Whitman, Fiorina, McMahon: Rise of Powerful Women in the Election

Democrats will regret underestimating Whitman, Fiorina, and McMahon, says Gail Sheehy. These superrich, radical women wrestle, shove, fire people—and don't play by the (men's) rules.

Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina & Linda McMahon (AP Photo 3)

It’s being billed by some academics as “The Insurrection Election.” But have you noticed? Most of the insurrectionists are cheeky women who never bothered to play nice inside the belly of the white-boy Republican political beast.

These superrich, radical women have earned their cutthroat reputations. They wrestle; they shove; they fire people willy-nilly. Meg Whitman canned someone she described as “a member of our family”—the loyal but illegal Mexican housekeeper who worked extra hours for nine years. Rather than pick up a phone to find a lawyer for Nicandra Diaz Santillan, Whitman, who aspires to become governor of California, kicked her out.

After graduating from Princeton and picking up a Harvard MBA, Whitman has been living out some version of the subtitle of her book: Values for Success in Business and in Life. Going West after graduation—where better to transform herself from an East Coast blueblood to Internet mogul but California?— Whitman didn’t bother voting, much less pay her dues as a pol on the rise. Instead, she showed the world that a dimpled lady with Long Island lockjaw could wrestle a little startup called eBay into an $8 billion shopping machine.

Whitman has now reinvented herself as the Silicone Valley would-be savior of a state that, weighed down by an almost $20 billion budget deficit and a debt deemed riskier than Kazakhstan’s, teeters on the brink of collapse.

Of course, she is just one of several insurrectionist women running in this election. As Maureen Dowd noted this weekend in the New York Times, “We are in the era of Republican Mean Girls, grown-up versions of those teenage tormentors who would steal your boyfriend, spray-paint your locker and, just for good measure, spread rumors that you were pregnant.”

It’s now accepted by Democrats no less partisan than Rahm Emanuel that the Tea Party IS the neo-Republican party. But why are the Tea Party’s most galvanizing candidates women?

San Francisco has been choosing strong women to get down to business while the men in the state house deep duking it out and driving its political institutions sink further into partisan gridlock.

Five of the most powerful posts in city and state government are held by women: Chief of Fire Department Joanna Hayes-White has been leading the highest testosterone public service for six years. Chief of Police Heather Fong retired in 2009 after six years. Emergency Management chief is Vicki Hennessy. Holder of the city’s purse strings is Naomi Kelly, City Purchaser. And the California Supreme Court is about to have a female majority.

With the certain election on Nov. 2 of Republican Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye as the first female Chief Justice and the first Filipina woman on the court, the California Supreme Court will have its fourth female justice out of seven.

And don’t forget Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, who have held on to California’s two Senate seats for more than three decades.

Whore? No. Self-financed insurrectionist? You bet.

Democrats didn’t wake up to this female-led insurrection within the Republican Party until recently. At a high-roller Democratic fundraiser on Park Avenue last month, a California lawyer dismissed the Whitman challenge. “Jerry (Brown) doesn’t have to step into daylight to get (Meg) Whitman to spend 120 mill just to tie their race. It’s a walk for him.”

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Then Whitman tossed more chips on the table—$140 million worth. According to a Brown campaign consultant, she is now on her way to spending $180 million—and that, to him, explained her advance in the polls. “All those TV ads of hers have to have some effect,” he told me.

You can say that again. She’s now within seven points of Brown.

So what does a bald eagle like Jerry Brown do? He considers putting out a TV ad that calls Whitman a “whore” for seemingly caving to the police union, and then he rubs it in by refusing to apologize to the women of California when pushed by Tom Brokaw in a TV debate this week.

Whore? No. Self-financed insurrectionist? You bet.

Shushannah Walshe: Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party’s New Queen John Avlon: The House’s 25 Biggest WingnutsThe Wrestler Could Win: Lloyd Grove talks to Linda McMahon Another one of that mold—a female candidate who figured out how to become the new face of corporate power—elevated herself from secretary and law school dropout to the first female leader of a Fortune 20 company. Carly Fiorina was the darling of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women issue for the nearly six tumultuous years she ran Hewlett Packard as both CEO and chairperson. She had charisma and vision.

But while her sights were set on the successful takeover of Compaq, the Internet bubble burst and IT spending dried up. H-P’s stock price fell more than 50 percent, and the board turned against her.

Dry-eyed, Fiorina relates in her bestselling book, Tough Choices, the humiliation of being called before the H-P Board, then being let to cool her Manolo heels in a hotel room for three hours, and finally summoned to an empty conference room where a male messenger told her: “Carly, the board has decided to make a change at the top. I’m very sorry.” It took three minutes for her to be shown the door. But Fiorina walked out (in Manolos) with the promise of a severance package worth at least $21 million.

Winning her primary as a Tea Partier with a mere $5 million loan to her campaign, Fiorina didn’t make the safe scramble-to-the-center move. With the endorsement of Sarah Palin, she has become a stronger brew, calling for repeal of Obama's health-care legislation, overturning Roe vs. Wade, returning unspent stimulus funds to the treasury, and slashing government spending to 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

The media swarmed her when she was fired. Now she never has to face another microphone not of her choice, as she retreats behind her gated mansion off Summerhill Road in the hills of Los Altos. The mission-style homes are accessorized with their own orchards, putting greens and basketball courts. These are Carly’s constituents, folks in the $10 million and up bracket who depend on her to bring them an extension of their Bush tax cuts.

Linda McMahon, meanwhile, is gunning for the Senate seat vacated by Chris Dodd. Graduating from food stamps, McMahon made her fortune by giving guys the next best thing to public sex—betting on half-naked women to wrestle each other, pull hair, crotch-kick, and otherwise debase themselves.

It allowed the wrestling impresario and her partner-husband to amass a net worth estimated at at least $1.1 billion, and that was 10 years ago. Now that she has retired as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, she can demurely admit “sometimes we pushed the envelope.” But in debates with the cadaverous Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney general, she passes off the brutal spectacles as just good, clean family entertainment. No regulation necessary to prevent steroid use, serious brain injuries, or even death.

Televised debates are all you’ll get from these not-playing-by-the-book insurrectionist women, who have largely shunned requests for interviews by the media. Why answer questions about policy positions and risk getting caught “misspeaking,” when you can sit in an air-conditioned studio and get hair and makeup done for photos immortalized on billboards?

All the while, striking fear into the hearts of men.

Gail Sheehy is author of 16 bestselling books, including the revolutionary Passages. Her new book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, was published in May by HarperCollins.