A Defeat for Conservative Feminism

Carly Fiorina’s exit from the 2016 race could stifle debate over gender equality across the political spectrum.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

When Carly Fiorina dropped out of the presidential race, she took the opportunity to talk about the meaning of feminism—or at least advance her own definition of the term. “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses and uses all her God-given gifts,” Fiorina wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. The message was familiar for Fiorina, a Republican candidate who used her most recent moment on the national stage to argue that women in America still face an uneven playing field.

Fiorina’s assertions lent credibility to the idea that gender inequality is not merely a lament of the political left, but a reality to be confronted by Republicans and Democrats. That message opened the door to debate over what kind of policy platform might best improve quality of life for women in America. Now that Fiorina has exited the race, it seems extremely unlikely that any Republican presidential contender will take up the mantle of talking about feminism and the challenges women face. The debate that Fiorina fostered will be far less prominent as a result.

As a presidential candidate, Fiorina decried what she called “the progressive view of feminism,” arguing instead for a feminism divorced from ideology. Yet in making the case for her vision of feminism, she seemed to articulate a set of goals that liberal and progressive feminists could agree with. Fiorina didn’t shy away from talking about sexism and the ways it has affected her personally. She called attention to the underrepresentation of women atop the corporate ladder. She noted that women aren’t always paid fairly in the workplace and argued that “equal pay for equal work is absolutely required.” That didn’t go unnoticed on the political left. “Fiorina actually does a good job of highlighting the problems most often raised by feminists as those in need of solutions,” Jenny Kutner wrote in an otherwise critical article that ran in Salon last June after Fiorina published what amounted to a feminist manifesto on Medium.

Fiorina’s effort to spark “a conversation about the state of women in America”—as she put it in that manifesto—gave way to a debate over what should be done to expand opportunity for women. It was there that Fiorina sharply disagreed with Democrats. She opposed a litany of solutions that liberal politicians, including Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, talk about as potential remedies to the problem of gender inequality. Fiorina opposed a raise in the minimum wage and dismissed calls to enact legislation aimed at countering unequal pay. She said the government shouldn’t mandate paid maternity leave. She is staunchly pro-life. That platform sparked criticism on the left that her embrace of feminism boiled down to empty words and a hollow attempt by a Republican candidate to appeal to women voters.

Instead, Fiorina called for supporting small businesses, and enacting reforms to education and government welfare programs. To create a more level playing field, Fiorina talked about how the federal government could take steps to promote workers based on merit and not seniority. The seniority system, Fiorina argued in a Facebook post in April, “systematically disadvantages women and must be reformed.” The suggestions invited criticism from liberals but nevertheless sparked a conversation over gender equity across the political spectrum. “Fiorina is not blind to the challenges women still face, but she comes to them with an understanding of the history of women’s progress as a bipartisan movement of expanding opportunity and often mentions solutions that are not ideologically driven,” Christina Hoff Sommers and Christine Rosen, a resident and adjunct scholar respectively at the free-market-oriented American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a Politico article from October titled “How Carly Fiorina Is Redefining Feminism.” (The subtitle declared: Step one: Less whining.)

Fiorina’s attempt to reclaim the term “feminism” wasn’t just a challenge to Democrats; it was also a challenge to the Republican Party and the way other GOP candidates talk (or fail to talk) about women in America. “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,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a staff editor at the libertarian magazine Reason wrote in September, adding: “Fiorina just might mix up the way the Republican Party relates to gender, too.” Now that Fiorina is out of the race, Democratic candidates may find themselves alone on the 2016 stage in advocating for feminism, an outcome that could make equality for women an increasingly polarized political subject. That could also make it easier for Republican candidates to dismiss sexism and gender discrimination as exclusive concerns of the political left—and ones that need not be taken seriously.

In addition to facing accusations that her brand of feminism is disingenuous, Fiorina was called sexist for leveling certain attacks against Hillary Clinton. Fiorina’s veiled shot at Clinton’s marriage during a primary debate—“Unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband”—prompted The New Republic to wonder aloud whether the attack was “the most sexist comment yet in the Republican primary.” It makes sense to consider Fiorina’s attempt to lay claim to the feminist label with skepticism. But setting aside questions of how her policies would impact women, and attacks lobbed at Clinton, the fact that Fiorina and liberal feminists seemed to agree on a basic set of premises created the potential for greater attention to gender inequality across the political spectrum. Now that Fiorina isn’t in the race, that possibility will be diminished.