“I believe it is time to have a conversation about the state of women in America, ” wrote candidate Carly Fiorina nearly two months after entering the presidential race. However, she spent little time throughout her nine-month campaign engaged in this conversation. When issues related to women’s equality or well-being arose, she decried the Democratic construct of a “war on women” or accused Hillary Clinton of “playing the gender card.” The gender conversations that Fiorina did have on the campaign trail reflect a dissonance: on the one hand, she derided “identity politics,” but, on the other, she identified herself as a woman candidate and invoked her gender identity as a distinguishing characteristic in a pack of GOP men.
Even before launching her campaign, Fiorina touted the asset of her gender identity to the 2016 race: “I think that if Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” adding, “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” Later in the campaign, she implied the same thing – albeit less overtly, repeating in debates and on the trail, “I know, in your heart of hearts, you want to see me debate Hillary Clinton.” In making her case that having two women nominees would somehow neutralize gender in the presidential election, Fiorina only reaffirmed that gender mattered – to her campaign, and to the dynamics of the race.
Otherwise, though, Fiorina was mostly reluctant to acknowledge explicitly the value-added of her gender identity. In April, she criticized “identity politics” as running for office “on what you look like” instead of on “who you are, and what you believe and what you’ve done.” As many of her comments evidenced, however, what she looks like – as a woman – has shaped who she is and how she’s done what she’s done. What she looks like became a focus of the campaign when Donald Trump ridiculed her face in an interview with Rolling Stone, but her response to a crowd full of women demonstrated that even she acknowledged that identity is more thank skin-deep: “Ladies, look at this face. This is the face of a 61-year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.” The message was that those years, and those wrinkles, result from experience – from battling breast cancer and losing a daughter, to being “underestimated all her life.” She empathized with women again in a September debate when asked to respond to Trump’s remarks. “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she said to a loud applause.
As just the third Republican woman to compete in a U.S. presidential primary and the fifth woman to do so in a major party, Fiorina was never going to escape gender considerations, even if there had not been another woman vying for the nomination. Whether she acknowledges it or not, Fiorina – like Hillary Clinton – was blazing a trail that few others have traversed. She had been a trailblazer before, en route from secretary to CEO at HP, demonstrating her toughness, resilience, and ability to overcome adversity while being called “every B-word in the book.” Thus her identity mattered, not just because she might have broken the highest, hardest glass ceiling, but because it informed the experiences, perspective, and even persona she brought to the competition. That’s what Hillary Clinton has argued in telling audiences that she counts gender among the credentials she’d bring to presidential office.
Of course, Fiorina took a final jab at Clinton’s “identity politics” in the remarks she made as she withdrew from the race, when she said: “To young girls and women across the country, I say: do not let others define you. Do not listen to anyone who says you have to vote a certain way or for a certain candidate because you’re a woman. That is not feminism.” She continued to speak directly to women as a woman offering her own definition of feminism: “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses and uses all her God-given gifts.”
Fiorina’s awkwardness in navigating the gendered terrain of presidential politics might explain why she never really started that conversation about the state of women in America. But maybe reflecting on her race can illuminate ways in which campaign gender dynamics are constrained, especially for women. Because, as GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina wrote just seven months ago, “Realizing the potential of women isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do.”