Fiorina's Feminism Strategy

Fiorina's been playing now-you-see-it, now-you-don't with the so-called gender card. Will it work?


Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Early female interlopers into male-dominated arenas tend to stake their claim on the territory in one of two ways: by making femaleness central to their self-marketing and appeal (i.e., "Token Conservative Chick") or by trying hard to avoid drawing any attention to it at all. The tipping point for gender progress may be said to come when women in that industry are allowed to acknowledge their XX-chromosomes without being totally defined by them. In walking this third path with skill, former Hewlett Packard CEO and current Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina may just signal the dawn of a new era in GOP gender politics.

As the party's only female candidate—and therefore the de facto foil to Hillary Clinton—Fiorina is uniquely poised (and pressured) to embody conservative's tension between not wanting to be the "war on women" party and a long-held aversion to both feminism and "identity politics." 

So far, she's been making it look easy, speaking as fluently on issues like sexism and maternity-leave mandates as she does on economic issues and foreign policy. Take or leave Fiorina's agenda, but she's no "I can see Russia from my house" lightweight.

Relegated to the "kids table" during the first round of Republican debates, Fiorina was widely declared the "winner" of the second round main debate, a three-hour spectacle that aired on CNN Wednesday evening. "Regardless of whether you liked the content of her answers, she seemed more polished and prepared than any other candidate on stage," wrote Reason senior editor Peter Suderman in a debate summary. (The whole transcript is available here, in case you want to judge for yourself.) Her biggest asset was coming across as intelligent, even-tempered, and possessed of a confidence borne from knowing her shit rather than overabundant ego—making her a vivid outlier on a stage shared with the likes of noted narcissists and hotheads like Donald Trump and Chris Christie. 

Libertarians will likely find some Fiorina positions palatable, some superb, and some the same old GOP culture-war and world-policing nonsense. Fiorina opposes the recent nuclear deal with Iran and raising the minimum wage. She's a fan of maintaining tight ties with Israel, and school choice. She supports a federal ban on abortion after five months pregnancy (with some exceptions), and making birth control pills available over-the-counter. She wants to repeal Obamacare, and put more troops and missiles just about everywhere. 

Her views on drugs are an especially mixed bag. At Wednesday's debate, Fiorina was one of three candidates who agreed that marijuana's legal status should be left to each state to decide, an opinion she shared with Jeb Bush and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dissented, and the rest weren't asked). She spoke of step-daughter, Lori, who died in 2009 after struggling with addiction—a loss that left Fiorina critical of a system that jails rather than treats addicts, and in favor of "decriminalizing drug use." But Fiorina is also fond of some pretty terrible Drug War rhetoric, saying Wednesday that "we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer," that the marijuana today is different (and, implied, more dangerous) than marijuana was 40 years ago, and that "drug addiction is an epidemic." 

Another notable debate moment from Fiorina came in response to the question: What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill? After a string of candidates suggested their wives, daughters, and mothers, Fiorina claimed she wouldn't change a thing. "I think, honestly, it's a gesture," she said. "I don't think it helps to change our history. What I would think is that we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation." 

It's a theme Fiorina also touched on last week, at a speech before the National Federation of Republican Women that her super PAC, Carly for America, subsequently turned into a campaign ad. Trump had just made some disparaging remarks about Fiorina's face—to paraphrase: would you vote for someone with that face?—remarks he's since said were in reference to her "persona." (Watch them confront each other about this at the debate here.) "Ladies, look at this face," Fiorina says in the ad.

And look at all of your faces. The faces of leadership. The face of leadership in our party—the party of woman's suffrage. The face of leadership in your communities, in your businesses, in your places of work and worship. Ladies, note to Democrat Party: We are not a special interest group, we are the majority of the nation.

The ad was panned by progressive writers, who accused Fiorina of "trying to thread the needle between opposing identity politics and capitalizing on the personal attacks against her clearly based on gender" (Sally Kohn, The Daily Beast) and of rejecting "playing the gender card" while "gladly exploiting some of the GOP's image problems among women voters while denying that those problems actually exist" (Rebecca Leber, The New Republic). Kohn calls the ad "decidedly feminist," continuing:

Donald Trump wouldn't have said "Look at that face!" about a male candidate. It was a sexist comment. And by pointing it out, and rallying voters around it, Fiorina is effectively saying, "Look, I'm getting treated differently as a candidate because I'm a woman and that's not right." This, ladies and gentlemen, is feminism.

Indeed, it is. I'm just not sure why that's presented like some sort of "gotcha." Fiorina describes herself a feminist, even penning a June essay for Medium titled "Redefining Feminism." In it she wites:

It's important that we wage elections on the basis of the issues that matter to the American people. I've never been a token in my life. On the other hand, the facts are that I'm a woman and so I bring a woman's perspective to the table.

The piece makes clear that her favored flavor of feminism is one rooted in choice and equal opportunity, with shades of Sheryl Sandberg and Friedrich Hayek apparent. "A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses," writes Fiorina. "We will have arrived when every woman can decide for herself how to best find and use her God-given gifts. A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO…or run for President."

What it lacks in policy specifics, Fiorina's brand of feminism makes up for in hope and change.

"Certainly, Fiorina capitalizes on conservatives' desire to counter Clinton and to demonstrate that the Right is welcoming of women leaders," wrote the Independent Women Forum's Carrie Lukas in the New York Post this summer.

But unlike Clinton, who implies America has a duty to elect her to bleach the country's stain of sexism, Fiorina casts her story as a part of women's steady progress. She can tell jaw-dropping anecdotes about the sexism she faced in the business world, but offers a decidedly positive vision of the United States as a country making strides toward becoming a more perfect union.

A wife and mother who started as a secretary and worked her way up to top executive at Hewlett Packard—becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company—Fiorina doesn't shy away from saying that "the playing field is not level" for women in the workplace. She has highlighted sexist treatment she experienced in the boardroom and on the campaign trail. When Trump accused Fox moderator Megyn Kelly of bleeding out of her "wherever," Fiorina came to Kelly's defense, stating bluntly: "I've had lots of men imply that I was unfit for decision making because maybe I was having my period. Women understood that remark. And yes, it is offensive." 

Yet something in the way Fiorina broaches these topics feels more defiant than blame-casting or pity-seeking. It's a refreshing change from the Feminism of Perpetual Outrage and Trauma that takes up so much cultural space these days. I have a feeling that a lot of people who consider themselves feminists (or at least pro-equal rights, etc.) but are alienated by the modern movement might think the same.

In other words, a feminism based on empowerment rather than victimhood could be a pretty powerful tool in the right hands. And so far, Fiorina and her campaign seem up to it. What Kohn and Leber read as Fiorina talking out of both sides of her mouth could also be looked at as pretty savvy attempt to fuse Fiorina's feminist first principles with a party for whom "women's issues" can be anathema. 

Yet the fact that Fiorina "does a good job of highlighting the problems most often raised by feminists as those in need of solutions"—as Salon's Jenny Kutner put it—while simultaneously failing to espouse liberal policy goals seems to flabbergast many mainstream feminists, as if supporting Obamacare is a precondition for noticing sexism or wanting women to have equal rights. "She has the nerve to use the term women's suffrage!" ranted The View's Joy Behar Monday, discussing the new Fiorina super PAC ad. "She's against ObamaCare. She's anti-choice. She uses the term women's suffrage. She should be ashamed of herself."  

The New Republic's Elizabeth Stoker Breunig called Fiorina's brand of feminism "an empty marketing strategy" while Kutner referred to it as "delusional." Andrea Flynn at The New Republic called Fiorina a "Trojan horse in the GOP's War on Women," opining that Fiorina "presents herself as a candidate Republican women can get behind—especially as Donald Trump increasingly alienates them. But if she made it to the White House, she would enact a conservative agenda that is bad for women and bad for families." Flynn's evidence? Fiorina stuck up for Megyn Kelly "in the wake of (Trump's) sexist attacks," something Flynn says she only did to "serve her party well" and deflect "attention from the candidates' anti-abortion debate remarks." Carly's other crimes include opposing a checklist of Democrat-approved policies and laws, from the Obamacare contraception mandate to raising the minimum wage. 

"The progressive view of feminism is not about women," wrote Fiorina on Medium. "It is about ideology."

What's strange about so much of the gender-centered critique of Fiorina is that instead of arguing against her ideas and proposals, critics simply assert that these are "bad for women" and move on, focusing the bulk of rebuffs on Fiorina's nerve in presenting herself as a femninist. I guess this plays well with their audiences. But research on the ultimate benefit of things like mimimum wage hikes, anti-discrimination laws, and parental leave mandates is far from clear in one direction; there's plenty of evidence suggesting these policies exacerbate the problems they're enacted to solve. Obviously liberals may not find that evidence convincing, but it would be nice if they acknowledged it exists.

Doing so, however, would destroy the narrative that there is only one way to do feminism, and that's the Democrat way. As a libertarian feminist, I've had ample firsthand experience with this attitude. A crushingly large number of liberal feminists won't allow for the fact that some people might share their broad goals but disagree about how to best achieve them. It isn't just "I understand we both want to create more family-friendly work polices in the U.S., but I think your plan is wrongheaded and unlikely to work," it's "I think your plan is wrongheaded and unlikely to work, and therefore why do you hate women?" 

On MSNBC, Fiorina said she was out to reclaim feminism from people who think you can only be a feminist if you believe the entire "litany of the left." It's a message that seems to resonate with conservatives eager to cast themselves as pro-equality without buying into trigger warnings and affirmative consent laws.  

"If the wide field of people running for the Republican nomination has taught us anything, it is that people can wear the same label without having identical views on every issue," wrote Young Voice Advocate Anne Butcher. "The label of 'feminist,' too, should be worn proudly by anyone who acknowledges that sexism still exists and wants to end it. This can include Lena Dunham, Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Beyoncé, and everyone in between." 

The 2016 presidential race is sure to provide Fiorina with many more opportunities to brandish her brand of feminism—and I have to admit, I'm excited at the prospect. A leading female Republican candidate who is shrewd and steady; addresses women as a group without resorting to cutesy labels or mentioning soccer practice; and embodies a sort of apolitical/cultural feminism is a rare bird right now indeed. Fiorina might not be a candidate libertarians can love, nor one likely to please most feminists, but she is bringing something different and interesting to the presidential race. And while her potential to change the way Hillary Clinton "plays the gender card" has gotten most of the attention, Fiorina just might mix up the way the Republican Party relates to gender, too.