Let’s Retire the Daughter Defense Once and For All With Governor Cuomo

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Gotham/Getty
Gotham/Getty

It was a sign of the times: after explaining away his sexual harassment as nothing more than a “generational” misunderstanding, a suited Andrew Cuomo strode into a helicopter leaving New York. Behind him, his 23-year-old daughter Michaela—wearing sneakers, with streaks of purple in her hair—placed a comforting hand on his back.

The scene recalled the fallout of another political scandal: Chelsea Clinton holding both of her parents’ hands after her father announced his infidelity in 1998. A powerful man screwed up, and it’s up to his daughter, who’s around the same age as some of his accusers, to begin the healing process.

Cuomo’s daughters—Michaela, plus 26-year-old twins Cara and Mariah—have not spoken publicly about their father’s alleged misconduct, though the disgraced governor mentioned them by name while resigning from his post on Tuesday.

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After a meandering speech in which the 63-year-old Cuomo placed blame on an overly “political” and “reactionary” climate—not his own alleged actions, which were detailed in a bombshell report by New York Attorney General Letitia James—the governor made a curious detour into the language of female empowerment.

“In many ways, I see the world through the eyes of my daughters,” Cuomo began. “And I have lived this experience with and through them. I have sat on the couch with them hearing the ugly accusations for weeks. I have seen the look in their eyes and the expression on their faces and it hurt.”

Intriguingly, he did not go into detail about what conversations or otherwise had taken place—his quote could imply either his daughters were angry at him, or angry for him. Or both.

There is no doubt that this dynastic family is close. Cuomo often spoke during the pandemic about quarantining with his daughters and called their presence a “silver lining” throughout the horrific ordeal. There was advice to dads about never saying you don’t like a daughter’s boyfriend. Michaela’s perceived support of her father after his resignation implies that their bond remains.

And yet plenty of women without the last name Cuomo might have let out audible gags at Cuomo’s awkward, fumbling daughter defense. It’s one we know well, one that’s often used by men who should have learned how to properly treat women long before they made some of their own.

When Ted Yoho called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch” on the steps of the Capitol last year, the representative from Florida tried to use his wife and daughter as shining reflections of his character. “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language,” he said.

In a widely-viewed speech, Ocasio-Cortez countered, “I believe having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.”

When Harvey Weinstein was first accused of sexual harassment in a damning 2017 New York Times expose—the film producer was eventually convicted of rape and sexual abuse in 2020—he offered a similarly asinine mea culpa. He misquoted Jay-Z, writing: “‘I’m not the man I thought I was and I better be that man for my children.’” Weinstein’s lawyer told The Daily Mail last year that his adult daughters no longer speak or visit him in prison.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck also brought up their young daughters when responding to the unfurling #MeToo movement nearly four years ago. “As the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night. This is the great fear for all of us,” Damon said. To which feminists everywhere responded: Women don’t have to be your daughters for you to care about women. This month, Damon is back learning lessons from his teenage daughter, who told him he could not say “the f-slur” to talk about gay men. He lived 50 years on this earth before coming to that realization.

There is little doubt it was embarrassing for Cuomo to face his daughters in the wake of allegations of unwanted touching. His children should bear no shame or criticism for their father’s actions. But why must it take their rage, or their tears, or their anger, or their very presence to teach Cuomo a lesson?

Shouldn’t the tense face of Anna Ruch, the woman photographed while receiving an unwanted kiss from the governor at a wedding, be enough emotion? What about Brittany Commisso, a former executive assistant, who said she became so nervous after Cuomo rubbed her butt during a selfie that she began shaking uncontrollably?

Why must Cuomo require harm done to women he loves to reconsider his actions? Shouldn’t alleged harm to just one woman, any woman—and there are so many of them who came forward—be enough?

Cuomo went on to call his daughters his “three jewels,” and went on to hope that they’ll never have to encounter the type of harassment he is alleged to have subjected other people’s children.

“My greatest goal is for them to have a better future than the generations of women before them,” he said. “It is still, in many ways, a man’s world. It always has been. We have sexism that is culturalized and institutionalized. My daughters have more talent and natural gifts than I ever had. I want to make sure that society allows them to fly as high as their wings will carry them. There should be no assumptions, no stereotypes, no limitations.”

There should be no assumptions, no stereotypes, no limitations for Cuomo’s children. But when it comes to accusers like Lindsey Boylan, Charlotte Bennet, Ana Liss, Alyssa McGrath, Virginia Limmiatis, an aide named Kaitlin, an unnamed state trooper, and two anonymous employees, the governor and his lawyers have made clear a different set of rules apply.

Cuomo continued, “I want [my daughters] to know, from the bottom of my heart, that I never did, and I never would intentionally disrespect a woman, or treat any woman differently than I would want them treated. And that is the God’s honest truth. Your dad made mistakes, and he apologized, and he learned from it, and that’s what life is all about.”

For all Cuomo’s alleged deeds, there is a sad truth to that statement: Much of women’s lives, especially in the wake of #MeToo, has been spent teaching grown men how to behave. Whether we’re explaining to a boss why something they’ve said is offensive, or telling an ex that it’s inappropriate to keep texting us after a breakup, we’re expected to show men how to wield their influence.

Daughters do not exist to make their fathers better people. Michaela, Cara, and Mariah Cuomo are more than political props meant to humanize their father. And if Cuomo’s resignation does indeed signal a new era for gender equality in the workforce, here’s hoping that means powerful men will stop using their children as crutches.

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