Election 2016: Carly Fiorina and “Running as a Woman”

Beth Reingold, Emory University

"This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.” - Carly Fiorina, addressing the National Federation of Republican Women, Sept. 11, 2015.

Kudos to Carly Fiorina! She no doubt deserves all the accolades for her defiant and expert response to Donald Trump and his not-so-unique form of misogyny. As Fiorina’s subsequent rise in the polls suggests, calling attention to the “gender card” and exposing its sexist roots may be the best way to counteract the conscious or unconscious gender biases in electoral politics. (For insight into playing the “race card” in politics – which may apply to the “gender card” – see Tali Mendelberg’s book, The Race Card.) But as Fiorina’s further remarks to the “ladies” of the NFRW reveal, navigating the rocky shoals of gender politics is not as easy and straightforward as putting Trump in his place. Instead what her remarks reveal is a deep – and understandable – ambivalence toward “running as a woman” and “women’s issues.” 

"I am not asking for your vote and your support because I am a woman. I am asking for your vote and your support because I am the most qualified candidate to win this job and do this job." 

Like her condemnation of Trump’s sexism, Fiorina’s disavowal of gender stereotyping paradoxically highlights the very power of gender in electoral politics, especially at the presidential level. After all, would a male candidate speaking to a predominantly male audience (which is to say, most fundraising audiences) say, “I am not asking for your vote and your support because I am a man?” Contrast that with Patricia Schroeder’s famous quip about “running as a woman”: What choice do I have? What makes a male candidate’s plea for gender neutrality seem silly – the seemingly “natural” masculinity of executive leadership in the U.S. – also makes Schroeder’s rhetorical question doubly ironic. How can she not run as a woman when she’s the only woman running?

But if running as a woman is unavoidable, it still manages to present dilemmas for women’s campaigns. Carly Fiorina certainly isn’t the first woman running for the presidential nomination to grapple with how to manage her gender. Is it a strength or a weakness? The lessons of the 1992 Year of the Woman were that, under the right conditions (e.g., international peace and incumbent corruption), running as a woman could pay off. But it didn’t take long for the obverse conditions (9/11 and the war on terrorism) to convince Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign to side-step the “historic” nature of her run and her long history of political leadership on women’s issues. 

Which brings us to the issue of women’s issues. 

“And I personally am so tired of hearing about women’s issues," Fiorina said. "All issues are women's issues."

It would be nice if all issues were women's issues – or, more precisely, if women's issues weren't considered "special" or too narrow for everyone to be concerned – just as it would be nice if gender were a non-issue on the presidential campaign trail. Yet again, Fiorina's own comments highlight the reasons why these are pipe dreams. Immediately after poo-pooing women’s issues, Fiorina offered the NFRW audience a long list of pressing issues of and personal experiences with sexism and gender discrimination at home and in the workplace. In vividly illustrating the various ways in which women (in all their diversity) come out on the short end of economic, social, and political gender inequalities, Fiorina made a remarkably strong argument for why such issues are and should be recognized as women's issues. And while women may profoundly disagree on government funding for Planned Parenthood (and related issues), there's no denying that women -- low income women in particular -- have a much more direct and salient interest in those funds (and all the related issues as well) than do men. 

But again, Fiorina’s ambivalence toward embracing women’s issues is understandable and not uncommon. As Ronnee Schreiber’s research demonstrates, this is especially the case among conservative women in American politics. It wasn’t that long ago when Republican women in the U.S. Senate assiduously avoided taking any visible, leading role on the “partial birth” abortion ban or any other pro-life initiative. Knowing full well that leadership on women’s issues was in no way the path to power and influence in GOP inner circles, these Women in the Club, according to Michele Swers, knew better than to risk being the public face of the “war against women.” 

Yet just last week, Fiorina was visiting a “Christian pregnancy center” and receiving high praise for her passionate condemnation of Planned Parenthood (Atlanta Journal-Constitution 30 September 2015, p. A6). What might explain this apparent change of heart? My own research (with Michele Swers, Tracy Osborn, and Rebecca Kreitzer) on the sponsorship of anti-abortion rights legislation in the states (1997-2012) offers some clues. In contrast to their congressional counterparts, conservative Republican women in state legislatures have been on the forefront of recent waves of restrictive abortion policy; they, more than anyone else, have been introducing the bills to make that happen. But they introduce those measures only when those bills can be readily framed in terms of protecting women and women’s health from unscrupulous abortion providers (like, in their view, Planned Parenthood) and when Republicans control the chamber. This suggests that when the Republican Party (especially its male-dominated leadership) and conservative movements embrace women’s issues (like abortion) as women’s issues (not just pro-life or family values issues), it pays to be a woman.  Carly Fiorina may have been quick to pick up on this, for it seems reasonable to assume – and hope – that running as a woman on women’s issues might actually help pave the path to the Republican nomination…for the time being, at least. 

Beth Reingold is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University.