Op-Ed

GOP candidate Carly Fiorina paints a new portrait of feminism

Sure, she can snap a selfie with a millennial — but does her definition of feminism resonate?

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It was probably inevitable that Carly Fiorina, the only woman (to date) in a crowded Republican presidential field, would make a play for conservatives to reclaim feminism and take up arms against the progressive women’s movement. Positioning herself as the anti-Hillary Clinton since she launched her campaign in early May, Fiorina has taken her message to chatty shows like The View and has tried to spread it wide on social media. Now, the former chief executive of the technology giant Hewlett-Packard has gone into overdrive, coming out with her own interpretation of feminism, a central theme of her campaign.

Her quasi-manifesto, titled “Redefining Feminism,” was published on Medium after she gave a speech in Washington last Thursday and arrives at a time when the women’s movement is recalibrating its message to emphasize economic issues and recasting the role men must assume to help women build a more equitable society.

“Feminism began as a rallying cry to empower women,’’ Fiorina says. “But over the years feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.’’

That said, her big-tent definition of a liberated women would seem, at a glance, to include most female voters: “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. 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.”

Freedom and choice are feminist fundamentals. On the surface, Fiorina’s definition applies to women on the left, in the center and on the right. But looking more closely, it seems to contradict some of her political positions. She opposes abortion rights, opposes the distribution of contraceptives under the health care act, and opposes government aid like food stamps. In general, she holds forth on standard conservative values of less government and more free market.

She might have expected the liberal media to come down on her head as it did last week. Business Insider called her brand of feminism “a joke.” The New Republic said her ideas were “run of the mill, empty market strategy,” and Salon called her rhetoric “an elitist lie.”

Response from fellow Republicans, including conservative women’s groups, perhaps afraid to stir up a feminist hornet’s nest, has been muted.

But taking Fiorina’s side, Christina Hoff Sommers, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who calls herself a dissident feminist, told me by email that “Carly Fiorina is a welcome voice. In recent years, feminism, especially on the college campus, has taken a reactionary turn. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, calls for censorship, panic over sexuality — this is Victorian. It’s fainting couch feminism. Ms. Fiorina is no fainting-coucher; she is a proponent of female empowerment. She is focusing on policies that she believes will strengthen women — educationally and economically — to pursue happiness as they define it. A feminist, she says, ‘is a woman who lives the life she chooses.’ That is a message that will resonate with women across the political spectrum.”

An obviously smart woman with experience in business, technology and national security, Fiorina knows her data and does recognize problems that concern many women: the low number of female corporate executives (there are only 23 female CEOs in the S&P 500); sexual harassment (she was once called a “token bimbo”); the high number of women in low-paying and low-status jobs (single mothers head a quarter of all U.S. families and 18 million women live in poverty); and access to affordable health care and contraceptives.

But a close examination of her words reveals some apparent contradictions. She believes in a woman’s right to choose what kind of life to live, yet is inclined against a woman’s right to her own body, specifically her right to choose abortion. Also excluded from her feminist vision are low-income single mothers juggling children and jobs without the benefit of child care and paid leave, both of which she opposes; the millions of women living in dire poverty, without government assistance, which she opposes; and the woman with an unwanted pregnancy who has no access to a safe abortion because conservative state legislatures have tightened abortion restrictions that Fiorina supports. She’s also vague on the high achiever stalled in the workplace or at home because she can’t manage to balance the twin responsibilities of home and career, a tough choice few men ever have to make.

Fiorina glides over the gender pay gap issue, opposes equal pay legislation and ignores the fact that the United States is the only developed country in the world without national paid sick and family leave legislation, issues that feminists consider a priority.

She has been in hot water on the gender pay gap issue several times. In 1995, after she took over at Hewlett-Packard, she said, “I hope we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is no glass ceiling.” In 2005, in her memoir Tough Choices, she elaborated on that remark. “I was trying to tell women that although there are plenty of obstacles and prejudices, there isn’t some invisible barrier that prevents them from achieving their dreams.”

Today, Fiorina blames the gender pay gap on “unions, government bureaucracies, the very constituencies that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party represent and which support them,” according to a post on her Facebook page.

As a business entrepreneur, Fiorina pins her hopes on meritocracy in the workplace, citing her management experience at HP where, she says, she oversaw a diverse workforce and women rose on their merits. But how does meritocracy apply to women who earn less than men for the same work? How does it provide fair wages for women consigned to low jobs? Calling for reforms in the education system, she acknowledges that women are matching or surpassing men, but she does not mention that, as a rule, highly educated women are not benefitting from their education as much as their male counterparts.

On these prickly issues, Fiorina skirts the hard questions and answers. She seems to believe that, somehow, women will miraculously rise in meritocratic workplaces if they are smart enough, ambitious enough and hardworking enough — and have fair-minded bosses like her.

On the issue of marriage equality, along with fellow Republicans, Fiorina criticized the United States Supreme Court ruling last week affirming same-sex marriage as the law of the land. “Moving forward,’’ her statement said, “all of our effort should be focused on protecting religious liberties and freedom of conscience for those Americans that profoundly disagree with today’s decision.”

In “Redefining Feminism,” she writes that “only 23 percent of women identify with the term feminist.” But according to a study by Ms. Magazine cited by The New York Times last year, “the number of women calling themselves feminists increased from 50 percent in 2006 to 68 percent in 2012.”

Informal data suggests that women and girls in the millennial generation — born between 1980 and 2000 — are increasingly embracing feminism as a gender-inclusive movement open to all — gay, straight, bisexual and transgender. Surely, Fiorina knows that 51 percent of millennials identify as Democrat or lean Democratic in their views, while only 35 percent identify with the Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

For Fiorina, who was born Cara Carleton Sneed in Austin, Texas, 60 years ago, these are uphill battles she is probably eager to take on. In the past few days she’s gotten some good news. She broke into the Top 10 in a recent Fox News poll, meaning she has a crack at joining the presidential debates. She created buzz and votes at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver this past weekend, drawing loud cheers and standing ovations for her views on big government and national security and her revealing stories about her own personal struggles with cancer and being fired from HP.

In “Redefining Feminism” she recalls starting out as a secretary, and the sole woman, in a nine-person real estate firm. She was used to being underestimated. Decades later, in 1995, when she became the first woman to lead one of the top 20 U.S. companies, she was named by Fortune Magazine the most powerful woman in American business. Her redefinition of feminism springs from that very particular experience. She is her own example of a woman who lives the life she chooses — certainly, she is her own symbol of the meritocracy.

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