Carly Fiorina’s Win Sets Up Feminist Test With Barbara Boxer

Carly Fiorina was one of a wave of GOP women to win the primaries. But anti-abortion, pro-Obamacare repeal candidates aren't what women need on Capitol Hill, says Linda Hirshman.

Carly Fiorina (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

The talking heads were full of blather about the year of the woman after a handful of mostly Republican women won primaries Tuesday. Is the last hurrah of the feminist movement to put a bunch of antiabortion Republican females in public office? Or do most women, like every other group, have real political interests, which mere anatomy can not represent?

California voters, a majority of whom are female, are going to have a chance to answer the question. Both candidates for the California Senate seat this year will be women: Ex-Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, the Republican nominee, squares off against the incumbent senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer. Fiorina is antiabortion. She has been a speaker at the evangelical megachurch Willow Creek, which requires any gay or lesbian members to practice celibacy and is officially opposed to abortion. Boxer, by contrast, recently earned a 100 percent pro-choice score from NARAL Pro Choice America; gets similar reviews from the gay lobby Human Rights Campaign, and she supports the most expansive health-care reform, including a public option.

There is a deeper difference between Fiorina and Boxer. It’s the difference between the candidate’s autobiography and what’s good for the people she would like to represent.

Boxer was the earliest supporter of the Violence Against Women Act. Fiorina once said "the glass ceiling doesn't exist." But maybe both candidates qualify as feminist choices. Sarah Palin, the antiabortion conservative icon, has been proclaiming herself a feminist since the 2008 election. After all, didn't she figure out a way to "have it all"—a passel of children, a first dude, and a big job in the public sphere? Palin sure looks more like Betty Friedan than those liberal mommybloggers pushing their strollers around the Upper West Side all day. Palin recently used the F word again at a meeting of the antiabortion Republican women's activist group Susan B. Anthony List, extending the brand to the conservative women flooding into politics, both at the grassroots and candidate level. "Mama Grizzlies," she called the new conservative feminists, lured from the kitchen table where, unlike her, they apparently spend most of their time, to save the nation's unbalanced checkbook from women-threatening things like health care. Their desire to criminalize abortion is merely a way of showing respect for women who can easily combine unexpected pregnancies with any other life plans, she says.

Nicolle Wallace: Carly’s Sorority Girl CurseWhen Palin went "feminist," the "feminist blogosphere" lit up like a scoreboard at a hockey mom game, as young bloggers struggled to reconcile their oath never to judge another woman's "choices" as unfeminist with Palin's application for sisterhood. They were in a tight place. After all, the female bloggers hadn't been long on feminist standards: Put a ring on it. Change your name to your husband's name. Quit your job to stay home with your babies. Don't support the pro-choice woman candidate for president. Don't report your rapist. Don't leave your batterer. All decisions immune from feminist judgment. What's special about opposing abortion?

Still, several of the sensible ones framed reasons why, even in these anti-judgmental times, feminism is not advanced by putting someone in office who wants to make abortion illegal and opposes health care and labor policies that might allow working women to have some, if not all, of it. Salon's Rebecca Traister even took the argument a step further, warning the people who took feminism and feminist voters for granted that they were in a two-way race for a change.

But there is a deeper, more fundamental difference between Fiorina and Palin for that matter and Boxer, a difference that brilliantly illuminates the current debate about whether any woman in office is a plus for feminism. It's the difference between the candidate's autobiography and what's good for the people she would like to represent. Palin points to her own happy life as an example of why women should not need control over how many babies they have. When asked why she wants to make abortion criminal, Fiorina answers with a wrenching personal story about how she and her second husband found they could not have babies, causing her to realize what a "precious gift life is." Pressed, she says that her beloved husband Frank's mother had some childbearing issue and was counseled to have an abortion (which would have been criminal at the time, so who knows what actually was said). Had her mother-in-law aborted, she concludes that she, Carly, would have been deprived of her wonderful husband. Boxer's positions are, largely, unrelated to her autobiography. Abortion is, in her words, about "women's rights, women's health, and the ability to control our own lives." Even though Boxer and her husband Stewart are worth several million dollars, she still thinks poor people should get health care, a prospect that disproportionately benefits women.

In addition to the obvious nonsensical aspect of generalizing from one experience to 300 million Americans—if Frank had turned out to be a jerk like Carly's first husband, would that mean abortion should be mandatory?—Fiorina and Palin's pitches reveal graphically how selfish their brand of feminism is. With the addition of a hefty dose of good luck, and, in Fiorina's case, the value of a privileged family background, they made it. So their public policy is not to make it any easier for any woman who comes after them with, say, control of her reproduction or health care separate from her husband's job. Somehow the brilliant light of their narcissism is supposed to blind voters to the fact that there's another response to making it. Here's what real—not grizzly—mothers do: Make it easier for the young ones coming along next.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.