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Women in High Places

August 5, 2013

Today’s New York Times complains that women are “scarce” in the city government of Los Angeles, America’s second largest city. The mayor is a man, having beaten a woman to take the post, the controller is a man, four of five members of the Board of Supervisors are men, and 14 of 15 members of the City Council are men.

Being a New Yorker, I was curious to see how the Big Apple compares to our very much smaller sibling. The answer is, a little better, but not as much as you might hope.

Since the consolidation of the current City of New York in 1898, we have had 19 mayors, all men. Only twice have women even won the mayoral nomination of the Republican or Democratic party. Democrat Ruth Messenger lost by more than 12 percent to Rudy Giuliani’s re-election campaign in 1997, and Republican Diane McGrath took all of nine percent of the vote – coming in third in 1985 to Ed Koch and Carol Bellamy, who took 10 percent on the Liberal Party line, having lost the Democratic nomination to Koch.

Christine Quinn is thus running not only to be our first female mayor, but to be only our third female major party nominee for mayor.

Since consolidation, we have had 21 comptrollers. Only one was a woman: Elizabeth Holtzman, who served from 1990 to 1993. None of the major party candidates for comptroller this year is a woman, and the leading candidate, Eliot Spitzer, is perhaps best known just now for frequenting prostitutes while serving as New York State’s governor.

New York’s other city-wide elected office is the public advocate. There have been three of those, including one woman – Betsy Gotbaum, from 2002 to 2009. Interestingly, both of the two Democrats leading so far in the primary race are women: City Council Member Letitia James and Columbia University professor Catherine Guerriero.

New York City government also has five borough presidents – the five boroughs corresponding roughly to counties, unusual in that they lie within the single city of New York. Three of the boroughs have never had a female president:  Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Of the 44 presidents to have served Manhattan and Queens, five have been women.

The only female borough president in office today is Helen Marshall of Queens, who is retiring after this year. Prominent women are running for borough president only in Manhattan and Queens, thereby extending the so-far permanently all-male bastions in Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

In other words, of New York City’s top eight offices, one is currently held by a woman. This compares to Los Angeles’s anemic tally of one woman in that city’s top seven offices. But the cities part ways in their City Councils:  Los Angeles’ council is 14 men and one woman, whereas New York’s is 33 men and 18 women.

Evidently both city’s have glass ceilings. But in New York’s case, the ceiling is above the City Council, running through the borough presidents offices. In Los Angeles, the glass ceiling seems to be below elective offices generally.

We have some work to do.

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