In a New York Minute: The Rise of Kathy Hochul, the First Female Governor of New York

by Kaitlin Sidorsky, author of All Roads Lead to Power: The Appointed and Elected Paths to Public Office for US Women

Governor Kathy Hochul was sworn in as the fifty-seventh governor of New York State, following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller. In fact, Governor Hochul follows an unbroken line of men: she is the first female governor in New York State’s history, joining thirty other states who have had a woman in the governor’s mansion. California, Florida, and Pennsylvania are among the nineteen states who have never elected a woman as governor, over one hundred years after women were given the right to vote. Like many female politicians, Governor Hochul has an impressive political résumé. Hochul began her political career on the Hamburg Town Board, then rose from the county clerkship of Erie County to become a member of the US House of Representatives, and, most recent, lieutenant governor of New York.

Hochul’s progression to governor following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation is significant because her highly visible position in New York State government provides opportunities for a different governing style and a focus on new issues; she also becomes a more noticeable role model to inspire young girls and women, who may now consider politics a viable career. Governor Hochul has already signaled that she plans on governing differently than her predecessor, particularly by making sure that women feel safe in her administration. In fact, Hochul’s formal ceremony welcoming her as the new governor was full of symbolism accentuating the historic moment of her ascension to the highest office in the state. As the New York Times reported, “In honor of the women’s suffrage movement, Ms. Hochul wore an all-white dress, as did her daughter, Katie, and her daughter-in-law. Judge DiFiore donned robes worn by the first woman to serve as a judge on the state Court of Appeals, Judith Kaye, Ms. Hochul noted. And the governor called on female reporters to ask the first three questions at the news conference.”

Hochul enters the governor’s office under challenging circumstances. A global pandemic rages, polarization runs rampant, and she is the head of a challenging, even combative, state government apparatus. This workplace friction is the antithesis of what we know of female officeholders, many of whom are more cooperative and compassionate than their male counterparts. Currently, all three of the top elected positions of New York State government are held by women (Hochul as governor, Andrea Stewart Cousins as acting lieutenant governor, and Tish James as attorney general), an incredibly rare circumstance in American government. Below I outline what we might expect from female leadership in the executive branch at the state level.

Although research is limited on the effect of gender vis-à-vis governing styles, we do know of a few differences between male and female legislators that may be relevant for female governors and state executives. Female legislators are typically more liberal than their male counterparts and focus more on “female” issues like education, welfare, and health care (Barrett 1995; Burrell 1997; Diamond 1977; Reingold 2000). One study (Heidbreder and Scheurer 2013) had similar conclusions for female governors between 2006 and 2008. In some ways this may be unavoidable for Hochul as she addresses the pandemic and its effects on the education system and welfare programs. The question becomes whether Hochul and her female counterparts respond differently than male governors to similar challenges across the fifty states.

When it comes to how gender may influence governors, we know that female governors are more likely to appoint women than male governors, which is important to understanding how women serve beyond elected office (Riccucci and Saidel 2001; Sidorsky 2019). In my 2019 book with Kansas, All Roads Lead to Power, I demonstrate the incredibly important role state-level appointees play in state government. This understudied population provides a wealth of services to a state, with more than a third of appointees having held some kind of public office prior to their current position. Hochul has already committed to appointing more women to high-profile positions, which may be key to helping her change the culture of New York State government.

One of the most positive effects of Hochul’s presence will be to promote politics as a career path for women. A few studies have been conducted asking whether a woman in political office becomes a role model for young girls and women. In one of the first studies on the role-model effect, David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht found that visible and viable female candidates for high-level office result in more young girls wanting to be politically active (2006). Research from 2018 also showed that the presence of a woman as governor increases the numbers of women who run for the state legislature (Ladam, Harden, and Windett 2018), although this may only be true for the Democratic Party (Manento and Schenk 2021). In All Roads Lead to Power I find a deep-seated distaste for elected office among female appointees across all twenty states surveyed. The presence of a highly visible and successful woman in elected office may be needed to prove to women that government is a place where they can be successful.

New York State could definitely use more women in public office. Ranked sixteenth in the nation for women’s representation in the state legislature, the state is far from gender parity, with only 34.3 percent of legislators being women (Center for American Women and Politics 2021). Representation is even worse at the local level: women hold 28.6 percent of municipal positions in New York. Governor Hochul’s presence will not automatically fix the gender parity issue in New York, nor will it provide the changes needed in the government’s culture. However, her rise to governor is an important step in the fight for gender parity. Only future research on her tenure as governor can tell us whether her gender identity influenced her leadership style and legacy as the first female governor of New York State.

References and Recommendations for Further Reading

Barrett, Edith J. 1995. “The Policy Priorities of African American Women in State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 20, no. 2 (May): 223–247.

Burrell, Barbara 1997. “The Political Leadership of Women and Public Policymaking.” Policy Studies Journal 25 (4): 565–568.

Campbell, David E., and Christina Wolbrecht. 2006. “See Jane Run: Women Politicians as Role Models for Adolescents.” Journal of Politics 68, no. 2 (May): 233–247.

Diamond, Irene. 1977. Sex Roles in the State House. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dickes, Lori A., and Elizabeth Crouch. 2015. “Policy Effectiveness of U.S. Governors: The Role of Gender and Changing Institutional Powers.” Women’s Studies International Forum 53 (November–December): 90–98.

Heidbreder, Brianne, and Katherine F. Scheurer. 2013. “Gender and the Gubernatorial Agenda.” State and Local Government Review 45, no. 1 (March): 3–13.

Ladam, Christina, Jeffrey J. Harden, and Jason H. Windett. 2018. “Prominent Role Models: High‐Profile Female Politicians and the Emergence of Women as Candidates for Public Office.” American Journal of Political Science 62, no. 2 (April): 369–381.

Manento, Cory, and Marie Schenk. 2021. “Role Models or Partisan Models? The Effect of Prominent Women Officeholders.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly 21, no. 3 (September): 221–242.

Reingold, Beth. 2000. Representing Women: Sex, Gender, and Legislative Behavior in Arizona and California. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Riccucci, Norma M., Judith R. Saidel. 2001. “The Demographics of Gubernatorial Appointees:

Toward an Explanation of Variation.” Policy Studies Journal 29 (1): 11–22.

Sidorsky, Kaitlin, 2019. All Roads Lead to Power: The Appointed and Elected Paths to Public Office for US Women. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Kaitlin Sidorsky is assistant professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina. Her work has appeared in Political Research Quarterly.