Feminists Should Not Dismiss Carly Fiorina

The pro-woman presidential candidate may well change the conversation about women's issues in this country.


Carly Fiorina Caricature
DonkeyHotey / Foter / CC BY

It's been just a few days since Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, declared that she is running for president. But already, she is being picked apart by progressive feminists with the standard conservative = "bad for women" argument. This is ridiculous. Fiorina is a sophisticated and intelligent woman who is crafting a fresh message that might well appeal to women voters.

That Fiorina, 60, is running as the anti-Hillary is not in doubt. Her announcement video opens with her abruptly switching off Clinton's video, as if she's had enough. Then Fiorina looks into the camera and declares: "Our founders never intended us to have a professional political class"—a line that both disses Clinton's political credentials and makes a virtue of her own lack of them. Fiorina has also been quite explicit that by picking her as the nominee, the GOP could neutralize Clinton's "war on women baloney" and focus the election on accomplishments and ideas, which aren't Clinton's strong suits.

If Fiorina, who lost the 2010 California Senate race to Barbara Boxer, were simply running as an anti-Hillary attack dog, she wouldn't be very interesting. But her candidacy is much more than that. Fiorina is using Clinton's dogmatic progressivism to set up a contrast with her positions that seem to strive for a higher left-right synthesis.

Consider abortion. I am strongly pro-choice. If Fiorina ever came within hailing distance of enacting her proposed federal ban on abortions after four months of pregnancy, I would fight it like crazy. That said, she is a moderate Christian whose proposal grows out of a faith that folks like me have to bear in mind even while resisting it. The taboo on abortion in many societies stems from a need to control female sexuality. But in America, it's also grounded in a religious "sanctity of life" ethos. Fiorina is attempting to find a middle ground that sidesteps the knottier issues concerning instances of rape and incest that continuously trip up extremist conservatives, while offering protection to fetuses that have "attained viability." This is a compromise that many women, who have growing qualms about late-term abortions, can likely live with. Even feminists cannot simply dismiss Fiorina's proposal as anti-woman religious nut-baggery. They will have to look for ways to respectfully engage and refute her without questioning her feminist credentials.

And that goes for the rest of Fiorina's agenda as well.

Most women lean feminist because they share a certain experience that the rules of the world have been written by men for men. Women's skills are diminished, styles second-guessed, and accomplishments devalued. Fiorina, a Stanford graduate who clawed her way up from secretary to CEO (before she was ignominiously, if not without cause, thrown out by the board of Hewlett Packard), is all too familiar with this reality. She understands the many burdens her gender brings and speaks about her experiences authentically.

She poignantly told a Bloomberg interviewer how she felt when she went out on her first date with the man who would become her husband. At the time, he was her colleague at AT&T, and he told her she would one day run the company. "When you're a woman growing up in a man's world, when someone takes you seriously, it's such a relief." Every woman knows exactly what she means.

But just because women share an experience and a problem doesn't mean that they agree on a solution. The X-chromosome is not coded with any particular ideology.

Breaking from the feminist orthodoxy, Fiorina, whose husband actually quit his high-powered job to stay at home and raise their children when she became CEO, is an unabashed "choice feminist" (a dirty word in progressive circles, ironically enough). She believes that expanding women's choices, "whether home schooling or running a company," is a far more pressing issue than wage inequality.

However, she doesn't altogether ignore this inequality. To address it, she departs from the usual progressive prescriptions. She has no use for laws mandating "equal pay" or paid maternity leave or contraceptive coverage that movement feminists espouse and Clinton laps up—for the obvious reason that they'll backfire by making women more expensive and hence less employable. Rather, she calls for abolishing union rules and seniority systems that disproportionately block women from moving up and embraces merit-based pay and promotion.

One would have thought such "systemic" solutions would at least get a respectful hearing from feminists. But The New Republic's Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has already advised her fellow feminists that they are not "obligated to support right-wing women" like Fiorina whom she lumps with Sarah Palin. Stoker Bruenig snipes that Fiorina "would make a better Shark Tank swindler than president." Because Fiorina rejects the broad Democratic agenda on labor and health care, Stoker Bruenig and her ilk accuse her of not supporting a "smidgen of systematic change for the vast majority of women further down the socioeconomic ladder."

This willfully shortchanges Fiorina, who is actually shrewdly trying to reach out to large groups of women with a flexible, sensible, and inclusive feminism that movement feminism's increasing insularity leaves out. (After all, it used to call pro-life women unfeminist, then it expanded that accusation to "choice feminists," and now women who don't share the broader progressive agenda.)

Fiorina doesn't have Clinton's name recognition. Or war chest. She is barely showing up in the polls. But the freshness of her approach and her personal authenticity might well change the conversation about women's issues in this country. Feminists who try and dismiss her as anti-woman may get hoisted by their own petard.

This column originally appeared in The Week.