Gender Didn’t “Happen” to Carly Fiorina (or Anyone)

shutterstock_180869744With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Since her successful second debate performance, Carly Fiorina has risen in the polls and gained greater attention from media and voters. That interest has yielded comparisons between her and the other woman in the race, Hillary Clinton, focusing on differences in their personas, policy positions and political strategies. Some commentators have praised Fiorina for downplaying her gender, while claiming that Hillary Clinton is using her gender in opportunistic and insincere ways.

In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberley Strassel argues that Fiorina “isn’t a woman running for president. She’s a presidential contender who happens to be a woman.” Arguing that “Clinton has played the woman card until it’s dog-eared and faded,” Mona Charen writes in the Chicago Sun-Times that Fiorina’s “sex is the least interesting fact about her.” Despite these claims, Fiorina is a woman running for president, and her gender has generated great interest and appeal among many people, and scrutiny by others. For voters, media and strategists, Fiorina does not just happen to be a woman—her gender identity informs the lenses through which she is evaluated, the strategies that she employs and the strategies employed against her.

Fiorina has walked a tightrope since the launch of her campaign in both denying the importance of her gender identity and using it to her advantage. In her campaign’s earliest days, she told media and supporters that her presence in the race— presumably as another woman candidate—would prevent Hillary Clinton from talking about being the first woman president or arguing that the Republican Party is waging a war on women. In the same breath, she derided campaigns that employ “identity politics,” defined by her as running “on what you look like,” not “who you are, and what you believe and what you’ve done.” What Fiorina missed in her early comments was that gender is reflected in what you look like, who you are, what you believe and what you’ve done; as scholars smarter than me have shown, gender is not something we have, it’s something we do. And how we “do” gender is tied to how we’ve experienced the world and the gender expectations to which we’ve been held.

Whether or not she has directly acknowledged it, Fiorina has demonstrated the distinctiveness of her gender experience and expression throughout the race. On multiple occasions, for example, she has empathized with women—in part, to distinguish herself from a field of men. In July, she teamed up with BuzzFeed to create a video about gender discrimination in the workplace, also sharing her own experiences of sexism in the private sector in interviews and on the stump. In the second GOP debate, Fiorina’s response to Donald Trump’s comments on her appearance was especially effective due to the authority with which she could deliver it, claiming insights into women’s reactions because she had the same ones herself, drawn from a lifetime of being reduced to or critiqued on appearance. Even in criticizing feminism for excluding conservative women, Fiorina accepts (and even explains) how the layered identities of gender and party influence her—and others’ —political outlook and agenda.

Could Fiorina’s male opponents have created the same BuzzFeed video, spoken with the same authority against Trump’s sexist remarks, or written an essay on “redefining feminism?” Arguably no, and that is because gender goes beyond what you look like to inform experiences and guide behavior.

Fiorina’s gender does not always work to her advantage. Trump’s comments on her face or her voice, though the most notable, are not the only examples of sexism that she has faced in the 2016 race. Take the headline on a recent blog post that argues a former speechwriter “all but goes down” on her in a Washington Post column or the thread of tweets from men refuting Trump’s comments about her by emphasizing just how “hot,” “sexy” and “gorgeous” she is. These are some of the most overt examples of gendered treatment, but questions about Fiorina’s capacity to do the job, scrutiny over her credentials, and continued calls on her to consider the vice presidency point to the more subtle but pervasive gender bias faced by female candidates.

While some may see “gender neutrality” as ideal in campaigns, it is at least unrealistic and, at most, reductive of the complexities with which all candidates enter and navigate electoral campaigns. Gender shapes the experience and behavior of all candidates and, like any identity, brings value, variety and richness to the race.

Fears of essentializing gender differences, assuming they are natural, universal and/or predetermined, often, and rationally, lie at the heart of arguments against drawing on gender or, more accurately, gender-based experiences as a credential for office, especially when only certain experiences and ideas of womanhood are elevated as the ideal. However, the solution to essentialism is not to reject gender identity altogether, but to contribute to—and fight for—its complexity. Fiorina is doing this whether she knows or embraces it or not, simultaneously challenging stereotypes of what it looks like to be a presidential contender and complicating expectations of how a woman candidate should behave or what she should believe. My bet is that Fiorina is fully aware of how she is navigating the gendered terrain of the presidential race because gender is a process in which we all participate, not something that simply happens to us.

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Photo via Shutterstock


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar


  1. Karen Smith says:

    I could not agree more – gender neutrality is in effect silencing. It’s an unrealistic absence. Love your work!

  2. Lisa Smith says:

    Kelly you are brilliant!

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