The Feminist Case for Christine Quinn

Chris Quinn has been a powerful agent of progress and change. Why must she work twice as hard and get half the credit she deserves for that effort?
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A 2008 survey by the reputable Pew Research Center asked a representative sample of Americans to identify the character traits they most value in political leaders. They said they look for leaders who are honest, intelligent, hardworking, decisive, ambitious, compassionate, outgoing, and creative. The group then rated men and women comparatively in these categories, and women were ranked higher in five of the eight -- seen as typically more honest, intelligent, compassionate, outgoing and creative. Men held a slight edge only on being decisive. And votes split equally on hard work and ambition.

Women prevailed again on questions about job performance skills, such as working out disagreements, keeping government honest, and standing up for what you believe. Women were also seen as more reliable stewards of high profile public policy matters like education and health care.

But here's the kicker. The Pew interviewees consistently favored women on key ingredients of leadership, yet the vast majority of them -- a whopping 69 percent -- then concluded paradoxically that men and women actually make equally good leaders overall. Americans in large numbers actually do believe that women have "the right stuff to be effective political leaders," the project's authors concluded. "Yet women emerge from this survey a bit like a sports team that racks up better statistics but still loses the game." The feminist rallying cry that women have to work twice as hard to get half as far as men do, finds statistical support in these findings.

Can there be a better way of understanding the high bar faced by New York City Council Speaker Chris Quinn as she enters the final days of this year's rough and tumble Democratic mayoral primary?

I thought of this research, as I watched Quinn nimbly parry the attacks of her four testosterone-fueled opponents in the campaign's first two televised mayoral debates. Frontrunners are always fair game in an election season, but there seems to be something deeper at play this year in the way that politicians and pundits alike get away with dismissing Quinn's estimable record of achievement as irrelevant. Or worse, they undermine all she has accomplished because the progress she made required intense deal-making, which is then characterized as somehow unsavory. Could there be hidden bias here because she's a woman?

There is simply no denying that Chris Quinn has been an outspoken advocate of basic human rights and social justice for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. What's more, she has found creative ways to write and pass local legislation that meaningfully improves lives in the city and also sets precedent for policy change in Albany and Washington. In order to accomplish these ends, she has built alliances with a powerful, opinionated mayor and with often quarrelsome interest groups representing business, real estate, labor, and other communities who do not necessarily share her views. Is this suspect behavior, or is deft leadership? Would a man ever develop a bad rap for these skills?

Just a few examples: Quinn delivered handily on this year's two most high-profile local issues. Months ago, she passed a bill to establish an Inspector General who will increase accountability and oversee practices in the NYC Police Department, including the controversial Stop and Frisk policy.

Just last week, she led the Council in an overriding a mayoral veto of the bill. Her high-profile brokering of a compromise between progressive advocates and small business owners on paid sick leave also guarantees that one million more New Yorkers can now take reasonable time off when they need to, without fear of losing their jobs. She overrode a mayoral veto on that one too.

And there's more. Quinn passed a living wage law requiring a salary of at least $10.00 an hour for all workers in city-funded development projects, though the federal minimum wage has long not budged. She helped deliver New York City's pioneering marriage equality legislation by rallying a coalition of business, clergy and community leaders around it -- long before Albany or Washington got involved. She takes special pride in having passed Manny's Law, requiring local hospitals to provide financial aid to uninsured and underinsured patients memorializing a young boy who died because his family could not afford appropriate medical care -- before anyone heard of Obamacare. She helped engineer programs to provide emergency contraception through local pharmacies and reproductive health clinics, when the drug was still held hostage nationally to George W.Bush-era politics -- an issue on which I claim some authority because I helped bring it to her attention and that's how we first met.

For hard-pressed middle-class New Yorkers, Quinn makes sensibly realistic, not pie-in-the-sky, promises about building more affordable housing, creating child care tax credits, and improving transportation to limit long commutes. Her education platform takes on controversial policies of the Bloomberg era that have increased standardized testing as a measure of student progress and closed schools that are low-performing schools by this questionable standard. She has made tough but principled choices in the past in order to balance city budgets responsibly. As such, she is the candidate best positioned to handle future fiscal challenges that will require intense negotiation with city labor unions over long expired contracts and with Albany legislators who must consent to any local tax increases necessary to resolve another looming budget crisis.

I'm tired of hearing that Chris Quinn handed Mayor Bloomberg a third term, without any debate about whether continuity of local leadership in 2009, when the city and country were in the throes of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, may have been a sound course. I'm tired of hearing that Chris Quinn has a temper, that she wears wacky nail polish, that she's married to a woman who prefers pantsuits, while she likes skirts and dresses -- without more pushback against these flagrantly sexist tropes.

Chris Quinn has been a powerful agent of progress and change. Why must she work twice as hard and get half the credit she deserves for that effort?

Finally, the New York Times and the Daily News in their outstanding endorsements of her candidacy have added back some necessary balance to this campaign. I stand with the Times in believing that Chris Quinn "offers the judgment and record of achievement anyone should want in a mayor."

Thirty-six years ago I took a leave from Columbia's Graduate School to help elect Carol Bellamy as New York City Council President. Carol became the first woman in New York ever elected in her own right to a city or statewide office. There have been exactly three since -- Senators Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand, and NYC Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman. It's time for one more!

Chris herself said it best when she asked why there is so much debate this year over giving men second chances. Why not just give a woman a first chance? It's a question especially worth pondering today as we celebrate women's equality and mark the 93rd anniversary of women's suffrage.

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