over the reins as governor. Primary challengers should run ads mocking Hochul’s willingness to be a figurehead for a man whose understanding of “women’s rights” would have already seemed dated in an episode of “Mad Men.”
In the coming years, if you ever need to explain the idea of neoliberal identity politics — the abuse of feminism, black civil rights, or other human liberation movements to strengthen capitalism and the ruling class — to someone unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the story of the Women’s Equality Party will be worth recalling.
It was at least refreshing to see that — unlike with some earlier occurrences of neoliberal identity politics (for example, much of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign) — in this case, many in the media were skeptical of the cynical deployment of feminism to advance the career of an extremely centrist man hoping to undermine progressive women. The Times’ Bellafonte called it a “political shell company.” Liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Nation that “The Women’s Equality Party is a joke.” Daniel Marans wrote earlier this year for the Huffington Post “Andrew Cuomo Once Created a Fake Women’s Rights Party to Empower Himself.” The Daily News observed that the design scheme for the Women’s Equality Part bus was uncomfortably evocative of a Tampax box. (With that pink stripe, I thought it looked more like a pregnancy test. Great job, consultants!
The name was the shrewdest thing about the Women’s Equality Party, which ultimately failed even on its own craven terms. Most people favor women’s equality, and the phrase evokes the suffragette movement and Alice Paul’s Women’s Party, historical actors with some lingering moral authority (although it’s important to note that given the racism of many of its leaders, that movement deserves complex treatment, far beyond hazy Tampax iconography).
In 1972, President Richard Nixon formally recognized August 26 as Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on that date in 1920. That’s next Thursday. Perhaps this year, it’s best celebrated by burning representations of Andrew Cuomo in effigy.