Following an exceptional campaign cycle that has witnessed the rise of multiple candidates peripheral to the party establishment, the GOP field is experiencing its latest blitz by an outsider presidential hopeful: Carly Fiorina. In her debut on the primetime debate stage, Fiorina spoke in specifics about foreign affairs, delivered the impassioned (if inaccurate) denunciation of Planned Parenthood demanded by her party’s social conservatives, and adopted a commanding stage presence. A majority of the Republicans who watched the debate deemed Fiorina the winner, and recent polling reveals her surging to second place within the Republican presidential field.
The real salience of Fiorina’s performance, however, lies in her attempt to navigate gender politics. Some of her most prominent moments relate to her position as the only woman in a long row of men. In response to a query about Donald Trump’s recent denigration of her appearance, Fiorina delivered a pithy but impactful barb: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” When candidates were asked about the inclusion of a woman on US currency, Fiorina supplied the blunt counter that women “are not a special-interest group” to be gratified with a “gesture” but rather “half the potential” of the nation. Part of Fiorina’s distinction in the debate came from the literal conspicuousness of being the only contender positioning herself as a representative of women.
This is a candidate who argues that through feminism, women are “used as a political weapon to win elections.” Her book describes modern feminism as “an orthodoxy that seeks to portray all men as the enemy and women as requiring the constant assistance of government.” Yet alongside this passionate repudiation, she has engaged in what might very well be considered feminist politicking: Following Trump’s comments on Fox News anchor and GOP debate moderator Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” Fiorina minced no words about the offensiveness of his commentary. When Trump lobbed a more personal attack at her, she responded to his criticism of her face with a video montage of various female visages, described as the faces of leadership, and a declaration that she is “proud of every year — and every wrinkle.”
The apparent contradiction between Fiorina’s condemnation of feminism as a political tool and the focus of her appeals upon sexism reveals the fundamental dissonance of her strategy toward gender politics. The difficulty of this strategy results from her encumbering position as the lone woman within the male-dominated power structure of the Republican primary. Though she pitches herself as the antithesis to Hillary Clinton’s “gender card,” deliberately exploiting the GOP’s substantial image problem with women voters, she cannot also acknowledge the presence of that problem and remain in accord with a conservative doctrine that denies the existence of any “war on women.” Since its inception, Fiorina’s campaign has been beset by the uncomfortable contradictions of disavowing identity politics while simultaneously relying on its dynamics to stand out in a crowded field.
Her proffered answer to this dilemma is a re-branding of feminism: A feminist, according to Fiorina, is a woman who lives the life she chooses. This anodyne interpretation of the concept certainly fits more comfortably within the Republican political environment, where candidates are reluctant to use the term. However, Fiorina’s “redefinition” avoids alienating conservative allies only because it divests feminism of any political meaning.
By reducing feminism to an individual basis that The New Republic’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig deems “difficult to differentiate from any run-of-the-mill, mass-market, self-help system,” Fiorina intends to capitalize on her potential to address women more aptly than her male Republican opponents while still averting the feminist rhetoric to which the social conservatives of her party are averse. She has found a version of the notion that suits her purposes, but her definition has little, if any, meaning. It merely reinterprets a comprehensive philosophy as a simple matter of individual agency. It is also worth noting that feminism extends beyond equality between men and women to far more nuanced gender-related challenges, such as the intersection of gender, race, and class; Fiorina has certainly excluded such matters from her definition of the term. Because she focuses her conception of feminism upon women, it is most percipient to examine where this approach to the experience of women falters.
Fiorina’s choosing-one’s-life description conveniently avoids policy prescriptions that seek to improve the station of women, a tactic that echoes the Republican tendency to place blame for challenges like poverty on individuals rather than social and political structures. But a functional political feminism requires commitment to policies that address the challenges faced by women as a group, reflecting the aims of widespread advancement and social change that undergird feminism on a cultural level. As Bruenig and others have observed on the fronts most critical to the welfare of women in the US, Fiorina’s positions offer little in the way of progress.
Fiorina’s “redefinition” avoids alienating conservative allies only because it deprives feminism of any political meaning.
The first major faltering of Fiorina’s positions lies in poverty and economic opportunity. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women’s poverty rates are substantially higher than rates among men, and more than one in seven women lived in poverty in 2014. Women also make up a disproportionate share of the low-wage workforce, a fact that implies a host of challenges related to health services and child care. Fiorina does not in any genuine sense support delivering greater capital to women living beneath or near the poverty line: She has repeatedly stated her opposition to increasing the minimum wage, and she opposes legislation designed to facilitate the discovery and challenging of pay discrimination such as the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Fiorina also subscribes to a specious notion of social mobility that restricts her capacity to work for the improvement of women’s lives. Fiorina claims that her story “from secretary to CEO to candidate for President is only possible in this country,” a narrative that bears little relation to her experience as the Stanford-educated child of a federal judge and Duke Law School dean. This constructed autobiography also ignores the reality of stagnant social mobility in the US. In an especially troubling dimension of the problem, women experience even more barriers to social mobility than men and are at a higher risk for falling behind the social position into which they were born. Welfare regimes that reduce income inequality and augment social mobility tend to employ greater social spending and income redistribution, and while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development may recommend such steps, Fiorina’s anti-taxing predilections and small-government conservatism certainly do not. Fiorina’s definition of feminism — essentially, living the life one chooses — adopts a Republican-friendly approach to social welfare by substituting a patently false assumption of social mobility for legitimate policy considerations.
Perhaps the more compromising of Fiorina’s positions, however, are those she maintains regarding reproductive health. The United Nations International Conference on Reproductive Health and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has long recognized the centrality of women’s autonomy in making sexual and reproductive decisions; reproductive rights, as a component of improving women’s lives, constitute a major policy tenet of feminism. Fiorina, of course, abides by the Republican pro-life canon and has stated that she would overturn Roe v. Wade. Indeed, her misrepresentation of Planned Parenthood-related videos in the last GOP debate suggests her rigid adherence to Republican doctrine on abortion.
In all fairness, it is unrealistic to expect a candidate in a Republican presidential primary to adopt anything besides a pro-life position. But any politically relevant feminism would at least include amenability to contraceptive access, and Fiorina’s ostensible commitment to such access also falters. She professes support for over-the-counter birth control, which would actually decrease contraceptive access for low-income women because under the Affordable Care Act, prescription drugs, including birth control, must be covered by insurers; over-the-counter medications receive no such requirement.
Thus, in three major policy arenas in which feminism is quite relevant, Fiorina does not adhere to any positions that would improve the station of women. The incompatibility between her views and a genuine conception of feminism helps to explain why her “redefinition” of the term is so empty; it must be in order to provide her leeway to support essentially anti-feminist policies while claiming the feminist title.
Fiorina’s strategy is particularly interesting in what it demonstrates about the place of feminism in American culture: Especially within more conservative political settings, the concept must be diluted to be palatable. A recent poll found that while 78 percent of Americans believe in the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” only 18 percent consider themselves feminists. Fiorina’s attempt to appropriate feminism, in some ways simply reflects the hesitant American relationship with the semantics of the concept. When the term feminism has received such a cool reception, the only way for a conservative political candidate to employ it is to remove any potentially-inflammatory meaning.
But Fiorina also reflects the inability of conservatives to reconcile their positions with a politically meaningful application of feminism. Hillary Clinton recently demonstrated an interesting contrast to Fiorina’s tactics, declaring in an interview with Lena Dunham that she “absolutely” considers herself a feminist. Admittedly, Clinton’s use of the term presents its own conundrums. But compared to Fiorina, Clinton illustrates the greater latitude to commit to feminist ideas of equality afforded by a Democratic Party that more readily accepts the role of government in promoting the welfare of various groups and adopts more progressive social views. Meanwhile, across the aisle the current contradiction between conservatism and feminism contributes substantially to the GOP’s difficulty attracting female voters. And as long as candidates like Fiorina offer an appealing, if illogical, way to skirt the feminism dilemma, there is no reason to believe that the Republican Party will address the inherent dissonance of claims to feminism made by its members.
Photo: Gage Skidmore