The Women’s Equality Party: A far cry from the suffragettes

In 1916, suffragettes Lucy Burns and Alice Paul were frustrated with the slow progress of American voting rights. Across the Atlantic Ocean, British women were firebombing London and chaining themselves to government buildings.

So Burns and Paul decided to up the ante by founding the National Woman’s Party. Although not a true political party, the National Woman’s Party staged rallies, protests and a daily picket outside the White House. Police officers beat women bloody in the streets, and hundreds went to jail, where they went on hunger strikes and prison guards force-fed them raw eggs. Meanwhile, the National Woman’s Party lobbied lawmakers and managed to oust several anti-suffrage senators, shaming President Woodrow Wilson into action. 

Four years later, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment.  

The National Woman’s Party was a passion-fueled organization founded by women, for women. Nearly 100 years later, the Women’s Equality Party stands in stark contrast.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Women’s Equality Party during last year’s Democratic primary against Zephyr Teachout. Despite the fact that the state Democratic Party supports equal rights for women, Cuomo created this new party as a transparent appeal to female voters. After encouraging Democrats like former state Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk to run on the Women’s Equality Party line, the governor embarrassed her by failing to collect enough valid signatures to do so. Tkaczyk lost, but Cuomo won, and his man-made party received the requisite 50,000 votes to secure a future place on the ballot. 

“The Women’s Equality Party was just an extension of the governor helping himself,” Tkaczyk explained.

In August, Tkaczyk sued for control of the party, arguing that as long as the Women’s Equality Party exists, it should, at the very least, be a grass-roots movement led by women. Tkaczyk’s argument was dealt a body blow on Thursday when an appeals court ruled that a state Supreme Court judge went too far in blocking Cuomo and his allies from nominating candidates on the party’s ballot line (though leaving the door open to allow challenges to individual Women’s Equality Party endorsements).

But even with Cuomo now permitted to wield the Women’s Equality Party ballot line, it’s unlikely that the heroes of the suffragette movement would want him to.

“Working within the existing two-party system has been the priority for organizations like this for a very long time,” said Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University and the author of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” referring to the National Woman’s Party, and to subsequent entities like the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Indeed, the women of the National Woman’s Party fought for the right to vote in major parties, literally dying to be recognized by the political establishment. They wanted to be mainstream leaders, not relegated to fringe-party status.  

The Women’s Equality Party, and whatever it represents, flies in the face of feminist history. Even among supporters, it barely inspires devotion. 

After the election, Cuomo’s special adviser and the party’s chief booster, former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, declined to enroll inthe Women’s Equality Party, let alone leadit: “Christine Quinn has always been – and always will be – a Democrat,” a spokesman said last year.

It wasn’t until a full year later that the governor finally found a chairwoman, Barbara Fiala, his commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Shortly thereafter, Fiala stepped down to run for state Senate as a Democrat.

The current party chairwoman, Rachel Gold, is a longtime government lawyer who served in the Cuomo administration. Gold currently works as the director of operations for RedLand Strategies, a lobbying firm founded by former Republican state Sen. Mike Balboni. After leaving a message for her at the firm, I received an unsolicited statement from the governor’s press office on her behalf.

“We formed this party over a year ago, spent months organizing and campaigning, and ultimately achieved over 50,000 votes to establish the ballot line,” the email read. “Now, more than 400 candidates have sought the Women’s Equality Party nomination under its founders’ rules for the upcoming election and we owe it to them to not have the opportunity denied to them.”

Aside from the fact that Gold was not part of the royal “we” who established the Women’s Equality Party, it’s unclear who these 400-plus candidates might be. The governor’s office ignored a request for further information, and Gold did not return my call.

But more importantly, the fact that the governor’s office responded to a request for Gold epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the Women’s Equality Party: It’s little more than a message-laundering service created by Cuomo to help deliver his own agenda to female voters.

Burns and Paul stood up to the president of the United States; they never would’ve taken marching orders from the governor of New York.