Andrew Cuomo’s downfall has also discredited a host of liberal feminist activists who — we now learn — quietly advised the governor on his PR strategy.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, finally facing a comeuppance for some of his misdeeds, resigned this week after a rigorous investigation by Attorney General Tish James found that he had sexually harassed eleven women, including some in his office, and violated federal and state laws. (We wrote about some of the stories — and how unfortunately normal it has been for many working women to face such sexism — back in March.)
Sharing in the governor’s disgrace this week were some of the liberal establishment’s more prominent defenders of women’s rights. It turns out the governor called upon some high-profile, high-end feminists to help him out of his #metoo predicament. Sadly, they obliged him.
Tish James’s report found that, disgracefully, Roberta Kaplan, chair of Time’s Up, an organization dedicated to fighting sexual harassment in the workplace, had provided consultation to Cuomo in his effort to smear one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan. The report found that Kaplan, who represented Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, during the investigation, had reviewed a draft of a letter that Cuomo wrote attacking Boylan’s credibility and accusing her of political motivation. Kaplan, who is most famous as the lead lawyer in Edith Windsor’s famous inheritance lawsuit, resigned from Time’s Up on Monday morning.
In her letter of resignation, Kaplan claimed that the confidentiality of her work as a lawyer was at odds with her responsibilities to Time’s Up, whose name became practically synonymous with the #metoo movement after its founding four years ago. But really, it’s more likely that Kaplan had suddenly become a liability to the organization. Many former Time’s Up clients signed a letter, also published Monday morning, arguing, “Time’s Up is failing all survivors.”
Though Cuomo is pretending to be an unsophisticated knucklehead who doesn’t understand that times have changed, he’s long been a savvy exploiter of empty neoliberal feminism. Years ago, he started the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) — which the New York Times described as a “political shell company” — in order to defend himself from primary challenges from progressive women like Zephyr Teachout. The WEP is a fake organization boasting no actual feminists of any prominence. The governor’s cooptation of Time’s Up, for all its problems a group of actual activists, was much more sinister.
Time’s Up was founded by Hollywood women to address the appalling behavior of bosses like Harvey Weinstein. Its donors include many celebrities and entertainment-industry corporations. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the predicament of the liberal establishment post-Cuomo. Designer Lingua Franca, which made the famously gross “Cuomosexual” and “Cuomo for President” sweaters for those wishing to express bizarre fandom of the governor, announced today that it will restitch those items with a new phrase of the customer’s choice. But the moment has been even more awkward for the feminists carrying water for him.
Kaplan is such a staunch member of the establishment that any feminist movement trying to make serious progress in 2021 should be embarrassed by her: as a lawyer, she has represented Uber and many other companies whose gender troubles have made headlines. Worse, she actually represented Goldman Sachs in a workplace sexual harassment case as recently as 2020. The firm was accused of covering up sexual misconduct claims against its chief global litigator, Darrell Cafasso, as well as of retaliating against his accuser by firing her despite “exemplary performance.” A pattern which will be familiar to many working women as well as to any reader of James’s report on Cuomo.
But Kaplan is not the only Time’s Up leader implicated in L’affaire Cuomo.
The New York Times reported that Tina Tchen, the chief executive of Time’s Up, was also among those who reviewed the anti-Boylan letter for Cuomo. Tchen, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, has since clarified on Twitter that Kaplan did consult with her about the letter by phone and that her advice was, “No survivor should be attacked and the truth should be told.” She has in some statements claimed not to remember much about these conversations, almost certainly a lie. She also tweeted that she’s “furious that the Governor used me and Time’s Up as a justification for their defense.” However, a statement by Time’s Up seemed to acknowledge that an organization in which any of this would happen has a giant problem: “We are looking within,” it read.
That moment of introspection comes not a moment too soon. Hilary Rosen, a board member of Time’s Up — and a music industry lawyer who made her career on finding ways to use the carceral state against ordinary music listeners back in the file-sharing days — described the outrage against Time’s Up as an example of the principle that “no good deed goes unpunished,” claiming that Kaplan and Tchen had simply advised Cuomo’s office to tell the truth and not to attack the accuser.
Even if that were true, giving Cuomo that advice would still amount to helping the abusive boss, since it would not have been in the governor’s best interest to publish an angry letter defaming Lindsey Boylan. However, Tish James’s report casts doubt on Tchen’s account: that the two had suggested removing a reference to Boylan’s interactions with male staffers but had said that otherwise the letter “was fine.”
The letter was never published but James found it to be part of a constellation of actions she characterized as “unlawful retaliation” against Boylan for her accusations against the governor. A Time’s Up insider told the Washington Post that Tchen and Kaplan were consulted on “what was appropriate and inappropriate to say when there are these kinds of allegations.”
In other words, they were advising the governor on how he could avoid getting into further legal trouble. They were on his side. Only deeply arrogant girl boss feminists could spin this in any other way. As the survivors’ letter put it, “TIME’S UP has prioritized its proximity to power over mission.” Kaplan, Tchen, and Time’s Up later called upon the governor to resign, but this just made their predicament even more embarrassing given their role in attempting to help him evade the consequences of his actions. It will be interesting to see if other Time’s Up heads, including Tchen’s, will roll as women continue to rightly rage against this organization.
Time’s Up isn’t just an example of one organization screwing up. The whole sorry episode offers a window on elite feminism, which is always at risk of throwing women workers like Cuomo’s accusers under the bus. Elite feminism sides with the boss. Dedicated to helping women advance as bosses or members of the ruling class, the politics of groups like Time’s Up prevent them from turning on bosses like Andrew Cuomo. Helping him out was their form of class solidarity. Let’s hope we’ve learned from this kerfuffle that 99 percent of women can’t be served by these bougie nonprofits or by their feminism. Instead, we need our own organizations and politics.