Sisterhood Is Sour: How Republican Women Are Going After Hillary Clinton

Despite her gender, the Democratic frontrunner has come in for harsh attacks from women of the opposing party.

Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks during the inaugural Roast and Ride in Boone, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, June 6, 2015. Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, hosted the inaugural Roast and Ride event which featured a 38-mile ride from a Des Moines Harley Davidson dealership to the Central Iowa Expo where seven current and potential Republican presidential candidates are expected to participate. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Photographer: Daniel Acker

On Thursday night in Washington, Carly Fiorina, the only woman running for the Republican nomination, delivered the keynote address at a red-meat-themed event: the “Bourbon and BBQ Bash” held by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit that celebrates limited government and free markets. The tagline for the dinner read “Liberty served smooth and smokin’.”

Fiorina spoke about the years she spent as CEO at Hewlett-Packard, but her focus was not on business and the bottom line. It was on women: “a conversation,” in her words, “about the state of women in America.”

Fiorina has never before held elected office, and she may not yet make it into the prime time presidential debate. 1 Last month, Fox News, which will host the first Republican presidential debate on August 6, announced new guidelines that that would limit the field of participants to those who place in the top 10 in an average of five recent national polls. On Wednesday, Fox announced that it would add a "candidate forum" the afternoon before the evening debate, for those who place one percent or higher in the same polls. But by stressing her gender in her presidential campaign, Fiorina communicates to voters that there's an option beyond Hillary Clinton. “Fiorina has been trying to send a signal that Clinton is not your only choice if you want to see a woman break the highest, hardest glass ceiling,” observes Jennifer Lawless, the Director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

This has become Fiorina's chief calling card at Republican candidate cattle calls. By speaking as a woman about a woman—and by defining herself against that woman—Fiorina finds, to the delight of her party, that she can criticize Clinton like nobody else. 

In February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Fiorina socked Clinton—who famously declared that “women's rights are human rights” at a United Nations conference 20 years ago—on her record on so-called women’s issues. “She tweets about women’s rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights,” Fiorina said of the former secretary of state, referring to donations the Clinton Family Foundation took from foreign donors. “She tweets about equal pay for women but won’t answer basic questions about her own offices’ pay standards.” She went on to challenge Clinton's history and her impressive résumé, booming on the CPAC stage, “Mrs. Clinton, name an accomplishment!”

In Fiorina's stump speech, she speaks movingly of surviving breast cancer, of losing her job, and of losing her stepdaughter—displays of vulnerability that show strength, which some might call a historically female strategy. (They certainly ring of a TED Talk by a woman who has read Brené Brown.) But a remarkable amount of her discourse centers on gender. Fiorina's labor to find her place within the GOP tent also means finding space for feminism within the GOP. This is savvy as well as palatable. She uses her platform to criticize the woman who has come closest to the American presidency, opposing Clinton in ways and in terms that a man wouldn't dare.

Subtly and not-so-subtly, Fiorina is making the case that she's the politician best positioned to confront the Democrat most likely to win her party's nomination.  “Who else can take her on as a woman?” asked Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

In Fiorina's speech Thursday, a personal reflection about being a woman in America, Clinton's name went unuttered. But a day earlier, the super-PAC Carly For America released a biting ad attacking Clinton. The title employed one of Fiorina's favorite refrains: “Titles are not accomplishments.

Campaign trailing

Fiorina challenges Clinton inch by inch and step by step. Clinton officially entered the presidential race, and all of a sudden came Fiorina's antagonistic video in response. Fiorina goes after Clinton on everything, as Bloomberg’s Melinda Henneberger has written, “from conflicts of interest to wearing her sunglasses inside that Chipotle.” Fiorina even launched a campaign website at Ready to Beat Hillary.coma push to undermine the 'Ready for Hillary' movement.

In late May, Fiorina held a news conference outside a Clinton event in South Carolina. She listed scandal after scandal, then asked, “How can we trust Clinton?” 

It looked almost like stalking, then pouncing; that ugly word 'catfight' enters the mind. Could this be anything but a transparent attempt to grab the attention of the massive press entourage that accompanies Clinton wherever she goes? Fiorina was absolute in her response. She told reporters, “I planned this trip many, many weeks ago, so perhaps she’s following me. I have never been following Mrs. Clinton.”

And yet it's not only in South Carolina that Fiorina's proximity with Clinton has been noticeable, as Nia-Malika Henderson has pointed out in the Washington Post. Just take a look at the women's book covers:

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 6.49.19 PM
Screen shot from Daily Mail

This is the new playbook for women in the GOP, and Fiorina's not the only one to read it. Last weekend at the inaugural “Roast and Ride,” Iowa Senator Joni Ernst played host to a slate of Republican presidential candidates, and shepherded a parade of 300 motorcycles, in honor of patriots and veterans. Revved up, roaring, and real down-home: here was a new kind of political carnival. Then Dana Bash of CNN asked her about Hillary.

“It's not enough to be a woman,” she said. If those words sounded familiar, there was a reason.

Last fall, before the midterm elections, Clinton, not yet a presidential candidate, went to Cedar Rapids to campaign on behalf of Ernst's Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley. She took up women’s issues, which were getting an unusual amount of play in the campaign. “It’s not enough to be a woman,” Clinton said, behind the podium at a union hall. She spoke of birth control, mammograms, health and reproductive justice. “You have to be committed to expand rights and opportunities for all women.”

This weekend, Ernst mockingly echoed Clinton. “You have to care about women's issues,” Ernst said. “Women's issues here in Iowa are that we have a strong economy; we have jobs that our sons and daughters can go off to someday; we have a great educational system. And women want strong national defense. We want to know that our families are going to be safe.”

Diminished fraternity among the sorority

It wasn’t always this way. Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics recalls a period where “the women in the Senate had a kind of agreement among themselves that they would not go in and campaign against each other.” Barbara Mikulski, the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate who wasn’t taking her father or husband’s seat, has long worked to build relationships among women in the Senate, hosting dinners and “power workshops” for female senators on both sides of the aisle. Mikulski and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Republican, have worked together to improve breast cancer research, mammogram standards, and the space program. After the death of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrat who in 1984 became first woman to be placed on a major party’s national ticket, Hutchinson spoke in universal terms, saying, “We’ve all faced the same obstacles. We’ve all been turned down or trivialized.”

More recently, when Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007, under President George W. Bush, there was bipartisan praise from female politicians.

When the Obama presidential campaign asked Hillary Clinton to go after Sarah Palin in 2008, after the former governor of Alaska was tapped to be Senator John McCain’s running mate, Clinton refused. “The day she was nominated, the Obama campaign did contact me and asked me if I would attack her," Clinton said last year on NBC. “I said, ‘Attack her for what—for being a woman? Attack her for being on a ticket that's trying to draw attention? There'll be plenty of time to do what I think you should do in politics, which is draw distinctions.’”

It’s hard to imagine such a display of female solidarity now. Even Fiorina herself has evinced a change in tone. In 2010, she told Amy Chozick, then reporting for the Wall Street Journal“Women are still held to a different standard and scrutinized more than men are.” She said that it happened to Sarah Palin. She said, “It happened to Hillary.” A kind of empathy, or even sympathy.

And then this April, Fiorina said, “Hillary Clinton must not be president of the United States—but not because she’s a woman.”

Some of this has to do with the success Democrats had using the 'war on women' as a rallying cry against Republicans in 2012. In the run-up to the 2016 election, the GOP has caught on. Republicans are working to claim the trope as its own, with the bellicose Fiorina in the front lines.

Ann Selzer, an Iowa pollster—who was assigned to a fellowship in Mikulski’s congressional office in the early 1980s, before Mikulski began her many terms in the Senate—speculates that Fiorina might have looked at poll numbers for 2008, when Clinton opposed then-senator Barack Obama in the primary, and saw that Clinton had captured the excitement of women who wanted to have a female president. “The Republicans have a woman problem,” Selzer put it. “So as a Republican, Fiorina says, maybe there’s some people I can bring in. Because if Republicans deal with the woman problem—even a bit—they win.”

Party before gender

Jennifer Lawless of American University's Women & Politics Institute chalks it up to polarization. “I think that what we’ve seen, especially in the last ten or fifteen years is that, with this increase in party politicization, whether you have a D or R before your name is far more important than whether you have an X or Y chromosome,” she said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, not only were there fewer women in Congress, but there were significant number of moderate Republican women. After redistricting, Lawless explained, moderate Republicans were replaced by Democrats. “There used to be room for solidarity and working together on what was traditionally seen as women’s issues – pay equity or reproductive rights. But now, the Republican women in congress are indistinguishable from men who are in Congress. There’s very little opportunity to work across the aisle just because you’re a woman.”

There’s the added bonus, for Fiorina and Ernst, that criticism “is seen as less gendered because it’s a woman saying it about another woman. If men were saying it, it could be seen as gendered/sexist,” said Walsh.  (Recall that Clinton’s team worked to portray her 2000 Senate rival Rick Lazio as a sexist bully—with positive results for her.)

Walsh observed the play of gender among Republican women, the boasting of behavior that's often seen as masculine—Ernst rides a motorcycle alongside (and in front of) the guys, Fiorina trumpets her time riding on a John Deere tractor (and questions whether Clinton's ever done the same). Walsh wondered whether, in this climate of women-attacking-women, they would still defend each other from blatant sexism.  

“So sad to see women simply attack Clinton for running when we need more women in the proverbial pipeline,” Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist, lamented. “If they could just stop their attacks and start recruiting more women to run for office, we could finally end up with more women serving in office.”

A year ago this week, Palin tweeted a picture of an excerpt from Clinton’s memoir, in which Clinton wrote, “I was not going to attack Palin just for being a woman appealing for support from other women. I didn't think that made political sense.”

Now that a woman is the frontrunner, maybe it does.

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