The latest scandal between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the now seven women he allegedly abused, demonstrates how men can wield opportunistic power. But if we take a lesson from the 2020 presidential election, it can also be a way for women reclaim crisis and create new opportunities for themselves.
Cuomo is being investigated for two accounts of sexual assault and four accounts of harassment by Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennett, Anna Ruch, Karen Hinton, Anna Liss, Jessica Bakeman and an anonymous aide. As of this publication over 130 state lawmakers have called for Cuomo to step down. But does a resignation really serve women? We may be missing an opportunity here.
There are three main roles a man in politics will typically assume: the opportunist, the separatist and the ally. Women are wise to identify which one she is working with to better navigate politics’ dangerous waters and, in this case, possibly turn the tide.
The first and most pernicious role a man in politics can assume is the opportunist. Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how opportunists prey on women to wield power. They utilize sex as a form of domination and the easiest way to maintain control is by reducing some women around him to sexual objects of conquest, subjugation or control.
The public response to Cuomo’s scandal, especially its criticism by older women, demonstrates how little we still understand about the danger of these opportunistic tactics. But more importantly the demands for Cuomo simply to step down do little to remedy the institutional sexism that underlies these wrongs. It does little to leave the playing field more level for the next woman.
Cuomo’s accusers demonstrate how women are often subjected to a political death by a thousand sexual cuts. Women need not endure a heinous assault but merely a more subtle culture of sexist micro-aggressions. They endure a litany of questions about their sex lives, unwanted touches, kisses, lingering hugs and handshakes or jokes about penis size. If a woman comes forward about any one of these, she is dismissed as overreacting. As a result, opportunistic men may assume they have done nothing wrong, they may deny their own wrongdoing or they may gaslight their victims.
One warning sign of an opportunist is that he loves having a woman to “help” but it might be for an age-old entry fee. For example, Cuomo defended himself against Charlotte Bennett’s allegations saying he was only trying to “mentor” her. Bennett’s version of her relationship with Cuomo tells another story. Once when Bennett confided in Cuomo that she had been sexually assaulted, he responded by asking her about details of her sex life and whether she would consider a relationship with an older man.
Another one of the seven women Cuomo allegedly preyed upon, Jessica Bakeman, summarizes the motivations of a political opportunist best. In her recent New York Magazine article the political reporter reflects on a moment in which Cuomo put his hands on her at a press event, refusing to let go of her hand in an effort to force her into a photo op:
I never thought the governor wanted to have sex with me. It wasn’t about sex. It was about power. He wanted me to know that I was powerless, that I was small and weak, that I did not deserve what relative power I had: a platform to hold him accountable for his words and actions. He wanted me to know that he could take my dignity away at any moment with an inappropriate comment or a hand on my waist.
Bakeman notes that it’s not that Cuomo spares men in his orbit from his trademark bullying and demeaning behavior. But he bullies and demeans women in a different way. “He uses touching and sexual innuendo to stoke fear in us,” Bakeman explains, “That is the textbook definition of sexual harassment.”
With an action as seemingly benign as an insensitive comment or an inappropriate touch, the opportunist often puts a woman in a pyrrhic bind in which a woman has no choice that truly empowers her or allows her to maintain her dignity. As Bakeman explained, “The way Cuomo operates is by daring women to make an impossible choice: endure his abuse silently or speak up and risk your career.” If a woman is able to get past unwanted words or advances, her progress will be at some cost to herself that can make her success barely worth it.
For as many opportunists who attempt to take advantage of women in politics there are just as many men who will have nothing to do with them because they either don’t regard women as highly as their male colleagues or because they do not want there to be even a remote appearance of impropriety. In either case it does women a harmful disservice.
This is the separatist. And yes, on its face “separatist” is a strong and somewhat shocking word but times have changed (if not regressed) in shocking ways. We live at a time where extremists groups have emerged with a self-proclaimed agenda that is exclusively white and male, with a goal to maintain a political status quo that slants in their favor.
Our nation’s last vice president, Mike Pence is emblematic of the sex-separatist. Pence once professed to refuse one-on-one meetings with any woman who wasn’t his wife. He considers this practice a testament to his religious faith. Pence adheres to what Conservatives often call the “Billy Graham rule” so strictly that even aides who stayed after work late to help him were required to be male. Under this rule no man is to eat, travel or meet alone with anyone who isn’t his wife. If the bro code caught religion and went into politics it might look something like our former veep. According to brocode.org, Rule #1 of the bro code is, “Bros before hoes — A “hoe” is defined as any woman that is not your wife or direct family.”
Whether called separatism, the Billy Graham rule, the bro code or good-ole’-fashioned patriarchy, this thinking reduces women to what Freud called the Madonna-Whore complex nearly a century ago. If we are not busy bearing a man’s children we are sluts who shouldn’t be trusted. Forget that seat at the political table. Women can’t even get in the room.
Unlike the opportunist, who is motivated by expressing his ego, the separatist is motivated by protecting it and hiding any appearance of ethical or religious impropriety or shame.
Political media knows this all too well. Political figures know that being scandalized in any way can destroy their power, reputation, career and family.
Separatists believe that one of the easiest ways to fall prey to the wrong media spin is to be seen in the wrong place with the wrong gender. If these men do give women a seat at the table, it will be at arm’s length. They will meet you only in the presence of their political aide and the exchange will be exceptionally cryptic. If this kind of man endorses or supports a female leader they won’t be the first to do so, they will follow the party line and there will likely be no succession of power and absolutely no shift in the status quo.
The Importance of Allies
So if some men in politics seek to opportunistically prey on female leaders and if separatists want nothing to do with women what else do we have? Allyship.
Allies embrace opportunities for growth and understand that sometimes the greatest exhibit of strength is egalitarian humility. Allyship is the hallmark of a person who has truly examined their ego as one’s greatest enemy. They seek not just to give new leaders a seat at the table but they encourage them to lead and set a new agenda that reflects their own unique, life-experience and sense of justice. Allies know that when this happens it makes all of us stronger.
Allyship has the capacity to not only empower women but it can allow men to grow beyond their misdeeds and begin to account for past wrongdoing by shifting the dynamics of patriarchy toward the empowerment of women. Encouraging allyship as a way to remedy past wrongs might take women farther than simply resorting to cancel culture. To be sure, compensating victims legally and requiring offenders to resign helps to redresses specific harms but it does little to correct for institutionalized oppression. Allyship can be a step in that direction.
Allies Aren’t Born, They Are Made: Biden as a Case Study in Allyship as Remedy
In his 2020 run for president, Joe Biden faced renewed criticisms of his record on women. It revived Tara Reade’s claims of sexual assault from 1992. Several other women stepped forward with stories of Biden engaging in exchanges such as forehead touching and lingering hugs that, in their opinion, felt demeaning or inappropriate but did not rise to the level of sexual assault. Biden was also criticized for not going to the proper lengths to protect Anita Hill when she testified against Clarence Thomas after his 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court. Hill alleged Thomas had sexually harassed her and was subjected to a scathing investigation by an all-white and all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden was the chair of the Committee at the time and presided over the hearings. He could have called additional women as corroborating witnesses for Hill but failed to do so.
Instead of merely counting Biden out of the race for president, women saw an opportunity to put pressure on him to do better. In April 2019 in anticipation of his 2020 run for president, Biden reached out to Anita Hill to apologize for failing her at Thomas’ confirmation hearing.
Instead of giving one of the most powerful men in politics a pass, Hill said sorry was not enough. Hill expressed concerns about women’s allegations against him and explained how Biden’s failure nearly thirty years ago might have helped history to repeat itself. It set the stage for Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed to the Supreme Court even though he too had allegedly assaulted women. In her New York Times interview Hill explained:
I cannot be satisfied by simply saying, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you.’ I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.
In response to criticisms of his leadership on behalf of women, Biden made a public commitment to right his wrongs. Biden selected Kamala Harris to be our nation’s first female, East-Asian and black vice president. Additionally Biden insisted that Harris be given more leadership opportunities in her role than veeps typically have.
Biden appears to be making good on his promise in other ways as well. In the few short months since its start, the Biden-Harris administration has made history by appointing 12 women to cabinet positions, eight of whom are women of color. For the first time in White House history, the current administration has also appointed an all female communications team. Biden’s administration has also set an ambitious agenda to advance women’s rights in the area of health care, reproductive rights, economic security, family life, education and gender-based violence.
Considering all the criticism Biden faced in 2020 holding him out as an example of allyship can appear a bit pearl-clutching. But holding out for perfect allies is not only unrealistic, it is self-defeating. Most leaders do not have stunningly perfect records of conduct. Rather, like Hill, we need to hold men accountable by expecting them to do better and shift the dynamics institutional inequality in more substantive ways.
Cuomo, Allyship and Our Opportunity to Move Beyond Cancel Culture
Whether Cuomo resigns as governor or not, he will need to recover his brand and decide what his legacy will be. Cuomo would be well-served to follow Biden’s example and embrace a strong agenda of allyship as one of several means to right his wrongs.
But as of this publication, he has not.
In response to the allegations against him, Cuomo has acknowledged that times have changed and that the sexist behavior that might have been condoned in the past is no longer acceptable. In his public apology he states,
I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.
Unlike Biden, Cuomo has not only made no commitment to right his wrongs, he is bearing down and refusing to resign as governor citing that New York has monumental challenges to resolve that needs seasoned leadership. Truly seasoned leadership, however, would consider the legacy of patriarchy that got him there in the first place. Seasoned leadership would do something to ensure that women no longer have to bear the weight of a toxic patriarchy that chooses to brand, control and undermine them.
There should be more to Cuomo’s legacy than the way he betrayed women. Women have an opportunity to echo Anita Hill and set some demands. It’s time to establish an agenda that turns Cuomo’s opportunism into our own opportunity.