“Mrs. Clinton—newsflash—I’m a feminist, and I’m not voting for you,” Carly Fiorina declared to the conservative crowd at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Her words were met with cheers and applause. As the election draws near, the former Republican presidential candidate is making a feminist case against Hillary Clinton.
The looming presidential election must look bleak for conservative women. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, has a track record of denigrating women, often by criticizing their physical appearance. He is staggeringly unpopular with female voters, and Democrats hope to use his words against him to make sure that doesn’t change. Yet, the alternative is Clinton. The Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee has worked to style herself as an advocate for women and girls. If elected, she would make history as the first woman president. But she is still a Democrat advocating a liberal agenda.
So Fiorina is taking one of the only approaches that might be tolerable for conservative women: She is making a plea to women not to vote for Clinton without actively making a case for Trump. The argument embodies a dilemma for conservative women. They may care about the election. They may care about equal rights. But the man who is supposed to be their party’s standard-bearer may be totally at odds with the way they view conservatism, let alone feminism. What do they do? They can follow Fiorina’s lead, and make a forceful, even feminist, argument against Clinton. Yet even if they succeed in convincing other women to reject Clinton, that does not mean they will end up with a candidate they like.
For now, Fiorina seems focused on convincing women that Clinton must not be allowed to become president, regardless of the alternative. The crux of her argument is that Clinton deploys feminism as a political weapon in a way that hurts women. “Feminism is no longer a term that’s used to enable or empower women,” Fiorina said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. “It turns out to be in so many people’s eyes, in Hillary Clinton’s eyes, kind of a way to bludgeon people into a left-wing litany of causes.” In Fiorina’s telling, liberal feminism has devolved into a noxious political correctness. It is an ideology rooted in partisanship that liberals wield to discredit anyone who disagrees with their agenda—an identity politics that does more to divide than unite.
As she asks women to contemplate the danger of electing Clinton, Fiorina appears to be carefully avoiding any discussion of Trump. In her speech at the conservative gathering, she vowed to make sure “we have good conservatives all up and down the ballot.” She did not mention her party’s presumptive nominee.
“I look at Fiorina’s remarks in terms of damage control,” said Melissa Deckman, a Washington College professor and the author of Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right. “It’s not necessarily about trying to sway people toward Trump so much as it seems to be about trying to make this election a referendum on Clinton.”
Fiorina adds a different conservative voice to an election season currently dominated by Trump. “One of the concerns that many people have about Trump is: What is the Republican Party going to look like at the end of this election?” said Carrie Lukas, the managing director of Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative advocacy group. “It’s really important for people to be out there saying, ‘Here’s [what] I think conservatism means, this is what I think women ought to be considering, and why I think Hillary Clinton doesn’t do any of these things … [It could be a way] to keep the idea of what conservatism means alive, regardless of where Trump comes out on some of this stuff.”
It’s not hard to see why Fiorina might not want to advocate for Trump. The candidates fought bitterly during the Republican Primary. At one point, Trump even appeared to mock Fiorina’s appearance, telling Rolling Stone, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Talking up Trump now might seem insincere—an implausible forgiveness of his disparaging remarks toward women, including her. In August 2015, Fiorina told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that she would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee. As recently as March of this year, though, Fiorina said she was “horrified” by the prospect of Trump as the nominee.
Ultimately, an election is a choice between two candidates. Fiorina may find it hard to persuade conservative women to vote against Clinton without making a convincing case for Trump. (Sarah Isgur Flores, a Republican strategist who served as Fiorina’s deputy presidential-campaign manager, did not respond to questions about whether Fiorina supports Trump and plans to vote for him, or if she believes he would be a better choice for women voters.)
In the end, Fiorina and Clinton aren’t actually that far apart on the definition of feminism. Fiorina has acknowledged the existence of gender disparity, and says that women should have the same opportunity as men to live the life they choose. Similarly, Clinton has argued that women and men should have equal rights. The fundamental premise sounds the same: Women should not have to contend with barriers and constraints that men do not.
Where they have meaningful disagreement is in their views of which policies would best improve the lives of women. Fiorina advocated conservative policies, such as rolling back regulations for small businesses, as the way to empower women when she ran for president. Now that she’s no longer a candidate, it won’t be as easy to talk policy if she wants to avoid talking about Trump. The billionaire businessman has proven difficult to pin down on policies, particularly those related to women. At one point, he said women should be punished for abortion if the procedure is banned—a comment he later walked back after it drew criticism from fellow Republicans.
If conservative women, like Fiorina, want to vote against Clinton, in part because they believe she advocates for a kind of feminism that is harmful to women, they can do that. But if they want to see conservative policies enacted with the goal of improving quality of life for women, they will eventually have to find a candidate they can support, not just one who they oppose.
“The conversation needs to eventually get to the question of who is better or worse for women in terms of economic and social policy,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Democrats may be more eager than Republicans to take the conversation in that direction—especially if saying Trump would be a better president for women turns out to be an argument Fiorina and other conservatives are unwilling to make.