The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cynthia Nixon asked to turn down the AC. It isn’t silly. It’s symbolic.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, seen at a New York rally on August 16, reopened a debate by requesting a warmer temperature in a debate hall. But there’s a larger issue here. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon made a request that seemed both trivial and audacious. For an upcoming Democratic primary debate with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she wanted the thermostat set to 76 degrees.

It was the kind of news nubbin that seemed ripe for mocking, for cheeky Mars/Venus comparisons. Nationwide, women enrobed in work Snuggies emailed each other, amazed that Nixon just went for it like that — bypassing a compromise temperature of 72 or 73 and asking for a full-on heat blast.

Nixon was brazenly asking the world to reckon with a fact well-known but rarely addressed — that the standard business-world thermostat setting is polar for a lot of women. But this reminded me, somehow, of a complaint from a male friend: He can’t get his kids’ school to add him on their email list. Despite repeated requests, they send everything only to his ex-wife, though the two share custody. When he does manage to get his hands on an errant notice, he says, it’s addressed to “Moms.”

Moms, in this school’s view, are the default parents. Men, in this country’s view, are the default temperature-setters.

The larger conversation here isn’t about a thermostat at all. It’s about which “normal” we default to in various areas of life, and whose comfort level that “normal” is based on. It’s about how to create a world built for all kinds of people instead of just a few, and the questions we need to ask to get there.

In Nixon’s thermostat request, her campaign manager referred to workspaces as “notoriously sexist when it comes to room temperatures.” There’s some data behind this. A 2015 study in the journal Nature Climate Change analyzed office thermostats and determined they were widely set via a formula using men’s metabolic rates, not women’s.

Why? When offices are now co-ed, and when women are the ones dressed appropriately for warm outdoor temperatures, and when business dress codes for both genders are increasingly breaking down, and when raising the summer thermostat would be both cheaper and more ecologically friendly — why were men in suits still the default in programming the air conditioner?

I read Nixon’s request and realized that what I’d found so brazen was the simple concept that she wanted the room to default to her comfort, even if for only one night. And that even something as silly as a thermostat debate could make us rethink who deserves to be comfortable. Who deserves to be recognized. Whose daily life is encumbered, in a hundred arbitrary ways, because the world is not set up for them.

Yesterday I got an email from a female colleague asking for dry cleaner recommendations. The one she’d been using charged her husband $1.75 per shirt, but charged her $7.00. The dry cleaner said it was because women’s shirts were too small to fit on their press and thus needed to be done by hand.

Half the world’s population is women, and yet rather than buying an additional, smaller press, this company’s solution was to charge them four times more for clean laundry. Why?

On the apparel topic, another female friend describes receiving a company T-shirt at a corporate retreat and being frustrated that none had been ordered in women’s cuts. When she mentioned it to a colleague, he told her the shirts were unisex. But — they weren’t unisex, she protested. So-called “unisex” shirts were nearly always just men’s shirts, in shape and size. Female employees were welcome to wear them, but they’d always fit a little weird.

Her colleague was flabbergasted. He’d never realized this before.

Why were male bodies considered the default bodies? How much more welcome would women feel in workplaces if their bodies weren’t treated as anomalies? How hard was it to order alternate sizes?

Why were mothers considered the default parents? How much more gender equality could we achieve if men weren’t treated as understudies in their children’s lives but as full parenting partners? How hard was it to add some dads to the email groups?

We need to ask these questions. We need to ask how we can make more people more comfortable. And why we so often refuse to, even when it’s only a matter of a few degrees.

The Cuomo response to Nixon’s thermostat request was dismissive. “They can debate about debates,” his campaign said in a statement, “but the governor is focused on having a substantive, in-depth discussion about the issues facing New York.”

But I guess I come down on thinking that the temperature question is substantive.

It has to do with who gets to be the default citizen. Who we are willing to inconvenience. And why we’d ever allow ourselves to say, this temperature feels comfortable, when half the people in the room are shivering.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit