Anne Katz: Fiorina the faux feminist

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 6:15pm

At first glance, Carly Fiorina seems like a great role model for female leadership. She’s forceful and unapologetic, and her shining presence against the backdrop of male candidates hints at a future of equal gender representation in the government. She’s running the campaign I wish Hillary Clinton would run, exuding a “no-nonsense businesswoman” vibe while conveying passion and sincerity in her causes. And she’s quick, too — her concise but sharp response at the most recent Republican debate obliterated Trump’s misogynistic remark and left me cheering at my TV. Erin Gloria Ryan, managing editor of Jezebel, tweeted it best: “Carly Fiorina is an ice-cold shade queen debate princess and I’m in love with and terrified of her.”  

It’s during these fleeting moments that I find myself drawn to Fiorina. I picture her in the Oval Office with her feet up on a desk, a badass lady president kicking butt and taking names. However, all it takes is for her to begin discussing her platform, and the spell is broken.

Fiorina’s policies unequivocally hurt women, especially those of lower socioeconomic status and women of color. She’s led the assault against Planned Parenthood and openly opposes the Affordable Care Act, increased regulation of an equal wage, federally mandated paid leave and the federal minimum wage — all issues that disproportionately impact women — yet repeatedly claims to have our best interests in mind. Though Fiorina’s encouragements for women to lean in and lead sound empowering on the surface, her failure to support concrete policies that enable women to do so ultimately make her feminist doctrine hollow.

I don’t doubt that Fiorina meets the most basic definition of a feminist: someone who believes in equal rights for men and women. But, when digging deeper, I’ve found that Fiorina’s calls for equality and empowerment are unsubstantiated.

Fiorina’s definition of feminism, one that she articulated in a piece published in June titled “Redefining Feminism: The State of Women in America,” is unconventional at best and detrimental to the cause at worst. Though Fiorina’s definition of a feminist — “a woman who lives the life she chooses” — may sound uplifting on the surface, it rests upon entirely misguided principles. Fiorina’s proposition is narrow-minded because it fails to take into account the many obstacles American women face today. Some women aren’t in a position where they can make the best choices for themselves, and sometimes those choices are simply not easy to make.  

Through no fault of their own, some women are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions that are unique to their gender, and the government has the ability to help support women through these decisions. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, for example, does exactly that, by ensuring women have some income during family or medical leave. Paid leave is instrumental in helping women balance work and family, and mothers who take paid leave are more likely to stay in the workforce after a pregnancy. This job security helps soften the blow of the classic career vs. family dilemma many women face, and allows mothers to stay on track for promotions and leadership positions even while pregnant. Simply put, guaranteed paid leave helps increase the number of women both in the workforce at large and in leadership positions — something that Fiorina herself says is a good thing in her column. Why then does Fiorina oppose a paid maternity leave requirement?

When Fiorina calls for the gutting of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, an organization that provides 2.7 million women and men affordable, reliable health care, she’s threatening many women’s ability to take care of themselves. When Fiorina claims that programs like SNAP (food stamps) “make it so difficult to strive for more,” when in reality, the program improves the long-term health outcomes of children, she’s threatening many women’s ability to care for their families. If Fiorina really thinks that feminism is all about women making their own choices, why do her policies rob us of the opportunity to do so?

But even though Fiorina is a hypocrite, I still feel oddly drawn to her, constantly pivoting from fascination back to repulsion. Her clear articulation of her views is refreshing; it’s unfortunate that the views themselves fail to support women. Though she fits certain dimensions of what we envision as a feminist leader, until Fiorina commits to empowering and supporting all women through policy, she’s holding us back. It’s not that feminism is some elite club, or that the movement has become too “ideological,” like Fiorina claims. It’s that in order to be a feminist, you have to actively work to empower women. Fiorina’s policies do the opposite.

Anne Katz can be reached at amkatz@umich.edu.