In light of the recent confirmation by Attorney General Leticia James investigation into the sexual harassment allegations by former Cuomo staffers of an incredibly hostile workplace for women, I wanted to write about some of my own perspectives of being a young woman in politics and having to navigate the largely male-dominated industry and what that means for future generations of women who want to take the mantle of government service.
I got involved in politics when I was a teenager, growing up in South Richmond Hill, Queens and after the aftermath of 9/11, of which the impact I had continued to feel throughout my schooling and in the daily violence of South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, we were all a witness to. The violence I saw and endured myself growing up set the foundation for me to try to figure out how I could make an impact in my own way whether it was:
- Registering people to vote in my community
- Working with non-profit organizations, elected officials and activists in the community to tackle issues such as accessibility issues, helping first generation students with schoolwork, political participation in our local elections, serving as the link between government and the people it serves and how we can open up our society to people who weren’t wealthy white people.
It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I started to understand another frontier that would try to cancel me completely, and that was being a cis-woman in an incredibly polarized arena dominated by men, sometimes older South Asian men but also the younger ones who sought to replicate the misogyny they saw growing up, in another generation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off a major row last year when he congratulated Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina for “boldly saying that she has zero tolerance toward terrorism,” “despite being a woman”.India News
My last name Kaur, signifies that I am a Princess. Sikh Gurus bestowed this name on Sikh women so they would not beholden to carrying their fathers or husband’s last name and to give her agency over her life when it isn’t tied to the men around her. It is with this empowerment that I sought to find my place at the table where decisions are made and where collective input can make our communities stronger & safer.
When Me Too, in 2017 ripped the bandage off of decades of abuse that men in different industries had been inflicting on women, it made me think about these things as I have observed the conduct of white men being accused of sexual misconduct:
- How in pre-covid times, men would insist to have the door open whenever I have a meeting with them [and they refused to close the door even when we were discussing sensitive subjects]
- Men feeling too free to put their hands on the small of my back as they were passing me by.
- Being at political gatherings and being stared at from across the room.
- Not having boundaries acknowledged, heard or understood when I spoke about my discomfort of predatory men who have used ‘business’ meetings to attempt to touch or otherwise invade my personal space without my explicit consent.
- The never ending creepy messages from men in the political world after an event.
- How men have interpreted my work wear as ‘asking for it’
- How my own story of being sexually assaulted was leaked without my permission by a widely known ‘Survivors Advocate’ and how that set me up to be at risk since it had gotten back to the person who did it.
- Thinking that women use allegations of sexual assault or harassment to ‘deliberately end the careers of men running for higher office’
- Hearing candidates for political office, badmouth other women staffers without them there.
- Having women of color running for office ice me out once I raised direct concerns about someone.
- Being labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to work with’ if you do not tolerate the behavior that crosses boundaries.
What happened with female staffers in Governor Cuomo’s office is always playing out in other political offices as well. It is so widely accepted by people that to be successful in politics, ‘theres just somethings you need to do’ in order to get ahead of the pack. But I do not want to accept that generations of women will have to go through this themselves just to be relevant in politics.
“I’ve been sexually harassed throughout my career, but not in a way where the whole environment was set up to feed the predator and this and every interaction I had with the Governor and the culture felt like it was all to feed the predator.” – @LindseyBoylanErrol Louis on Twitter
Despite the allegations against Scott Stringer and his sexual harassment of an intern with the promise that he would ‘make her a district leader‘ Scott Stringer continued his bid for Mayor, not breaking for one second to self-reflect and think about the impact he had on the life of a woman who clearly -like me- also has to see her abuser active in the community and being let off without consequences. Another allegation resurfaced a month ago, by Teresa Logan who said:
The woman, Teresa Logan, said that she was a waitress and tended bar at Uptown Local, an establishment on the Upper West Side that was co-founded and run in part by Mr. Stringer. In an interview, she accused Mr. Stringer of once groping her as she carried trays, making unwanted sexual advances, including kissing and groping, outside the workplace at least twice and treating her in a manner that often made her uncomfortable.The New York Times
The first interactions, she said, took place in the spring of 1992, when Mr. Stringer was 32 and she was 18.
Internal Misogyny Plays a Hand as Well
As detailed by the report released by AG James, it makes it clear that Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa played a hand in making sure that the women coming forward against the Governor to talk about the hostile work environment and sexual harassment fostered by the State’s Chief was covered up and that the women raising these concerns were retaliated against.
Josh Vlasto, a former Cuomo chief of staff who remains a trusted adviser and has helped him with damage control during the sexual harassment scandal, told unidentified friends in direct messages from March that the workplace culture fostered by the governor was worse than suggested by news reports at the time.
“The odd part about these workplace stories — it’s not even close to what it was really like to work there every day. It was so much worse,” Vlasto wrote in the messages, which were included as appendixes in the AG’s report.The New York Daily News: “AG James report reveals cracks in Cuomo’s inner circle‘
According to the Washington Post, DeRosa is credited with the attempted take down of one of the accusers who came forward -Lindsey Boylan- and attempting to find dirt on Lindsey that would discredit her claims about the Governor’s conduct:
In the report about the sexual harassment allegations issued by New York Attorney General Letitia James, DeRosa is alleged to have played a key role in trying to discredit one of Cuomo’s accusers, an effort that investigators said was unlawful retaliation. And despite the numerous claims that surface about his behavior with young female staffers, she is not depicted as going to lengths to investigate them.Josh Dawsey, the Washington Post
Internal misogyny is one main driving force when it comes to taking down other women who stand up and challenge your source of connection to power. In this respect we can see that DeRosa was pulling out the full punches to anyone challenging the Governor and how he can’t keep his hands to himself. So much of the enforcement of patriarchy comes in the form of other women attempting to police each other’s bodies but also invalidate, smear, lie and being vengeful about someone’s claims that can directly hurt their source and connection to power. When you put these two together, patriarchy and internal misogyny in politics is really a detrimental force to survivors who come out and talk about their experience.
When women enable predators in communities, they seek to harm and lash out at women who are rightfully coming forward and speaking about harm being committed against them and the toxic work environment that no doubt, doesn’t do much to inspire loyalty or allegiance to anyone. Something that doesn’t stop resonating with me is how how people who claim to ‘believe women’ often do not ‘believe women’ when it comes to the person who they like who is toxic and abusive.
In December, after former aide Lindsey Boylan tweeted that the governor was “one of the biggest abusers of all time,” DeRosa asked a former lawyer to the governor for Boylan’s “full file,” according to investigators.
Cuomo aides then distributed Boylan’s personnel record, which included internal complaints, to a number of reporters — actions that violated laws prohibiting retaliation against victims of sexual harassment, the report said.
In a recorded call between DeRosa, another Cuomo aide and two staffers at the Albany Times Union, an editor told the governor’s office that the newspaper did not want the Boylan file, the report noted, but it was sent to the outlet anyway.
DeRosa told investigators she decided to release the file after consulting with other staffers, making the decision that it was necessary because Boylan’s claims on Twitter about Cuomo had grown “more and more escalating.”Josh Dawsey, The Washington Post
Being subservient to an executive should not have to mean working under toxic, humiliating and degrading circumstances. The women who came forward about Cuomo had every reason to share their story and in doing so, have given younger women like me more power and agency to come forward and being unapologetic about it.
A full impeachment of this Governor is in order, and the sooner the better.
This post has been updated to reflect that Governor Cuomo has resigned on August 10th, 2021 and has given 14 days notice. New York will have it’s first female Governor in Lt. Governor Kathy Hotchul.