In 2018, an email was sent to the New York State Democratic Committee’s mailing list with the subject line “NY Stands with #MeToo.” The sender? Governor Andrew Cuomo.
At the time, the committee’s choice to position Cuomo as an authority on women’s rights, and sexual harassment in particular, raised eyebrows. After all, this was the same governor who, in 2017, had to be shamed into donating the campaign contributions he received from Harvey Weinstein, after the producer’s misdeeds became front-page news. Despite his long track record of problematic public behavior, Cuomo consistently managed to position himself as an expert in gender justice, superficially invoking feminist ideals even as he condescendingly dismissed women who criticized him.
Cuomo’s #MeToo fundraising email arrived three years before his first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, publicly alleged that he’d made a series of unwanted sexual advances toward her, including attempting to kiss her when she worked for New York state’s economic development agency. Boylan’s misconduct allegations opened the door for 10 other women to come forward, but these accounts of harassment aren’t the only reason the governor shouldn’t have been considered an advocate for women experiencing workplace harassment. When the email blast was sent, Cuomo’s administration was still weathering the fallout that resulted from state employee Lisa Marie Cater accusing senior aide Sam Hoyt of sexually harassing and assaulting her in the workplace. By the administration’s own account, three separate state agencies reviewed these misconduct allegations, but the governor’s office took no steps to remove Hoyt from his position.
When NPR’s Karen DeWitt questioned Cuomo about these failures in 2017, he responded angrily: “When you say it’s [just happening in] state government, you do a disservice to women, with all due respect, even though you’re a woman.” Cuomo’s interaction with DeWitt, as well as his attempt to position himself as a #MeToo advocate, is emblematic of how self-aggrandizing and patronizing he’s been in his approach to dealing with women’s issues throughout his career. This behavior was on full display during Cuomo’s initial defiant response to a damning 169-page report released by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office, which summarized the findings of its investigation. Focusing much of his time and energy on the allegations brought against him by former aide Charlotte Bennett, Cuomo insisted that Bennett was incapable of assessing his motivations and intentions. “I have heard Charlotte and her lawyer, and I understand what they are saying,” Cuomo said, “but they read into comments that I made and draw inferences that I never meant. They ascribe motives I never had. And simply put, they heard things that I just didn’t say.” James’s report paints a grimmer picture, detailing Cuomo’s questionably familiar behavior toward Bennett both around the office and in private interactions.
Over the course of Bennett’s tenure, Cuomo fixated on her being a survivor. The report documents one meeting—by Cuomo’s own account his first “substantive” conversation with Bennett—in which Cuomo interrogated Bennett about the intimate details of her sexual assault, only to later minimize her story by saying, “some people have it much worse.” Months later, the governor again engaged Bennett in the subject of sexual assault. In a conversation that Cuomo began with questions about “who she was ‘hitting on’ and ‘who was hitting on [her],’” the subject then shifted to Bennett’s own career and political efforts, in particular a speech about sexual assault that she planned to deliver at her alma mater, Hamilton College. Though Cuomo had been dismissive of her experience in the past, he now seemed almost sadistically fixated on the sexual assault she’d endured. While reviewing the draft of her speech, “the Governor pointed at her and repeated, ‘[Y]ou were raped, you were raped, you were raped and abused and assaulted.’”
According to the report, Bennett was deeply disturbed by the interaction: “Later that day, Ms. Bennett sent text messages to Staffer #2 about the interaction. In those messages, Ms. Bennett wrote, in part, “The way he was repeating ‘you were raped and abused and attacked and assaulted and betrayed’ over and over again while looking me directly in the eyes was something out of a horror movie. It was like he was testing me.” In his videotaped response to the report, however, Cuomo said his actions were misinterpreted. “I did ask her questions I don’t normally ask people. I did ask her how she was doing and how she was feeling,” he said. “I know too well the manifestations of sexual assault trauma and the damage that it can do in the aftermath. I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could. I thought I had learned enough, and had enough personal experience to help her.” As sexual misconduct accountability advocates noted immediately, Cuomo’s comments aligned perfectly with a toxic, sexist, and ableist discourse that has long been used to silence and discredit survivors who speak out about their experiences. “Cuomo claims that because Charlotte Bennett had been assaulted previously, she saw ill intent from him where there was none and was not competent to interpret his own behavior towards her. (Which included asking if she was monogamous & if she had ever slept with older men),” noted Guardian writer Moira Donegan.
“I think this is why victims are targeted by abusers. Our histories are used against us,” concurred antirape advocate and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki. “Logically, we’d say a victim’s experience could mean she’s more knowledgeable about consent and boundary violations. But rape culture marks victims as ‘crazy’ for life.” The entire episode, from the grooming of Bennett to his “testing” her, was classic Cuomo—setting himself up as the ultimate authority on women’s issues and our ultimate advocate. Cuomo has a long history of attempting to cement himself an arbiter of gender equality, at least when such a status served his political ambitions. The history of the Women’s Equality Party (W.E.P.), an astroturfing organization funded by his campaign in an effort to bolster his reputation as an advocate for women, is a particularly revealing example. In 2014, Cuomo and his allies founded the W.E.P. in an attempt to win him some feminist credibility as he fought off a challenge by female candidate Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo spent his 2014 campaign traversing New York in a bus called the “Women’s Equality Express,” a pink-striped vehicle that bore more than a passing resemblance to a box of Tampax Pearls. The Cuomo-funded W.E.P. languished in obscurity until his campaign was resurrected in 2018—just in time for the organization to endorse Cuomo in his electoral battle against another female challenger, Cynthia Nixon.
“Yes, Cynthia is a woman, and yes she represents a lot of our values, but we have a governor who literally created the party,” Susan Zimet, the then chair of W.E.P., told the New York Times. (Now that it has outlived its usefulness, the W.E.P. is nowhere to be found; its former website redirects to a WordPress boilerplate that simply states, “site is not available.”) To Cuomo, feminism has been a project to be dropped and then reengaged with at his leisure and political convenience. As New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante noted in her 2018 piece, “Some found the entire [W.E.P.] enterprise craven and patronizing … others found it duplicitous, given the rampant culture of sexual harassment that had been permitted to fester for so long in the state capital.” The very existence of the W.E.P. depended on complicit white women such Zimet and soon-to-be-governor Kathy Hochul, who both lent their faces to that cynical ploy. Throughout his career, Cuomo has repeated this strategy, relying on white women allies to obscure his sexist behavior and aggressively deny any allegations that surfaced. Cuomo also depended on top aides, especially Melissa DeRosa, to assure young women like Bennett that his grooming tactics were an acceptable and benign form of “hazing.” When Boylan came forward with her story, DeRosa orchestrated smear campaigns that attempted to use Boylan’s personnel records to discredit her.
Even as allegations swirled and Cuomo’s political situation became more dire, supposed women’s advocates like Time’s Up leader Roberta Kaplan worked behind the scenes to assist the governor in masterminding a defensive response. Abusers like Cuomo succeed because we’re still largely comfortable allowing men to paternalistically insert themselves into sexual misconduct accountability discourse as so-called arbiters, experts, and advocates. They take advantage of the fact that the bar for women’s rights advocacy is still shockingly low. At times, these men seem to truly believe in the arbitrary boundaries they’ve created; they seem convinced that they have the right and authority to decide what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. For these men, “feminism” is an ironic costume worn to disguise their own sense of gendered entitlement and paternalism. To criticize them is, in their eyes, a sexist move in and of itself. It remains true that sexual misconduct is more about power than sex, and it can’t be emphasized enough that powerful men who abuse their power can only remain in positions of authority as long as women agree to act as their allies. Patriarchal authoritarians use women, with or without their consent, as shields to protect themselves against allegations of sexism and assault, and Cuomo depended on complicit white women allies to serve as his shields.
Cuomo sets himself up as the judge of what is and isn’t appropriate, using other women’s identities and experiences (in this case his family member who experienced sexual assault) as smokescreens to distract from the fact that he’s setting himself up as the single authority, a paternalistic figure equipped to judge women’s traumatic experiences. His lawyers’ rebuttal of James’s report uses this language: “The Governor understands that Ms. Bennett took his comments and conversations with her to mean something else. He never intended to make Ms. Bennett feel uncomfortable or suggest anything untoward in what he thought was a paternalistic and mentoring relationship” (emphasis mine). The use of “paternalistic” and not “paternal” is telling—the latter primarily has to do with familiarity, while the former is about power. And indeed, Bennett’s accounts of her interactions with Cuomo seem to suggest that his goal was to dominate her by using her trauma and his power as tools of manipulation.
Patriarchal authoritarians use women, with or without their consent, as shields to protect themselves against allegations of sexism and assault,
According to Cuomo’s warped logic, he was justified in interrogating Bennett because his family member was sexually assaulted, and he therefore has indirectly experienced the fallout of that trauma. He even characterized criticisms made against female staffers who enforced a hostile work culture and a fear of reprisal as anti-feminist: “A number of complaints target female managers, which smacks to me of a double standard … it is a double standard, it is sexist, and it must be challenged.” For sexual predators, there’s an obvious advantage to branding themselves as champions of women. When successful, they’re able to cast women and survivors as incapable of accurately perceiving their own experience of assault and misconduct—a task that the Cuomos of the world believe should be left to them, even when they’re the alleged perpetrators.
It was these sorts of patriarchal bargains—often made by supposed feminists in the name of feminism—that allowed Cuomo to successfully maintain a defense strategy rooted in his own “feminist credentials” for so long. It wasn’t until others called out and forced the termination of these bargains that the governor’s ability to weather the crisis began to fade, eventually resulting in his resignation. Ultimately, the Cuomo saga underlines how far the sexual misconduct accountability movement has to go. The fact that a serial harasser like Cuomo was able to so persistently and effectively claim his support of accountability movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up speaks to weaknesses within the broader fight against gendered harassment and sexual violence. If the movement for sexual misconduct accountability is ever to be successful, we must refuse to make bargains that allow powerful men to trade institutional power for unearned mainstream “feminist” credibility.